Synd och skam : ogifta mödrar på svensk landsbygd 1680-1880

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis (monograph)


The situation of unmarried mothers in Swedish rural society during 1680–1880 is the subject of this thesis. It focuses on the judicial and religious discourse concerning extra-marital sexuality. The state felt duty-bound to control extra-marital sexuality, and this resulted in a dynamic legislative arena. An important objective has been to study the local consequences of legislative changes and examine how men, women and children were affected by them. Court records from Torna hundred in southernmost Sweden have provided the main source material.

One can discern an older, orthodox perception of sexual morality in Swedish society during the Age of Greatness via legislation. The strict orthodox period was characterised by a manifest intolerance towards extra-marital sexual relationships. This, however, resulted in not only women but also men being held to account for their sexual conduct. As the majority of accused men in paternity cases were found guilty as charged, women could in most instances expect their economic support towards the child’s upbringing. In 54% of fornication cases there is an agreement to this effect noted in the court records.

Orthodox sexual legislation was essentially swept away by Gustav III’s penal law reform, the so-called Infanticide Bill of 1778. This contained a number of clauses which, collectively, were designed to lessen the risk of infanticide in connection with extramarital births. In actual fact the bill made it possible to disrupt all existing judicial criteria, even if the older legislation was not abolished. Through the Infanticide Bill unmarried mothers were allowed anonymity when giving birth, and attending midwives were forbidden to enquire as to the father’s name, something that was earlier, on the contrary, specifically demanded of them. The bill gave courts clear directives to change attitudes towards sexual crimes.

The later period’s milder view towards bastardy certainly liberated women from punitive sanctions meted out by the judiciary, but more were now faced by unwanted pregnancies and their consequences in the form of economic and social destitution. The testimony of women lost prestige at the same time that the court’s ambition to convict men lessened dramatically. Judging from this outcome, men were now less careful, realizing that they could escape both punishment and child-support obligations. There was a rapid development towards a situation where extra-marital children were fatherless, and women abandoned to the shameful situation of being single parents. It also seems likely that the new legal praxis gradually influenced popular attitudes towards sexuality.

One hypothesis forwarded is that sexual control in Sweden throughout the period could be maintained because it conformed to collective notions of a relationship between women’s sexuality and their honour. This theory could explain why opinions on women’s extra-marital sexual relations continued to be so condemnatory even when such acts were de-criminalized. Analysis of defamation cases in Torna hundred demonstrates that a woman’s honour was primarily attacked by means of sexual imputations. 54% of these insults contained sexual taunts and the pattern appears to be gender-specific.


  • Marie Lindstedt Cronberg
Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • History


  • religious misdemeanour, honour and shame, illegitimate children, court records, extra-marital sexuality, gender, Tidig modern historia (till ca. 1800), Contemporary history (circa 1800 to 1914), sexual offences, Sweden, Modern history (up to circa 1800), 1680-1880, Modern historia (ca. 1800-1914)
Translated title of the contributionSin and Shame: Unmarried Mothers of Rural Sweden 1680-1880
Original languageSwedish
Awarding Institution
Supervisors/Assistant supervisor
  • [unknown], [unknown], Supervisor, External person
Award date1997 May 31
  • Cronberg Publishers
Print ISBNs91-86470-06-X
Publication statusPublished - 1997
Publication categoryResearch

Bibliographic note

Defence details Date: 1997-05-31 Time: 10:15 Place: Department of History, Magle Stora Kyrkogata 12 A, Lund, Sal 3. External reviewer(s) Name: Sogner, Sølvi Title: Professor Affiliation: Oslo ---