Studies of early modern infanticide have proposed a number of motives for child-murder, from shame and economic hardship to cold-blooded indifference. However, the statements made by defendants in eighteenth-century infanticide cases reveal a much more complicated sense of their motives and emotional attachments.
This project examined the records of the Scottish High Court of Justiciary in order to uncover and investigate more fully the emotional experiences of women accused of child murder in eighteenth-century Scotland. This is significant because the privileging of either the eighteenth-century legal framework that assumed the women were guilty or the social and economic circumstances that encouraged them to conceal their pregnancies in historical studies of this topic to date has led scholars to draw conclusions based on how women acted in situations rather than how they reacted to particular events; for example, the loss of their children. Considered from this different perspective, this research has revealed that many women expressed a sense of emotional attachment towards their (unborn, newborn or dead) babies. They did this variously by making preparations for the birth, by keeping the corpses of their infants nearby for periods of time after death, by burying them in significant and meaningful locations or by expressing grief at their loss. It has also found that the discovery of infanticide drew on and exploited a repertoire of ‘expected’ emotions, in rituals such as placing the recovered body of a dead child on an accused woman’s knee in an attempt to elicit a confession. This suggests that emotion played an important role in the prosecution of child murder as well as in shaping the motives of the women involved, and a more detailed consideration of these strong emotional dimensions is vital to advancing historical understandings of this very complex act.
McEwan, J. ‘Judicial Sources’. In Early Modern Emotions: An Introduction, edited by S. Broomhall, pp. 112–14. London: Routledge, 2017.
McEwan, J. ‘“At my mother’s house”: Household and Community Spaces in Early Eighteenth-Century Scottish Infanticide Narratives’. In Spaces for Feeling: Emotions and Sociabilities in Britain, 1650–1850, edited by S. Broomhall, pp. 12–34. London: Routledge, 2015.
Papers and Presentations
McEwan, J. ‘She was fond of the other children: Emotion and Emotional Attachment in Infanticide Narratives in Eighteenth-Century Scotland’, ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions work-in-progress seminar, The University of Western Australia, Perth, Western Australia, November 2012.
McEwan, J. ‘Blood, Tears and the Corporeality of Child Birth and Death in Eighteenth-Century Britain’, ‘Blood, Tears, Sweat: Corporeality in Medieval and Early Modern Worlds’ conference, The University of Western Australia, Perth, Australia, 12 September 2015.
McEwan, J. ‘Returning to her Mother’s House: Family and Emotion in Eighteenth-Century Scottish Infanticide Narratives’, ‘Sourcing Emotions in the Medieval and Early Modern World’ conference, The University of Western Australia, Perth, Australia, 27–29 June 2013.
McEwan, J. ‘Child Murder! Assumptions about Life, Death and Emotion in Eighteenth-Century Scotland’, ‘Death(cha)–Kucha: Matters of Life and Death’Public Research Showcase, Carriageworks Performance Space, Eveleigh, Sydney, March 2013.
Image: George Romney, Mother and Children, eighteenth century. Courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art.