Disclaimer: I am currently writing a chapter on infanticidal queens in early modern drama. It is neither a pleasant topic, nor a pleasant undertaking — particularly at this moment for personal reasons easy to guess — but the topic raises interesting questions about national history, genealogy and perceptions of motherhood.
The topic of infanticide is always great fodder for experts and ordinary folk alike. In the past few years alone, there has been a slew of academic publications on the topic: some regional studies, such as Anne-Marie Kilday’s A History of Infanticide in Britain, c. 1600 to the Present, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), Michelle T. King’s Between Birth and Death: Female Infanticide in Nineteenth-Century China (Stanford UP, 2014), Margaret Brannan Lewis’s revised PhD on Infanticide and Abortion in Early Modern Germany (Routledge, 2014) or Elaine Farrell’s study on Ireland, ‘A most diabolical deed’: infanticide and Irish society, 1850-1900 (Manchester UP, 2013), as well as collections such as Endangered Children: Homicide and Other Crimes edited by Lita Linzer Schwartz and Natalie K. Isser (CNC, 2012), or studies from particular perspectives, as Lyasmine Kessaci’s revised PhD in psychopathology, De la maltraitance infantile à l’infanticide: la mère, l’enfant, le ravage (PU de Rennes, 2015), or Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau’s re-issued and augmented version of his now-classic study on violence against children during the Great War, L’enfant de l’ennemi : viol, avortement, infanticide pendant la Grande guerre (Flammarion, 2013, originally published in 1995)… If I were to quote mass media, a quick search on ‘Google News’ shows that the number of headlines featuring terms such as ‘murderous mom’ or ‘baby killer’ is terrifyingly common. The topic is always ‘hot’. Any contemporary Medea is guaranteed to make the news.1
A recent case in France has, it seems, a series of bizarrely early modern resonances. It concerns Fabienne Kabou, a French-Senegalese mother who recently plead guilty of murdering her 15-month old daughter by abandoning her to drown in the sea. What makes this sad story an early modern tale are three elements which take on particular relevance when studying infanticide: location, witchcraft and ‘media coverage’.
Saint-Omer and the Pas-de-Calais region
Discussing location may seem, at first, only anecdotally linked with the early modern period. Even if the mother actually took the train from Paris to commit her murder in the Pas-de-Calais region, Kabou is being tried in Saint-Omer, a town which has been in the news recently as a local library discovered a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio 2. This came in handy at a moment when everyone was preparing to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, shortly after having commemorated the 450th anniversary of his birth.3
More importantly than the chance celebrity of Saint-Omer for Shakespeare-lovers is the fact that the town is comparatively isolated, and that the murder itself took place in the sea-side town of Berck-sur-Mer, some 70 km away, making the case a very local story. Any coincidence with an ongoing BBC series investigating the mysterious murder of a child on a sandy beach in a small Dorset community is entirely fortuitous — as far as I can tell, at any rate, as I haven’t finished watching it.
One may well wonder whether the fascination offered by the Kabou case is due to the relative rarity of cases of infanticide, or whether it is due to the fact that it took place in an otherwise non-newsworthy location.
Studies suggest early-modern accounts of what was called ‘child murder’ often involved isolated cases or marginalized women, and details on the location and manner in which the infants were killed provide most, if not all, of the factual data on the murders, lending them increased attention and commentary. Despite appearances and well-publicized accounts, infanticide was rare — or significantly under-reported in an age with a very high infant mortality rate — and it is important to read all these accounts with a pinch of salt.4
In other words, cases of infanticide are rare, and they make the news because of that, not because they are newsworthy. The problem is that, as with many other items in the news, readers can to start to believe that an isolated incident points to the existence of an underlying, endemic, under-reported problem. Ongoing coverage of an investigation and trial of an infanticide only magnifies its importance, blowing it out of all proportion. In the early modern era, local authorities started to think that there was an epidemic of illegitimate births, and that this fuelled an epidemic of infanticide, giving rise to the (in)famous 1624 Act to Prevent the Destroying and Murthering of Bastard Children.5 As argued earlier, statistics suggest that the illegitimacy and infanticide were not only vastly exaggerated, they were not necessarily linked.
Similarly, today, constant images in the news of Syrian refugees and illegal crossings and drownings in the Mediterranean may have fuelled anti-immigration resentment and rhetoric in the UK, pushing many voters to vote Leave during the recent BREXIT referendum, when these problems had not only nothing to do with the EU per se, but also little to do with current immigration trends in the UK.6 The news serves as an echo chamber for certain common events (migrants drowning in the Mediterranean) if these are felt to represent danger, as well as rare events (a mother wilfully drowning her infant in the sea) if these are sufficiently monstrous and also threaten perceived notions of adequate motherhood.
