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Most frequently it was mothers (or occasionally fathers) who were accused of infanticide during the seventeenth century. Indeed, midwives were most commonly called upon in court proceedings to physically examine women suspected of being the mothers of abandoned live or dead babies for signs of recent childbirth, and to offer their expert opinions in matters related to sexual impropriety and bastardy cases (illegitimacy). In particular they were required to obtain confessions of paternity from ‘troubled women’ during labour. In the course of their work, midwives had access to unbaptised babies and were well placed to assist women with disposing of unwanted pregnancies, hence a perceived need for ecclesiastical licensing of midwives, which had begun during the reign of Henry VIII and continued during the seventeenth century. In practice, however, many women who acted as midwives were unlicensed, and to date no licence has been found for Mary Compton. 

The investigation of her case is based upon extant primary and secondary sources, including legal records, parish records and accounts in the popular press. The overall findings are cautiously interpreted and an attempt made to contextualise the evidence in the light of some of the prevailing legislation and prevalent social values.  


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