The history of illegitimacy has evolved since the 1970’s from pessimistic assessments
that perceived single motherhood as a form of deviance among impoverished
and mobile sections of the population, to recent optimistic assessments that stress
the agency of single mothers, their relative local belonging and the leniency of local
governments towards them. Based on a case study on illegitimacy in the eighteenthcentury
Dutch city of Leiden, this article argues that veracity is to be found in both
readings of the fates of single mothers. A comparative analysis of single mothers
who took legal recourse in paternity matters and those who did not, shows how only
a limited part of single mothers exercised legal agency. The litigating mothers shared
certain characteristics: they often came from families who were beneficiaries of poor
relief, they baptized their children in the Dutch reformed churches and more often
than not their own father was still alive. The article hypothesizes that the consistory
and overseers of the poor actively encouraged legal action. The case study evidences
that the barriers for single mothers to use these judicial means were considerable.
These obstacles were not financial in nature, but rather related to the women’s
social and cultural distance from the elites who staffed the local law courts.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)51-73
JournalJournal of Social History
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2016

    Research areas

  • Social History, Early Modern, Low Countries, Legal History

ID: 20643866