Bad Mothers : The Dark side of Motherhood
    Two broad categories into which mothers can be placed are “good” or “bad.”  “Bad” mothers are the women who are neglectful, destructive, and even murderers of their children. Between the 14th and 18th centuries, in a variety of countries including France, England, Italy, and Scotland, there were discussions about these “bad” mothers and what they were doing to their children.  These mothers acted in distinct ways towards their children, some which were very violent and sometimes even fatal to the child.  But there were reasons behind their actions and punishment given for doing them.  The question that remains is whether these mothers were really “bad” or just victims of their circumstances.
    The various actions that some mothers took towards their children often placed them into the “bad” or even “murderous” mother category.  Their children might be abandoned in a foundling hospital, or suffocated at birth and pronounced stillborn. The belief in changelings, usually identified as being deformed, ill, or weak children, was one justification for abandonment.  As part of this belief, a ritual in the name of St. Guinefort, “a greyhound believed to heal children in some regions of France”(Boswell 337), was performed.  The mother would make offerings of salt, hang the infant's clothes on bushes, toss the baby through two tree trunks (which was the wood where Guinefort was buried), leave him alone in the dark, plunge him in water, and ask the fairies to come and take away the sick and weak child and return a healthy one (Shahar 133).  The cult of St. Guinefort disguised abandonment, as John Boswell points out, because the children could be left in the forest to die and be said not to have survived the ritual (337).
    Abandonment in foundling hospitals became quite popular in the 15th century, especially in Florence, Italy, where the Innocenti foundling home is, and where approximately 375,000 infants and young children were left.  The Innocenti was built in 1419 and is “arguably the oldest of the large specialized foundling homes” (Viazzo 72).

     Abandoned children at the Innocenti, in the beginning, were left with hospital officials or in a basin “beneath a window that opened into an inside room where a woman was on permanent duty waiting for an infant's first cry” (Viazzo 70).  But they then built a wheel on the left side of the portico where a mother or probably a midwife could place the child without being seen which therefore took away the humiliation of publicly abandoning a child.  The “wheel of the Innocents” was, as Isidoro Del Lungo, a Florentine philologist and literary critic, wrote, a “ secret refuge from misery and shame for those to whom charity never closed its door” (Viazzo 70).  A desperate mother was given the option of letting her child live and grow up, rather than murdering it in order to prevent her “sin” from being revealed because of the “foundation of the Innocenti [which] marked an epochal transition from the age-old system based on the ‘kindness of strangers’ to a far more institutionalized system” (Viazzo 73).  The 'kindness of strangers' was a system in which a person or couple would decide, if they could, to take care of another person's abandoned child but with the foundation of foundling hospitals mothers did not have to rely on this old system.  Instead they could leave their children in the foundling hospital and know that they are taken care of which definitely made it easier for the women and allowed them to avoid the shame of having an illegitimate child (or any other circumstance which could lead to abandonment).

    Mothers who didn't abandon their children, but still wanted to get rid of them, usually murdered them. There were many examples of the way the children were murdered, but it would be impossible to mention them all so only a handful of them will be described in order to convey an overall sense of what these mothers were capable of doing, and later to see what drove them to commit such horrific actions.  For example, in Shulamith Shahar's book on Childhood in the Middle Ages, there are several accounts of women murdering their children, including “a woman [who] was placed on trial before a secular court in England for murdering her daughter aged 2, and forcing her son aged 4 to sit on hot coals.  In another case, the mother tried to commit suicide, but changed her mind and killed her children instead and another killed her children with an axe and then hanged herself” (126).  Also “on 12 Dec. 1503 Joan Wynspere of Basford, ‘singilwoman,’ being pregnant, at Basford drank divers poisoned and dangerous draughts to destroy the child in her womb, of which she immediately died” (Hanawalt 1:101).  And finally “one woman in Northamptonshire whipped her 10 year-old-son to death in a fit of anger” (Hanawalt 2:124).  As can be seen, all of these women killed their children in different ways and for different reasons, but the outcome was the same for all of those children.
    If she wasn't an "abandoning" or "murderous" mother, but was still considered a "bad" mother, she was probably neglectful.  The reason why some mothers were called neglectful was because they were very inattentive, “acted incautiously” (Shahar 142), and left their children unsupervised.  These actions led to children being seriously injured and in the worst cases to their death.  For example, some were severely scalded by boiling water (generally speaking, while their mothers were laundering); many were simply trapped in fires which broke out in the home when they were left unattended; others were lost in the forest or field to which they had gone with their mothers who wanted to gather berries or tend the flock, and who only noticed their absence many hours later; and others drowned in rivers or streams (having been taken to the riverbank where their mothers were laundering) (Shahar 140).  There is a case of neglect in the coroners’ inquest rolls where ‘A boy of three and a half fell into a ditch and drowned when his mother had gone in to the neighbors to quaff a glass of beer’ (Shahar 142).

