Death and a Maiden: Infanticide and the Tragical History of Grethe Schmidt

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Early Modern Women Journal

New Releases. Description On the feast of St. Michael, September , a thirteen-year-old peasant girl left her familyAEs rural home to work as a maid in the nearby city of Braunschweig. Just two years later, Grethe Schmidt found herself imprisoned and accused of murdering her bastard child, even though the fact of her pregnancy was inconclusive and no infantAEs body was found to justify the severe measures used against her.

The tale spiraled outward to set a defense lawyer and legal theorist against powerful city magistrates and then upward to a legal contest between that city and its overlord, the Duchy of Brunswick, with the cityAEs independence and ancient liberties hanging in the balance.

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After thousands of pages of testimony and rancorous legal exchange, it is still not clear that any murder happened. He presents an in-depth examination of a criminal system in which torture was both legal and an important part of criminal investigations. This story serves as a captivating slice of European history as well as a highly informative look at the condition of poor women and the legal system in midth century Germany. General readers and scholars alike will be riveted by GretheAEs ordeal. Product details Format Hardback pages Dimensions x x In Brunswick, Near Hannover City 2.

Anatomy of a Crime 3. A Girl, Purportedly a Maiden 4. Family Values 5.

Common Repute: Women and Neighbors 6. Corpus Delicti 7. ISBN Who does not like a murder mystery, especially an intricate one with unusual plot twists? The history of Margarethe Schmidt possesses all the elements of a good story: a fourteen-year-old girl accused of murder, dedicated criminal investigators, an unyielding prosecution, a community seeking justice, a slew of quirky and possibly hostile witnesses, a worried family, and a good defense lawyer.

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What it is missing is the body of the victim: a newborn infant. But the real twist in the story is the uncertainty of some witnesses—and the author—that any crime had occurred in the first place. At least according to the midwives, the accused, Grethe, could never have been pregnant in the first place. This ambiguity provides William David Myers with an opportunity to dig deeply into the social life, class structures, medical knowledge, and legal systems of Braunschweig. Perhaps for this reason, rumors about her came to the attention of Braunschweig authorities, although how is never entirely clear; moreover, they were accepted as true.

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But it was less typical that no body could be produced and that her family not only declared her innocence but also demanded her right to a defense, especially before they applied torture. This request did not stop the city from questioning Grethe or attempting to find the body—even when evidence pointed to the possibility that she may never have been pregnant.

Myers provides only brief commentary to the details he drew from the archives, allowing the reader to follow the twists and turns of the investigation as it progressed.

The case specific chapters are interspersed with analytical chapters focusing on thematic analysis of some of the major issues that emerge in the case, from a discussion of the seventeenth-century medical understanding of pregnancy to a discussion of the use of torture. The book considers two broad subjects, roughly embodied by the trials of the main actors: Grethe Schmidt and Justus Oldekop, her defense advocate.

October 12, 2010

The first theme focuses on the subject of early modern infanticide, since this ultimately is the crime leveled against Grethe. As Myers points out in his introduction, infanticide was the most common capital crime for women during the early modern period. Myers begins by exploring the extensive case files collected while questioning witnesses; [End Page ] interrogating Grethe and her family; soliciting opinions from legal faculties at the universities of Helmstedt, Jena, and Rinteln; and filing appeals on her behalf.

In doing so, Myers is able to explore the ideas of recent scholars about the early modern understanding of pregnancy, domestic service, and a variety of related concerns.