Title: Family crime on trial in rural France, 1815-1914: The case of Cote-d'Or
Name: Jennifer E. MacDonald
2 Whippletree Lane
Amherst, MA 01002
(413) 259-2931
Year: 2002
Type: Dissertation Fellowship
Summary: This dissertation on violent family crime is approached through qualitative and quantitative historical analysis. It examines violent family crime between 1815 and 1914 by employing evidence drawn from court records deposited at the departmental archives of the rural French department of the Côte-d’Or, one of four departments comprising the French region of Burgundy. Violent family crime is defined broadly to emcompass physical violence committed by one family member against another: mothers and fathers against their children, spouses and partners against one another, adult children against elder parents, aunts and uncles against nieces and nephews and so forth. The criminal records that this study relied upon for its primary evidentiary base included only case records drawn from the cour d’assise (making them roughly equivalent to felony crime). These included crimes that resulted in death or lasting injury, together with certain crimes characterized in the law as moral crimes such as incest, rape, and sexual abuse.

The overarching result of my study is the surprising discovery that family crime did not rise and fall in tandem with all violent crime. Rather, an approximately constant absolute number of family crimes tended to persist across the decades as a permanent feature of the judicial landscape. As a percentage of all violent crime committed across the period of study, family crime was relatively immune to broad economic and social flucuations. Instead, the willingness of neighbors and relatives to intervene were factors that exercised a pronounced influence, at times preventing an act of violence from continuing or at other times in drawing the attention of the community and judicial authorities to an act of violence suspected of already having been committed.

Special attention is given to the crime of infanticide, a family crime in which a mother or a father kills her or his child deliberately. Infanticide was the most frequently occurring of all types of family crime, and it has characteristics that deserve special mention. The contrast between villagers strongly connected to their neighbors and villages and those that were not was particularly stark in the crime of infanticide. The perpetrators of infanticides were often female servants living in households in villages other than their own. These women frequently believed themselves to be entirely alone and many made the attempt to return to their family or their own village for support before or after resorting to killing their babies. Not all women who committed infanticide, however, did so because they felt socially abandoned. Instead, I find that motives were highly particularized. There were many instances where women resorted to infanticide to avoid an unwanted proposal of marriage, or to avoid regularizing a relationship of long duration. While the crime of infanticide persisted over time as a large subset of all family crime, it differed from other family crimes in important respects. In particular and unlike other types of family crime, infanticides actually decreased over time, as did the age of the women who were tried for these crimes, in part because the social environment changed and also because the definition of the crime itself changed.