Volume 22, Issue 2
  • ISSN: 1566-7146
  • E-ISSN: 2667-1611



This article examines the role of medical expertise in the forensic investigation of infanticide in early modern Flanders. Drawing on a collection of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century post-mortem reports, conserved in the archives of three Flemish criminal courts (the Raad van Vlaanderen, the bench of aldermen of Ghent, and the feudal court of the Land van Waas), this study explains how medical practitioners attempted to establish whether or not a dead infant had in fact been born alive, and how they eventually decided that a live newborn had met a violent end. Furthermore, it also discusses the impact of medical observations on the sentences pronounced against mothers who were suspected of having killed their infants. In general, medico-legal considerations had a mitigating effect on the prosecution of infanticide by providing early modern judges with a wide array of extenuating circumstances. Nevertheless, the incriminating potential of medical evidence was seriously hampered by traditional evidentiary standards that considered the accused’s confession a necessary prerequisite for pronouncing the death penalty.


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