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  • Infanticide, Secular Justice, and Religious Debate in Early Modern Europe by Adriano Prosperi
  • Jane Bitomsky
Prosperi, Adriano, Infanticide, Secular Justice, and Religious Debate in Early Modern Europe, trans. by Hilary Siddons (Europa Sacra, 10), Turnhout, Brepols, 2016; hardback; pp. viii, 407; R.R.P. €110.00; ISBN 9782503531748.

By Adriano Prosperi's own admission, 'no other crime has been studied, analysed and described more' than infanticide (p. 49). It is difficult then to offer an original argument or to advance the already abundant scholarship on this offence. Prosperi's text engages in a fine-grained analysis of the 1709 trial and conviction of Bolognese singlewoman Lucia Cremonini for the murder of her newborn son. The author's choice of Cremonini as the focus of this work is predicated on the richness of the archival material on her trial, and the fact that Cremonini is representative of the archetypal early modern infanticidal mother. That Cremonini committed an infanticide is tangential though to how Prosperi uses the extant court documents on her case to reconstruct the greater cultural processes at play in early modern Europe. Indeed, Lucia's act of infanticide is merely a vehicle through which Prosperi can illustrate how the extraction of material from her trial can provide valuable insights into early modern European culture, law, and theology. This text also queries 'whether these obscure inhabitants of the criminal archives are truly knowable in their concrete reality' (p. 369).

Prosperi's work is divided into four parts. Each part revolves around a key component or character from Lucia Cremonini's trial. Part 1 provides a retelling and contextualization of the 'words set down in the trial documents'(p. 15). We learn the circumstances surrounding Lucia's commission of this [End Page 247] 'unspeakable crime', and how Lucia conformed, from her marital status to her purported motives, to the early modern template of the infanticidal mother (p. 8). There is also a discussion of the other early modern stereotypes that were propagated about infanticide, with reference to Jewish ritualistic practices, witches, 'donne malefiche' (evil women), and the impecunious midwife (p. 43).

Part 2 is entitled 'The Mother'. Here, Prosperi dissects key phrases from Cremonini's 1709 testimony in an attempt to distinguish Lucia from 'the crowd of women convicted of infanticide' (p. 85). Her reference to 'a young priest' as the putative father, for example, is expanded upon to expose how the sexual transgressions of the clergy were typically concealed by the ecclesiastical courts, and to highlight how the paternal figure was largely excluded from early modern investigations of infanticides (p. 93). Lucia's declaration that 'he robbed me of my honour and took my virginity', meanwhile, is found to be consistent with narratives of rape in the early modern Bologna court records, and reflective of the unequal power relations between early modern men and women (p. 113). Although, as Prosperi acknowledges, these court documents contain 'no expression of any feelings', the contextualization of these key phrases allows the reader to make some inferences about Lucia's experiential mindset (p. 114).

Part 3 explores the early modern theological and cultural beliefs superimposed on the body of Lucia's deceased male infant. In his discussion of the early modern theological dogma on the unbaptized infant and the question of ensoulment, Prosperi thought-provokingly contends that 'even the unborn is not absent from the historical process just because it is devoid of speech' (p. 136). The final part of this text, perhaps fittingly, ends with a description of Lucia's execution on the scaffold. From the absence of irons on her wrists to the imprisonment of the hangman for 'keeping her in agony for a while', even Lucia's death functions as a commentary on the cultural beliefs ingrained in the spectacle of early modern executions (p. 328).

This analysis was motivated by Prosperi's desire 'to understand the story of a mother who committed infanticide' (p. 372). Following the example of scholars Carlo Ginzburg and Natalie Zemon Davis, Prosperi showcases how fine-grained contextual analysis can enrich our understanding of historical individuals whose names are only discoverable due to their appearance in the court records. The value of Prosperi's...


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