Creating lewd women out of law and press: How laws of bastardy and infanticide in Early Modern England affected the single mother

Christina May Loucks, Tennessee State University


Single Women in Early Modern England were treated as outcasts in society unlike their married counterparts who were under the control of their husband. The Church and the court system worked to keep the single woman within certain boundaries of moral standards. In 1624, single women who gave birth to children out of wedlock were targeted by “An act to prevent the destroying and murthering of bastard children”, 21 James I c.27 1624. This legislation influenced by preceding laws that sought to control the poor and vagrant population of England by regulating punishment for those who were not a part of the truly poor. A woman who was pregnant outside of marriage was truly poor; consequently, she was considered a burden upon the parish where she lived and often harshly punished for becoming pregnant and giving birth to a bastard child. The Act of 1624 was influenced by preceding laws and by popular pamphlets from the era. Language used in the Act can be traced to popular pamphlets published by men seeking to influence women by showing them what would happen if a woman stepped outside the boundaries of the established norm of society, became pregnant, and hid the child from people around her. The Act established how a woman who gave birth to a bastard child was to be punished if she concealed the pregnancy and subsequent birth from the public. This as opposed to being punished if her own hand had murdered the child upon its birth. The Act of 1624 changed how cases of infanticide were tried in courts of law and public opinion through pamphlets. The pamphleteer no longer had to deconstruct the single woman down to the anti-mother entity incapable of caring about her child; rather, the Act removed her humanity by describing her as ‘lewd’ and not giving her the opportunity to plead stillbirth or miscarriage. The pamphlets written after the passage of the Act show how women were bound by the secrecy their pregnancies demanded from them privately and publicly if she, the unwed mother, wanted to survive.

Subject Area

Modern literature|Womens studies|British and Irish literature|Social structure

Recommended Citation

Christina May Loucks, "Creating lewd women out of law and press: How laws of bastardy and infanticide in Early Modern England affected the single mother" (2010). ETD Collection for Tennessee State University. Paper AAI1476503.