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Reviewed by:
  • Weep Not for Me: Women, Ballads, and Infanticide in Early Modern Scotland
  • Leah Leneman
Weep Not for Me: Women, Ballads, and Infanticide in Early Modern Scotland. By Deborah A. Symonds (University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997. xxi plus 289pp. $44.00/cloth $18.95/paperback).

The title and subtitle suggest an antiquarian work, which this is not. The book belongs among the new generation of gender-focused studies shedding light on significant aspects of social history by asking fresh questions of primary source material. A number of such works have been produced in recent years for America and for England, but this one is unique in being about Scotland.

It is the use of the term ‘early modern’, particularly in conjunction with ballads and infanticide, that gives the title such an antiquarian feel, and in fact the starting point of the book is the Act Anent Child Murder of 1690 and it closes in 1817, so that ‘eighteenth-century’ would have been more accurate than ‘early modern’. At the beginning of the period the draconian statute stated that any woman who concealed her pregnancy and the birth of her child would be presumed to have murdered that child if it was dead, or could not be found; and women were hanged for this crime. At the end of the period Sir Walter Scott rewrote the story of a genuine case of infanticide to make the woman innocent, and judges simply refused to believe that any mother could knowingly kill her child, no matter how strong the evidence. It is this shift in attitudes that forms the core theme of the book, set in the context of a period of fundamental change and dislocation during the so-called industrial and agricultural revolutions.

Infanticide had always existed but the statute, as Symonds points out, made it visible. It also generated the records at the core of her study: cases heard by the High Court of Justiciary. So, where do the ballads fit in? Their importance, in the author’s eyes, is that one ballad in particular— Mary Hamilton —sustained the reality that some women really did kill their infants after the male establishment view had somersaulted to deny the possibility of such an outcome. The idea of approaching the subject from such very disparate angles fits in with the fresh ways of looking at history generated by gender-focused research, and if at the end the two sources do not really combine to create a whole they certainly provide plenty to think about along the way.

The first two chapters are about ballad singers, ballad collectors, and the ballad heroine. Expectations that one will encounter a variety of ballads about infanticide are not met ( Mary Hamilton, it transpires, is not an infanticide ballad but the infanticide ballad). But the background on ballads and ballad singers, so long the province of antiquarians, is lively and thought-provoking, as, for example, in the following: “When collectors came looking for ballads in the late eighteenth century, they found more women than men singing. This puzzling fact was to some degree resolved by nineteenth-century folklorists’ concept of a genderless, disembodied voice of the Folk, which allowed them to ignore the implications of women’s active role in the transmission and composition of ballads.”

The next five chapters are based on High Court of Justiciary records and are fascinating. The fundamental change in attitude which forms the main theme of the book is traced from the last decade of the seventeenth century and first two decades of the eighteenth, when most of the women who were hanged went [End Page 245] to the gallows, into the 1740s when increasingly women indicted for infanticide were banished without facing trial, until, finally, in 1809 the statute was revoked, and the crime was described as concealment of pregnancy with a punishment of no more than two years in jail. The accounts of some key trials, with the witnesses’ evidence, including their jumbled memories of what they had seen, are gripping, not only as legal history (though one hopes that legal history journals have been sent the book for review) but as glimpses into specific moments...

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