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Routine Infanticide by Married Couples? An Assessment of Baptismal Records from Seventeenth Century Parma

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Abstract This study uses baptismal records from the Italian city of Parma from 1609 to 1637 to chart the sex ratio of male and female infants at baptism. This article measures the Parman sex ratio against the natural sex ratio at birth for live-born infants, as determined by Praven Visaria, and offers preliminary findings that indicate that married couples used infanticide as a means of controlling family size and sex in seventeenth-century Parma. The 28 years studied encompass both relatively strong economic and agricultural years as well as a variety of crises. By selecting a period with both good and bad economic years it is possible to see if parents behaved differently as their household conditions varied. Further, dividing the approximately 30,000 baptisms by rural and urban jurisdictions and familial socio-economic status makes visible parental recourse to infanticide through unnatural ratios of males and females within different segments of society.

1. FN22 Hannah Beech Nanliang, “In Rural China, It’s a Family Affair,” Time (2002) /0,9171,250060,00.html.
2. FN33 Jha et al. on their analysis of sex ratios at birth from national census data from 1998. Prabhat Jha, Rajesh Kumar, Priya Vasa, Neeraj Dhingra, Deva Thiruchelvam, and Rahim Moineddin, “Low male-to-female sex ratio of children born in India: national survey of 1.1 million households,” The Lancet 367 (2006): 216.
3. FN44 Kay Johnson, “Vietnam’s Girls Go Missing,” Time (2007) htttp://,8599,680240,00.html?iid=sphere-inline-sidebar.
4. FN55 See Laura Gowing, “Secret Births and Infanticide in Seventeenth-Century England,” Past and Present 156 (1997): 87-115; René Leboutte, “Offense against Family Order: Infanticide in Belgium from the Fifteenth through the Early Twentieth Centuries” Journal of the History of Sexuality 2 (1991): 159-185; Joanne M. Ferraro, Nefarious Crimes, Contested Justice: Illicit Sex and Infanticide in the Republic of Venice, 1557-1789 (Baltimore, 2008).
5. FN66 Gregory Hanlon, “L’Infanticidio di coppie sposate in Toscana nella prima età moderna,” Quaderni Storici 38 (2003): 459-60.
6. FN77 Gregory Hanlon, Human Nature in Early Modern Tuscany: An Early Modern History (New York, 2007); Hanlon, “L’Infanticidio,” 453-498.
7. FN88 See John Boswell, The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance (Chicago, 1998); Carlo A. Corsini, “L’Enfant trouvé: Note de démographie différentielle,” Annales de Démographie Historique (1983): 95-101; Jan Beise and Eckart Voland, “Differential Infant Mortality Viewed from an Evolutionary Biological Perspective,” History of the Family 7 (2002): 515-526; Richard Wall, “Inferring Differential Neglect of Females from Mortality Data,” Annales de Démographie Historique (1981): 80-140.
8. FN99 See David I. Kertzer, Sacrificed for Honor: Italian Infant Abandonment and the Politics of Reproductive Control (Boston, 1993); Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, “L’enfance en Toscane au début du XVe siècle,” Annales de Démographie Historique (1973): 99-122; Gérard Delille, “Un problème de démographie historique; hommes et femmes devant la mort,’’ Mélanges de l’Ecole Française de Rome (1974): 419-443.
9. FN1010 Prior to 1760, after which infant mortality began to decline steadily, the occurrence of infant death was exacerbated by frequent wars, famines, and epidemics. Bellettini and Somaggia point out the specificity of the death registers in their parishes in separating the deaths of children under age seven, making it easier to study child mortality; A. Bellettini and A. Samoggia, “Evolution différentielle et mouvement saisonnier de la mortalité infantile et enfantile dans la banlieue de Bologne (XVIIe-XIXe siècles)” Annales de Démographie Historique (1983): 201. Similarly, Breschi and Manfredini found that 567 out of 1000 newborns survived to thirteen years of age in their study of an early nineteenth century parish in rural Tuscany; Marco Breschi and Matteo Manfredini, “Parental Loss and Kin Networks: Demographic Repercussions in a Rural Italian Village,” When Dad Died: Individuals and Families Coping with Family Stress in Past Societies (New York, 2002), 374-5.
10. FN1111 Maurice Garden, Lyon et les Lyonnais au XVIII siècle (Paris, 1975): 59-72.
11. FN1212 Hanlon, “L’Infanticidio,” 455-456.
12. FN1313 Herlihy and Klapisch-Zuber’s study of Renaissance Florence found that female infants accounted for as many as 70 percent of those abandoned, while the sex ratio of the larger Tuscan population revealed a substantial, and unnatural, surplus of males; David Herlihy and Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, Tuscans and Their Families: A Study of the Florentine Catasto of 1427 (New Haven and London: 1985), 131-133; Gérard Delille found an excess of female mortality in comparison to male in seventeenth to nineteenth century Italy, which led him to conclude that female infanticide was a strong possibility; Delille, “Un problème de démographie historique,” 434-437; Jan Beise and Eckart Voland noted in their study of differential infant mortality that mortality differed amongst male and female infants depending on their parents’ social status. Of particular interest is their finding that the mortality rate was increased significantly for male offspring in families who already had sons; Beise and Voland, “Differential Infant Mortality,” 516-22.
