“Catharina Schlegelin had hidden her pregnancy viciously from everybody”: extramarital pregnancies in three different sources on infanticide from the 18th century

Eva Marie Lehner is a historian and Early Modernist. She specializes in the history of the body, gender, and sexuality, historical anthropology, identity, and ecclesiastical record-keeping processes. Her most recent publications and presentations related to her Ph.D. project on south German parish registers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. eva.lehner[@]uni-due.de

During the early modern period (1500–1800) infanticide was a criminal act and punished by death.[i] In German-speaking territories, the term used for infanticide was KindsmordKindsmord meant a woman killing her illegitimate newborn. In contemporary German legislative texts, unmarried women were the only ones who could commit this crime. Court judgments saw hiding an extramarital pregnancy and illegitimate childbirth as evidence in a trial on infanticide. 

Early modern judicial treaties describe the crime as “unchristian” and “inhuman”.[ii] Simultaneously, executions of Kindsmörderinnen (women who had committed infanticide) were difficult to enforce and carry out by local authorities.[iii] Reactions to these executions by the audience were complex, ambivalent, and often unforeseeable.[iv] During the 18th century, the attitude towards infanticide changed fundamentally. A reform of the penal law at this time evoked debates in which infanticide played a crucial role.[v] The discussion centered around the question if one should abolish the death penalty for infanticide. The social, moral, and emotional situations of unmarried women, which could socially degrade when she got pregnant, played a remarkable role in this debate. Extramarital intercourse was not only severely frowned upon but could also be incriminating for the participants. The stigma which was associated with illegitimate children applied primarily to women. In the following, I will present three different sources from the 18th century discussing infanticide and showing different perspectives on extramarital sexuality, gender, and law.

Legal norms

The judicial debate on infanticide in the 18th century was deeply interlinked with the judgment of extramarital intercourse. This connection was also part of legal norms decreed by the authorities. The instructions which Count Palatine Karl Theodor legislated for Palatinate and Bavaria in 1726 and 1744 are two examples. The government in Palatinate Sulzbach referred to his instructions when it released a local regulation in 1766. According to this law, women were obliged to report an extramarital pregnancy. Hiding a pregnancy, covering it up, or sheltering a pregnant woman was defined as a criminal act. In an instruction published in 1789, unmarried women were suspicious when they had hidden their pregnancy and no one could testify for the childbirth.[vi]

In the 18th century, the authorities in Bavaria and Palatinate Sulzbach tightened the edicts against infanticide. These legal norms criminalized women hiding an extramarital pregnancy to prevent infanticides. 

Court records

What impact did these measures have on legal practices and judgments concerning infanticide? During the first half of the 18th century, the court in Sulzbach convicted six women of this crime.[vii] On October 3, 1739, one of these women, Catharina Schlegelin, was sentenced to death by the judge and executed in public. The court records cover the circumstances of the pregnancy, birth, and homicide. The files also document the physical and mental condition of Catharina, how she treated her dead child, buried it, and prayed for it. The records focus on the hidden pregnancy as part of the crime or as its starting point:  

“Because the convict Catharina Schleglin had hidden her pregnancy viciously from everybody: she repeatedly felt labour-pains, and she went home alone from work on the field. Because she gave birth to her child separated from other people and in secret. Because she did not stanch the umbilical cord of the newborn, but mainly squeezed its head, and pressed its throat, put it in water until it drowned.”[viii]

Court records: One page from the court records on Catharina Schlegelin, Sulzbach 1739.[1] 

Parish records

Two protestant clergymen supervised Catharina Schlegelin during her trial and after her conviction. Both ministers wrote her burial entry in the local parish register after her execution.[ix] They documented the ambivalent attitude towards infanticide and convicted women in the 18th century: 

“Once again – God be merciful! – we both supervised and stood by a woman who killed her infant [kinder-Mörderin] and therefore was happily brought from life to death with a sword.

