Can historical infanticide investigations help us understand embodied experiences of the past?

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Title

Australian Feminist Studies


Taylor & Francis


School of Arts and Humanities




Gardiner, A. (2021). Can historical infanticide investigations help us understand embodied experiences of the past?. Australian Feminist Studies, 36(109), 352-376.


This article explores the usefulness of historian Barbara Duden’s ‘somatic epochs’ for re-examining nineteenth century cases of infanticide, neonaticide and concealment of birth. By re-reading legal documentation in light of Duden’s contention that embodied experience is not fixed through time but figured according to the gendered, social and synesthetic contexts of different epochs, I seek to add complexity to legal and medical discussions of infanticide in this era by exploring the felt bodies of both the women accused of these practices and their communities. Taking three child murder investigations conducted in Western Australia, I use rare reports of mother’s felt bodily experiences around concealed pregnancy to argue that a mind/body dichotomy was not yet in evidence. Instead, there are indications that these women and their communities still thought of bodies as a system of Galenic humoral temperaments, and this has implications for the denial behaviours that manifested around infanticide practices. Claims by women that they were not pregnant but rather had other medical complaints and the hesitation of community members to accuse mothers despite a suspected pregnancy are bathed in fresh light. These nuanced additions to understanding the felt body have useful implications for other corporeal explorations of the past.



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