September 02, 2010

Apologies and Fevers

Apologies for sparce posting this week- I got some kind of bug on Tuesday and have been suffering ever since. In a grotesque way, as I've been reading nothing more intellectual than Private Eye, Prospect and the Economist, I thought I'd look at the Old Bailey website under the common cold. What's interesting is that as these two anecdotes prove, people in the seventeenth century knew that a cold was related to the cold. The two anecdotes though aren't so much about that relationship as they are about those who operated at the boundaries of society. Both concern women who were, for whatever reason, exposing their children. The court deemed in both cases, as you'll see that they were committing infanticide; however the record doesn't provide a reason for suggesting that they might not have been merely abandoning rather than killing their Babies.

The records are short, so I'll include them in their totality. First this from 1678:

But of the women, two after Judgement pleaded their Bellies in respit of Execution, and by a Jury of Matrons were found Quick with Childe. Another condemned for murdering her Bastard Infant, died in Goal the next day after Sentence; It being supposed that by going abroad immediately after her Delivery upon the unnatural designe of exposing her Childe (as she did) in the streets, she might catch Cold, which together with the dejection of her Spirits, might hasten her End, and prevent an Ignominious by an untimely death.
Secondly from 1679, this:
Another Servant was found Guilty of Murthering her Bastard-Child ; She pretended to be delivered at the House-of-office, and that it was Still-born: but it was proved that she had privately wrapt it up in her Apron, and was carrying it in an Hand-basket to bury it; but being met by one that would needs see what she got there, was discovered; and all this within an hour after she was Delivered. So lusty she was to do so Villanous a Deed, venturing abroad, and going a considerable way from where she dwelt, enough in that respect to have occasioned her own Death, (considering her condition) as she had been the means of the Death of her innocent Infant. But though she escaped catching Cold, she did not escape Justice, but is Condemned to Die.

Both stories are suspiciously alike. I think they are fascinating though because they provide a real psychological account of breakdown (in the first case) and of determination in the second. Both accounts make the infanticide sound purely irrational- we don't know whether it was or not, these are the only accounts that survive. In both cases the women did what they did straight after the birth, immediately in the first case, one hour later in the second. What's interesting is that we have different levels of detail. In the first account we are told that the woman sickened and died from a cold and from dejection: we have evidence there of some kind of depression following from the infanticide. In the second case we have less detail on the woman's reaction and more on her method, she stole the baby away without anyone else seeing it. In both cases though the writer envisages that the woman risked suffering in other ways- from cold- the equation between risk and crime is definitely there.

The most powerful thing I get from both accounts is a picture of a woman on the street abandoning her baby. The interesting thing is that like so much of history I don't know what preceded that picture: I don't know why what followed it (death from cold or hanging) followed it and I am left completely in the dark as to the motivations of those involved. All I have is a vivid trace- I think these documents are fascinating both for what they reveal and don't reveal. What do you make of them?

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