Catharina Schlegelin is the daughter of Johan Schlegel who is still living and a wealthy peasant in Schellersdorf, part of the parish Edelsfeld. She is his only daughter with his first wife. He and his second wife are childless. She [C.S.] was on duty as a maid when she got impregnated by the male servant, Jobst Pferber from Fronberg. She hid her pregnancy from her parents and the boy because she was afraid of her parents. They did not like the Pferber, because he was not wealthy, and she could get another man. Finally, she was so desperate that she killed the infant when her parents and everyone else were out on the field. She buried it in the barn. She did confess to her doing when the midwife questioned her during her first arrest in Königstein, she realized the extent of her sin and finally regretted it tearfully. She prepared herself honestly and freely for her death and many people were astonished by her youth of 23 years […].”[x]

In this entry, the clergymen tried to show that Catharina understood the bearing of her actions and regretted her doings. Therefore, her soul could be saved. In contrast to the court records the burial entry explains Catharina’s environment in detail. The young woman received a short biography in the parish records. The authors described her actions as brutal and sinful. However, the priests also mentioned her personal life. In their reading, the circumstances caused her a great deal of desperation and led to her actions. Part of her conflicted situation was the social or class distinction between her and her child’s father. She was the daughter of a wealthy peasant, and he was a poor servant. So, her parents did not accept him as her husband. Hence, she could not marry him even after the pregnancy which led to her desperate situation. Also, the two clergymen described that Catharina responded positively to them, emphasizing her regrets and catharsis. She confessed to her crime immediately and accepted her punishment. According to the burial entry, her behaviour amazed the priests and many people who attended her execution. The entry shows that the execution of women, convicted of infanticide, was reviewed in different ways. The church record offers a contra narrative to the legal norms and the judgment the court made. These three different perspectives on extramarital sexuality, gender, and law were part of the reevaluation of infanticide as a criminal act in the 18th century. 

Cite this article: Eva Marie Lehner, “Catharina Schlegelin had hidden her pregnancy viciously from everybody”: extramarital pregnancies in three different sources on infanticide from the 18th century, in: History | Sexuality | Law, 25/03/2021, https://hsl.hypotheses.org/1621, (abgerufen am: Datum).

[1] Image Copyright: In puncto Infanticidy. VII. Allgemeine Landespolizei. 1. Sicherheits- und Sittenpolizei. Schöffenurteile, signature A 69: 4. Katharina Schlegl, 1739, fol. 49 v.