An intelligent single parent and witchcraft victim
A second curious parallel between the Kabou case and early modern trials is the infanticidal mother’s claim that she had been bewitched. Accounts from the early modern period often discuss this theory, either because the accused tried to deflect blame, or because the prosecution tried to provide a sensible explanation for what was always called a ‘monstrous’ or ‘unnatural’ act. Interestingly, Kabou, a French-Senegalese citizen, argued this in court in all earnestness:
« Quand je parle de sorcellerie, je ne plaisante pas. Quelqu’un de stupide dans un coma éthylique n’aurait pas fait ce que j’ai fait. Or, on dit que je suis intelligente. »7
What is challenged in these cases is the ‘monstrous mother’s’ agency, while blame is redirected towards the root of all evil: Satan and his cronies. In many cases, as with Kabou, the devil’s cronies involved neighbors, rivals or enemies — often, as it happens, the community by association. Child murder then takes on a special significance for the community, or society at large. It is no longer a domestic crime, but a crime against the body politic. The child murderess has not only killed her kin, she has committed treason by robbing the body politic of a citizen. These competing notions reinforce the conflicting notion that motherhood is as much a liberating as a subjecting, or even alienating, experience. The prosecutor’s insistence on the mother’s “indifference” to the trial proceedings purportedly help to reveal her culpability, while her defence argued that this only proved what is termed ‘puerperal insanity’.8
One last element which, I believe, warrants a parallel with the early modern era is the manner in which the news is reported. Despite every effort by ‘serious’ news commentators to stick to factual reporting, coverage of these cases still elicit a number of theories, and much social commentary. It echoes other cases involving murdered children, or pedophilia, or both. In France, the case of the ‘Affaire Grégory‘ still haunts collective memories, even appearing in the dark comedy Man Bites Dog (C’est arrivé près de chez vous) featuring Benoît Poelvoorde.
In the early modern period, a number of pamphlets served a similar purpose. The example from 1610 of Jane Hattersley says it all in its titlepage:
The bloudy mother, or The most inhumane murthers, committed by Iane Hattersley vpon diuers infants, the issue of her owne bodie: & the priuate burying of them in an orchard with her araignment and execution. As also, the most loathsome and lamentable end of Adam Adamson her Master, the vnlawfull begetter of those vnfortunate babes being eaten and consumed aliue with wormes and lice.9
Terms such as ‘monstrous’, ‘inhuman’, ‘unnatural’ pepper these and other accounts. What remains an issue, however, is what these authors and their readers deem ‘human’ and ‘natural’. Is Europe’s foot-dragging when faced with the ongoing crisis in the Mediterranean and in Syria ‘natural’ and ‘humane’?
- ‘Medea’ is here used as a sensationalist blanket term, as the circumstances involving infanticide are usually much more mundane than the vengeful murder of a forsaken lover plunging the world in civil war. [↩]
- See also a news item in the newspaper Le Monde: “Découverte en France d’un « First Folio » de Shakespeare”, 26 Nov. 2014, http://www.lemonde.fr/livres/article/2014/11/26/decouverte-en-france-d-un-first-folio-de-shakespeare_4529746_3260.html [↩]
- A list of events is helpfully compiled at: http://shakespeareanniversary.org/ and http://www.shakespearelives.org/. [↩]
- According to one estimate, the “rate of infanticide in 1610 in London was at the vanishingly small level of about 3 per 100,000”, B. J. Sokol and Mary Sokol. Shakespeare’s Legal Language: A Dictionary. Continuum Shakespeare Dictionaries, Athlone Press, 2000, p. 236. See also Sandra Clark. Women and Crime in the Street Literature of Early Modern England. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003, pp. 34–35. [↩]
- On a brief explanation of the significance of this statute, see Samantha Dix, “Infanticide in the Early Modern Period: The 1624 Statute”, New Histories, 3.5 (2012), http://newhistories.group.shef.ac.uk/wordpress/wordpress/infanticide-in-the-early-modern-period-the-1624-statute/. [↩]
- Citizens from Commonwealth countries (India, Pakistan), Eastern Europe (Poland) and neighboring countries (Ireland) constitute the bulk of recent arrivals in the UK according to one study from the Migration Observatory at Oxford: http://www.migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk/briefings/migrants-uk-overview. [↩]
- Pascale Robert-Diard, “La mère infanticide, entre narcissisme et « sorcellerie »”, Le Monde, 21 June 2016, http://www.lemonde.fr/police-justice/article/2016/06/21/la-mere-infanticide-entre-narcissisme-et-sorcellerie_4954555_1653578.html [↩]
- T.D., “Procès du meurtre de la petite Adélaïde: le verdict est tombé”, La Semaine dans le Boulonnais, 24 June 2016, http://www.lasemainedansleboulonnais.fr/fait-divers/proces-du-meurtre-de-la-petite-adelaide-le-verdict-est-tombe-ia680b0n175668 [↩]
- T. B. (Thomas Brewer), The bloudy mother, or The most inhumane murthers, committed by Iane Hattersley vpon diuers infants…, London: printed by Iohn Busbie, and are to be sold by Artheur Iohnson in Paules Churchyard at the signe of the White Horse, 1610. [↩]