Margaret Lewis

  • Fellowship year:2011-2012
  • University: University of Virginia
  • Dissertation Topic/Category: Early Modern Europe
  • Dissertation Title: 'Infanticide in Early Modern Germany': The Experience of Augsburg, Memmingen, Ulm, Nördlingen, 1500-1800.
  • Between 1500 and 1800 nearly one hundred women were accused of committing infanticide in the southern German city of Augsburg. Most of these women were young, single domestic serving maids who had moved to Augsburg from small villages in pursuit of paying work. Instead, they soon found themselves pregnant with no hope of marriage and facing the very strong possibility both of losing their employment and of being banished by the city council if they gave birth out of wedlock. For many of these women, concealing their pregnancies, giving birth in secret, and finally disposing of their children by killing or abandoning them seemed like the only option for them.
    While at heart a social history of the perpetrators of a single crime, this dissertation touches on many important cultural, religious, and legal themes of the early modern period and also on issues that continue to be socially relevant today. The changing cultural understanding of childhood, its relationship to the law, and what that meant for those who posed a threat to children are all major themes of this study. The other legal questions that are central to this investigation—the relationship between medicine and law, the effects of gender on the enforcement of law, and the impact of the popular press on the law—are historical questions that also remain open and controversial. The (mostly) women whose stories are featured in the dissertation struggled directly with these issues as they attempted to navigate a dangerous web of expectations. So did authorities of all kinds: religious, judicial, medical, and civic. It is these intertwined stories which are the heart of this dissertation.