     These were mothers who abandoned, murdered, or neglected their children, but why would they do such things to these innocent beings?  For abandonment the reasons were very diverse and depended on the woman and her circumstances.  For example, female domestic servants were likely to be abandoning mothers because they “sought relief from their terrible conditions in a sexual union—tempted perhaps by the expectation of matrimony or, in some cases, forced by unscrupulous masters—and became pregnant” (Ransel 195).  They knew that if they had the child they would lose their jobs, so their only solution was to leave their infants in foundling homes.  Others abandoned their children as a way to prevent themselves from sinking deeper into poverty than they already were (Viazzo 72).  For the foundlings left in the Innocenti, from 1472-1480, there are records indicating the motives for abandonment and the parental occupations and descriptions.  The motives that mentioned the mother only as the cause for abandonment included that the mother had been placed as a wet nurse, had been injured or ill, died, was a slave or servant, was young, was very poor, or had been widowed or remarried (Gavitt 76).  Boswell mentions some other reasons for abandonment which include leaving the child due to the shame of its being illegitimate or born of incest, or the hope that the child will be found and brought up in better circumstances, or if the parents “simply could not be bothered with parenthood” (428-129).

     The reasons for the murder of children are similar to those of abandoning them, with a few more added to the list.  One of the similarities, as Deborah Symonds states in her article ‘Reconstructing rural infanticide in 18th century Scotland,’ was that “women who committed infanticide were those whose pregnancies were forced on them by masters, relatives, or prostitution” (10).  Some additional reasons include that the parent was mentally disturbed, or had “murderous impulses resulting from post partum depression or other grave mental disturbances” (Shahar 127).  Barbara Hanawalt also states, in her essay “The Female Felon in 14th century England,” that some motives for violence in women included “personal grudges, material gain, sadism, self-defense, fits of anger, and familial arguments” (Hanawalt 3:131), and these motives can be applied to any of the categories of “bad” mothers.
     Some might think that most, if not all, of these women were punished for the crimes they committed against their children, but they are wrong.  Infanticide was more easily concealed than any other type of homicide (Hanawalt 2:154).  Hanawalt stated that many scholars have argued that infanticide was common but did not show up in records because mothers or midwives were successful in concealing the deaths by calling them stillbirths or accidents (Hanawalt 1:102).  It is probably because of this that out of 5,000 cases between the gaol delivery, a “royal circuit court with jurisdiction over felony cases” (Hanawalt 3:126), and the coroners’ rolls, the rolls of “crown officials whose duty was to investigate all violent and suspicious deaths and to hold an inquest to determine the cause of death, murderer (if any), and motive (Hanawalt 3:126),” only three were infanticides.

     But the women who were caught faced some very severe punishment.  Infanticide was a woman's crime, suspected by women since the women of the town were usually the ones that accused women of practicing infanticide and brought to light by women (Symonds 8).  Ministers, midwives, and mistresses who represented the classical local authorities usually questioned the suspects (Symonds 10), and if they were found guilty, they would be punished: “Between 1661-1821, at least 347 women were investigated on complaints of infanticide” (Symonds 3) in Scotland and out of these, 57 were hanged and the others were probably banished, sometimes as indentured servants (Symonds 11).  In certain instances of premeditated murder, the woman could be punished by being burned or buried alive or, if she was lucky, the bishop, and only the bishop, could “impose penance” and “grant absolution” (Shahar 129).  In the cases of neglected children, punishment was rare because “assaults on children [were] regarded as disciplinary” (Hanawalt 3:127).

     The line between these women being “bad” mothers and victims of their society is very thin.  The reason is because they are a mixture of both since some of the mothers seemed to have been cruel at heart and merciless when it came to their children, even though it is very difficult to prove since what made them so destructive is not known.  But most of the others were victims of their circumstances.  They were either forced to abandon or murder their children in order to continue working or to prevent themselves from becoming even poorer than they already were. Or they just weren't ready because of their age to be mothers, or in the case of neglect, did not know how to care correctly for their child.  It is hard to grasp the fact that a mother could be capable of willfully murdering or abandoning her child because she is supposed to be so loving and nurturing.  But there is a dark side to motherhood and these women found out the hard way what that side entailed.

 Works Cited

Boswell, John.  The Kindness of Strangers.  New York: Pantheon Books, 1988.

Gavitt, Philip.  "'Perche non avea chi la ghovernasse': Cultural values, family resources and abandonment in the Florence of Lorenzo de' Medici, 1467-85*."  Poor Women and Children in the European Past. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.

2 Hanawalt, Barbara A.  -Crime and Conflict in English Communities, 1300-1348. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979.

3 Hanawalt, Barbara A. "The Female Felon in Fourteenth Century England." Women in Medieval Society.  University of Pennsylvania Press, 1976.

1 Hanawalt, Barbara A. The Ties That Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England.  New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Ransel, David L.  "Abandonment and Fosterage of Unwanted Children: The Women of the Foundling System."  The Family in Imperial Russia: New Lines of Historical Research.  Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1978.

Shahar, Shulamith.  Childhood in the Middle Ages.  London and New York: Routledge, 1990.

Symonds, Deborah A.  "Reconstructing rural infanticide in eighteenth-century Scotland." Journal of Women's History 10.2 (1998): 1-11

Viazzo, Pier Paolo, Maria Bortolotto, and Andrea Zanotto.  "Five centuries of foundling history in Florence:  changing patterns of abandonment, care and mortality."  Abandoned Children.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Return to Top
Return to 'Research Papers'