The Tacit Tolerance of Infanticide in 17th Century Geneva

Professor Sara Beam presents new research on the prosecution of infanticide and child abandonment cases

While the aggressive criminal prosecution of unwed mothers who killed their newborns in Europe from 1550–1750 caused previous historians to believe that Europeans were extremely intolerant of infanticide, University of Victoria Associate Professor of History Sara Beam’s new research puts that assumption to question. Beam, who is also the critically acclaimed author of Laughing Matters: Farce and the Making of Absolutism in France, visited Reed last Wednesday to present her research in a lecture titled “Missing Babies & the Tacit Tolerance of Infanticide in Early Modern Europe.”

“You may ask how Sara went from farce to infanticide,” said Reed Professor of History and Humanities Michael Breen as he introduced Beam to the stage. “She exchanged one type of theater for the theater of law.”

Soon after taking the podium, Beam gave a quick disclaimer. “Thank you for coming to hear me present my research, which I find fascinating, but is also disturbing,” she said. Beam’s presentation focused on a project that grew out of her work on archives from Geneva, where she was inspired to search for the larger moral and cultural causes of infanticide.

Beam zeroed in on one specific trial of child abandonment and one of infanticide in late 17th century Geneva. The first prosecuted woman, Louise Bouffa, was summoned to court in 1685 for lying about the baptism and disappearance of her infant. She had been working as a wet nurse, implying she had recently given birth, but she did not have a baby or a husband. When questioned in court, she admitted to having a baby, but claimed she could not remember the name of the man she conceived the child with. It was soon revealed that the father was Louise’s master, who she worked for as a servant. She had given away the baby to a stranger per the father’s request. The court fined the father for having sex with Bouffa and for telling her to give the baby to a stranger, and gave Bouffa a couple days in jail and made her publicly apologize, Beam explained. 

The second case discussed occurred in 1675, when Jeanne Mestral was prosecuted after her dead baby was exhumed from a garden in a nearby village. Mestral was suspected of poisoning her eight-month-old and burrowing it in a shallow and unconsecrated grave. Similarly to Bouffa, however, Mestral was given limited punishment and set free. These two cases revealed that the Geneva court was far more concerned with the fact that unmarried women and servants were having sex than the fact that babies were being abandoned or even killed, Beam said.

Beam examined the documentation of other infanticide and child abandonment cases, which occurred approximately once every three years in Geneva, and she found that the court turned a blind eye to the majority of infanticide cases. In one case, two doctors examined the corpse of the child, and although one proclaimed foul play as the cause of death, the other dismissed those claims. The mother was released without punishment. Beam suggested that this tacit acceptance might have been a form of population control, but more likely it was due to the fact that the same court funded the city’s orphanage and should a mother decide that she could not care for her child, the court would have to pull funds from the city to pay for the child. 

For the same reason, married couples who already had other kids were hardly ever judicial targets because their other children could also end up in the orphanages and cost the city money. “We’re talking about poor rural families that didn’t really need another mouth to feed,” Beam said. 

Beam was particularly interested in why Geneva stood out as an unlikely tolerant place, when 50 percent of women in the rest of early modern Europe were prosecuted or even executed for infanticide. She came to the conclusion that due to Geneva’s extreme Protestantism — the powerful Protestant Church of Geneva was founded in 1536 — the city became renowned for its extremely tough controls on sexuality, but not necessarily of infanticide and child abandonment. The city conducted aggressive prosecution of adultery, sodomy, and rape. 

“This was not a friendly place for extramarital sexual adventures,” Beam explained. Geneva believed in traditional Christian ideals of good motherhood in which the Virgin Mary manages to birth and raise a baby without having sex. The city became more concerned with the sexual habits of their citizens than their parenting habits.

The world of 17th century Geneva can feel distant from today’s society. However, Beam’s new research allows us to rethink the way we look at the past. “Historians have tried to distinguish early modern Europe from other early modern civilizations,” Beam said. “Until now, Christian Europe has been seen as an exception. This research undoes that.”

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