[i] Besides the topic of infanticide being present during the early modern period, deadly violations against newborns were infrequent: Garthine Walker, Child-Killing and Emotion in Early Modern England and Wales, in Katie Barclay/Kimberley Reynolds/Ciara Rawnsley (ed.), Death, Emotion, and Childhood in Premodern Europe, London, New York 2016, pp. 151-171, p. 154.
[ii] Art. 131: Straff der weiber so jre kinder tödten, in: O.A., Constitutio Criminalis Carolina. Peinliche Gerichtsordnung Kaiser Karl V. Faksimiliedruck der ausgabe Augsburg 1533, Osnabrück 1973, S. XXVIII; Art. 35 und 36: Vom heimlichen kinder haben/ und tödten durch jre mütter genugsam anzeygung, pp. VIII, IX. 
[iii] Jutta Nowosadtko, Hinrichtungsrituale. Funktion und Logik öffentlicher Exekutionen in der Frühen Neuzeit, in: Sigrid Hirbodian/Michael Matheus (ed.), Kriminalität und Gesellschaft in Spätmittelalter und Neuzeit (Mainzer Vorträge 8), Stuttgart 2005, pp. 71-94, see p. 89.
[iv] Walker, Child-Killing, p. 152. Regarding the different emotions on infanticide in France during the 16th century: Susan Broomhall, Beholding Suffering and Providing Care: Emotional Performances on the Death of Poor Children in Sixteenth-Century French Institutions, in Barclay/Reynolds/Rawnsley (ed.), Death, Emotion and Childhood, pp. 65-86, see pp. 70-72.
[v] Otto Ulbricht considers infanticide as a key crime for the legal reforms in the 18th century. The death penalty should be replaced by preventative measures. Otto Ulbricht, Kindsmord und Aufklärung in Deutschland, München 1990; Otto Ulbricht, Kindsmord in der Frühen Neuzeit, in: Ute Gerhard (ed.): Frauen in der Geschichte des Rechts. Von der Frühen Neuzeit bis zur Gegenwart, München 1997, pp. 235-247.
[vi] Staatsarchiv Amberg, Pfalz Sulzbacher Regierung, Sulzbacher Akten, signature: 42 279.
[vii] Stadtarchiv Sulzbach-Rosenberg, infanticides 1734-1752. In puncto Infanticidy. VII. Allgemeine Landespolizei. 1. Sicherheits- und Sittenpolizei. Schöffenurteile, signature A 69: 1. Katharina Heringloher, 1734; 2. Margaretha Beer, 1735; 3. Magdalena Ebenhöher, 1739; 4. Katharina Schlegl, 1739; 5. Katharina Grünthaler, 1743; 6. Jüdin Hanna, nachgehend getaufte Maria Franziska Eleonora, 1751.
[viii] All English translations of quotes from German sources are my own. „Inquisitin Catharina Schläglin wegen daß sie ihre schwangeschafft vor jedmann boshafft versch verborgen gehalten: ohnmalst der etlichmahl empfunden wehen vom feldt allein nach haus gegangen, und das nicht nur dem da vor alle leuthen abgeßondert, heimlich gebohrenen kind die nabelschnur unverbunden gelaßßen sondern so hauptsächlich demselben daß köpfle zerquetschet heirnach auch noch den halß zugedrukt, und das kind ins waßßer, bis es ganz ertrunken, geleget.“ Stadtarchiv Sulzbach-Rosenberg, infanticides 1734-1752. In puncto Infanticidy. VII. Allgemeine Landespolizei. 1. Sicherheits- und Sittenpolizei. Schöffenurteile, signature A 69: 4. Katharina Schlegl, 1739, fol. 49 v. 
[ix] Eva Lehner: „einschreiben und vleißßig auffbehalten, auff daß man sich inn mancherlei fällen zeugnuß zu gebrauchen habe“. Dokumentieren als Praxisform in frühneuzeitlichen Kirchenbüchern, in: Jan-Hendryk de Boer (Hg.): Praxisformen. Zur kulturellen Logik von Zukunftshandeln, Frankfurt/New York 2019, S. 147–163.
[x] „Wurde bey der Gotterbarme es ! eine abermahlige kinder-Mörderin bey unser beiden zubereitung u begleitung durchs Schwerd vom Leben zum todt glückl. Gebracht Catharina Schlegelin, des nochim Leben sich befindenden Johan Schlegels, wohlhabenden Bauers-Tochter zu Schnellersdorf Edelfelder Pfarreien zwar eintziges kind vom 1ten Weib, mit der 2ten aber ohne kinder lebend weliche von Jobst Pferber von Fronberg gebürtig; aber dermahlen zu M[?] im dienst stehenden knecht impregnirt worden. Sie hat ihr schwanger=schafft aber denen Eltern u dem kerl beständig geläugnet, aus furcht vor den Eltern, welche diesen Pferber, weil er nicht reich war, und sie einend andern hätte haben können, endlich aus desperation das kind umgebracht, da die Eltern und alles auf dem felde war, und es in den stall vergraben. Sie habe aber ihre grausame that bey der ersten arrestirung in königstein w. visitierung durch die amm gleich umständlich bekannt, die größe ihrer sünde erkant letzlich mit viel Thränen bereuet u sich zum todt rechtschaffen und sehr frei bereitet, mit vieler leute verwunderung bey ihrer Jugend im 23te Jahr ihres[?].“ Evangelisch-lutherisches Pfarrarchiv der Christuskirche Sulzbach-Rosenberg, church register 8: baptisms, marriages, burials 1702-1769; since 2015 the register is stored im Landesarchiv der Lutherisch-Evangelischen Kirche in Bayern, 505/8, burial entry 3th October 1739, pp. 115 and 116, n. 27.

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