Castigation and Abuse of Children in Early Modern Spain

Friday, January 4, 2013: 10:50 AM
Balcony J (New Orleans Marriott)
Edward J. Behrend-Martinez, Appalachian State University
In a legal plea for separation from her husband in 1741, María Josepha de Baños charged him with abusing herself and her two children, aged twenty months and six years. Neighbors, local clerics, and family members corroborated the child abuse allegations, allowing María Josepha to argue in court that her children would be safe only when removed from her husband’s control and placed under her custody and in her parents’ house. This paper focuses on domestic space, a place that is often hidden from historians. It aims to explain how early modern Spaniards defined and dealt with child abuse. This is an important and wide-ranging question, although answering it can be particularly difficult because “abuse” is a highly relative and contextual term. Whether an act of punishment was abusive or not was always a contested matter. Individuals, neighbors, parents, the Church, and secular authorities played a role in defining abuse and thus prescribing what constituted a safe environment for a child. Still, the abuse of children in early modern Spain obviously did occur, and not only as an artifact of our modern perspective, but also as contemporaries described and perceived it.

            This essay delves into evidence of child abuse from different types of court cases in municipal archives in Toledo, Madrid, Cuenca, and Calahorra as well as autobiographical literature. Marital separations based on domestic violence occasionally discussed child abuse. Murder cases of children often investigated abuse as a cause of death. Finally, early modern Spaniards periodically mentioned violence done to them as children as they reflected on their own upbringing. Understanding what constituted child abuse offers a fresh perspective about family life, legal jurisdictions, and cultural norms in early modern Spain.