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« Tuna 3 / 2018

Abolition of Shaming Punishments for ‘Fornication’ in Livland and Estland

Medieval canon law permitted sexual intercourse only in heterosexual marriages. Although the Reformation brought about a greater appreciation of marriage, pre-marital and extramarital sexual relations were more severely punishable. Both the Church and secular powers clearly lacked the administrative capacity to uncover and punish all extramarital sexual relations. Therefore, unmarried mothers received most of the punishment because pregnancy and birth as a rule could hardly remain unnoticed by the public. Extramarital pregnancy was generally qualified as ‘fornication’, devoid of Christian moral norms, and the fornicator was sentenced to a shaming punishment after giving birth.

‘Case’ trials of unmarried mothers became a routine process. In Estland, these cases were adjudicated at parish level ecclesiastical courts, whereas in Livland, such trials were held in every county court, where unmarried mothers were thoroughly interrogated. This article examines 95 cases in the Pärnu County Court from 1743 to 1745. The woman did not receive any punishment in only ten cases. In eight of these cases, the child was conceived in the expectation of marriage. Therefore, as a rule, a woman summoned by the court was convicted and punished. The standard penalty for ‘fornication’ was usually five pairs of switches (three blows with each pair) in a public place and as penitence, standing on a chair of shame in front of the congregation during Sunday service.

During the Enlightenment, an understanding spread in Europe that shaming punishments only encouraged unmarried mothers to hide their pregnancies and even to kill their new-born infants. From 1710 to 1783, county courts in Livland and Estland tried 490 cases of child homicides. This impelled secular powers to review the punishment of unmarried mothers, replacing or abolishing the forms of shaming punishment that had hitherto been in use. In 1734, Sweden replaced shaming punishment with pecuniary punishment. Livland and Estland followed suit in 1764, when Catherine II approved the senate’s order to abolish such punishments. Shaming punishments were replaced with fines ten times lower than previously. In cases where the convicted person was unable to pay the fine, a ‘private’ beating was ordered (hidden from the public).

Livland ceased to interrogate unmarried mothers in county courts. In 1785, the Baltic Provinces abolished punishment of unmarried mothers altogether. Court materials show that alleviating and abolishing punishments significantly reduced the number of child homicides in Livland and Estland, but they still continued well into the 19th century.