A Case of Indifference? Child Murder in Later Medieval England
Journal of Women’s History: Vol.19:4 (2007)
Art historian Barbara Kellum’s 1973 article on child murder in medieval England paints a picture of a world replete with ruthless and murderous single mothers who escaped the legal consequences of their actions due to an indifferent court system that chose to turn a blind eye to the deaths of young children. Despite the overstated tone of her work, it remains the most systematic study of child murder in the medieval English context. Employing a sampling of 131 instances of child murder (including 144 victims), drawn from royal and ecclesiastical courts from the late thirteenth to the early sixteenth centuries, the current investigation asks us to rethink these early conclusions. Infanticide was a felony in the Middle Ages and neither jurors nor royal officials treated child murder with indifference. Nevertheless, it is clear that both gender and marital status guided the courts in their decisions throughout the legal process in terms of indicting, prosecuting, and sentencing defendants in cases of child murder.
In 1517, Alice Ridyng, daughter of John Ridyng of Eton in the diocese of Lincoln, came to the realization that she was pregnant. For Alice, this was not a joyful revelation. Not only was she unmarried and without means of independent support, but a local clergyman had fathered her illegitimate child, thus she could not even expect to resolve her situation with a hasty wedding. For whatever reason, Alice chose not to pursue abortion through herbals bought from the local apothecary or midwife, even though the medieval English maintained a fairly tolerant attitude towards abortion. Alice never formally articulated the rationale for her decision not to have an abortion. Perhaps she did not recognize she was pregnant until quite late in the pregnancy, and then feared the possibility of prosecution or excommunication; perhaps she worried that an abortion might also endanger her life; perhaps she believed enlisting the help of others would expose her pregnancy and subject her to communal ridicule and disapproval. Instead, she opted for a less effective and infinitely more dangerous solution: concealment.
She told no one about the pregnancy, not even her mother and father. Her deception was not altogether successful. Some women from Eton and Windsor suspected that she might be pregnant, but she always denied it saying, “something else was wrong with her belly.” When it came time for labor, she chose perilously to give birth alone, without the assistance of a midwife, in her father’s home. Within four hours of the birth, she placed her hand over her newborn son’s mouth and suffocated him, and then buried him in a dung heap in her father’s orchard. Her ghastly secret was exposed two days later when she was taken by the “women and honest wives” of Eton and Windsor and physically examined; her gelatinous belly and swollen, lactating breasts gave her away. They brought her before the bishop’s officials at Lincoln where she confessed her sins, swearing on oath that she had “never been known carnally” by anyone other than the father of her child. Her spirit broken, she awaited judgment on her penance.