13. FN1414 Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, Homicide (New Brunswick, 1998), Chapters 3 and 4.
14. FN1515 Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants and Natural Selection (New York, 1999).
15. FN1616 Using this method, the definition of infanticide is limited and only encompasses infants killed before their baptism.
16. FN1717 This ratio was determined after assessment of vital records from more than seventy states from the nineteenth century onward. Pravin M. Visaria, “Sex Ratio at Birth in Territories with a Relatively Complete Registration,” Eugenics Quarterly 14 (1967): 132-142.
17. FN1818 Hanlon, Human Nature in Early Modern Tuscany, Chapter 4.
18. FN1919 Fabio Parazzini, Carlo La Vecchia, Fabio Levi, and Silvia Franceschi, “Trends in male:female ratio among newborn infants in 29 countries from five continents,” Human Reproduction 13 (1998): 1394-96; William H. James. “The Human Sex Ratio. Part 1: A Review of the Literature,” Human Biology 59, no. 5 (Oct. 1987): 721-752.
19. FN2020 Even infants sent to wet nurses in the countryside should appear in the baptismal register if they were sent to wet nurses within the city’s jurisdiction.
20. FN2121 Biblioteca Palatina, MS. Vol 1632 (Liber Niger Hospitalis Rodulfi Comunitatis Parmae sec. XVII).
21. FN2222 Parazzini, et al., “Trends in male:female ratio,” 1394-96.
22. FN2323 While other sources are necessary to confirm the findings from the baptismal register, the data from the baptismal records has been verified. Marzio Achille Romani used the same registers to chart male and female baptisms over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The annual number of males and females and the number of infants with ambiguous sex have all been checked against Romani’s numbers and found to be the same.
23. FN2424 This total excludes the very small number of baptisms that took place for Jewish converts, and the small proportion of entries that were left unfinished (i.e., an infant’s name was entered but no other information was supplied implying that the actual baptism likely did not take place).
24. FN2525 In these eighteen instances the infants had ambiguous names such as Nicola which could be a male or female name. Due to the ambiguousness of the name it seemed prudent to omit these entries rather than guess.
25. FN2626 See Visaria “Sex Ratio at Birth,” 132; Parazzini et al., “Trends in male:female ratio,” 1395.
26. FN2727 Romani’s demographic research provides total annual baptisms from 1500 to 1699. This work is complemented by Lasagni, who gives the total annual baptisms from 1700 to 1799; Marzio Achille Romani, “Aspetti della evoluzione demografica Parmense nei secoli XVI e XVII” Studi e Ricerche della Facoltà di Economia e Commercio dell’ Università di Parma 7 (1970): 252-260; Roberto Lasagni, Infanzia a Parma nel settecento (Parma, 1979), 24-26.
27. FN2828 Hanlon, “L’Infanticidio,” 468-69.
28. FN2929 The majority of the baptismal entries included the parish of residence of the family at the time of their infant’s baptism. This information has made it possible to organize the data by locality.
29. FN3030 Hanlon, Infanticidio, 467-68.
30. FN3131 Romani provides both monthly, when available, and average annual prices of wheat during this period. Because the baptismal data can only be studied annually, due to insufficient monthly sample sizes, the annual ratio of masculinity has been charted against the average annual price of wheat, despite the fact that this introduces some distortion to the annual wheat figures.
31. FN3232 A three year sliding average uses the average totals and ratio of masculinity for the year in question with both the previous and the following years’ data. This method allows for a larger sample size in each year.
32. FN3333 Giovanna Rabbi Solari, The House of Farnese (New York, 1968), 156-201.
33. FN3434 For the purposes of this study, reference to the textile industry is confined to the more numerous but lower status individuals involved in weaving, spinning, and embroidering, all tasks that could be completed at home.
34. FN3535 The baptismal register yields a total of forty-eight parishes that were regularly listed as a familial place of residence for some or all of the twenty-eight years studied. To be active, a parish must have had families identify with its geographic jurisdictions.
35. FN3636 Sandra Cavallo, Artisans of the Body: Identities, Families, Masculinities (Manchester: 2007): 160-177.

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