In the 18th century, children born out of wedlock in Galicia were not a rarity. The territory had “the highest rate of illegitimacy in Spain by far,” says Professor of Modern History Ofelia Rey Castelao. And in this context, some processes appeared, in some areas, so that women -above all- single women and widows could make their pregnancy out of wedlock public and declare their pregnancy before a notary. They were called spontaneous or ‘spontaneous’. In this way, the authorities could control that they did not abort or abandon the baby, and in return they received a safe-conduct that avoided insults, ridicule or attacks from their neighbors and situations such as losing a job or having to leave the place where they were. installed.
Although the procedure was called ‘spontaneous’, it is not clear how spontaneous it was that they presented themselves before a local authority to admit that they had become pregnant and tell by whom and how it had happened. It was not mandatory and in most cases the women went voluntarily, but there is a group who was called to appear before the authorities when they found out that they were expecting a baby and were not married. The frequency with which it occurred caught the attention of a prosecutor of the Royal Court of Galicia, Vicente Vizcaíno Pérez, who wrote in 1787 that “the causes that are called spontaneous, unknown in other provinces, are too frequent in this Kingdom of Galicia. , but not in our Law”.
A pregnancy out of wedlock was not a crime and the explanation given by many of these women that they had had sexual relations because they had been promised marriage allowed them to save their honor, according to historian and archivist Ángel Arcay, who studied 555 records of ‘spontaneous ‘ of the regions of Ferrol and Pontedeume between the mid-eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries. His work, pending publication, has once again drawn attention to this practice which, although it did not occur in other areas of Spain, is known in other places, also with regulations derived from Roman law, such as France.
It is not the first time that those who work with documents of the time come across ‘spontaneous’ files. Ofelia Rey remembers that already at the end of the 70s she worked with some and they were acquaintances. Subsequently, the researcher Serrana Rial located hundreds of procedures and suggested that ‘spontaneity’ was not necessarily negative for women. “That automatically protected them. From that moment on, no one could make fun of them, mess with them, attack them; they were protected by justice. If someone insulted them on the street they could report them. And they did. There is no scale to say if this was good or bad,” says Rey.
Arcay mentions that, before finding “by chance, looking for something else” with the documents that he studied in the Notarial Archive of A Coruña, he knew the cases of thirty spontaneous women from the small rural municipality of San Xoán de Río, in Ourense. He speaks of these files in a I work another researcher, Miguel García-Fernández, who transcribes some of the stories. On this occasion the ‘spontaneous’ is done before the mayor and local officials. Although many of them speak of a “seduction with words of marriage”, some raise their sexual desire: Antonia González states that she is about seven months pregnant, that her “harmful” is called Santos and that she “subjected herself for a delight carnal”; Cecilia Diéguez explains it with “a carnal appetite.” In another case, that of Francisca Vázquez, from As Guístolas, the file states that the authorities suspect that she is pregnant because of her “grown belly”, but she denies it and offers another explanation: she ate octopus while she had her period and “she stopped him and still hasn’t returned to him to this day” and therefore has a bulging belly.
Marriage promises and mentions of “human frailty” are repeated in the records of the regions of Ferrol and Pontedeume analyzed by Ángel Arcay. The investigator has also come across other cases, some of them rapes, in which women say they were intimidated with weapons – in the case of a man dressed as a soldier – or that they were alone with the aggressor in a remote area. But he also cites the testimony of a neighbor of San Andrés de Teixido, María Lorena de Villadóniga, who gave lodging in her house to a man who was on a pilgrimage. “On that same night, he asked me for clumsy acts in which I complied, moved by human frailty, without asking him about his neighborhood, state and word of marriage,” the woman declares.
Questioned the idea of the “submissive woman”
Arcay points out that these are among the few documents from the time that he knows of in which women speak in the first person. They appear before the notary and give him information about their sexuality, which is content that is out of the ordinary in notarial records. She believes that these documents allow us to glimpse something of the female sexuality of the time that questions the image of “the submissive woman”.
Ofelia Rey alludes to preconceived ideas about the time: “The rate of illegitimacy was very high and, precisely for that reason, she was quite spoiled. It was not a special problem – that a woman became pregnant out of wedlock -“. He adds that society “didn’t have as much prejudice as there was later” and that there was even a “mentality” that, if a woman was over thirty and single, “the best thing” was for her to have a son to take care of her when she got older. . Social censorship grew later, with petty-bourgeois society in the second half of the 19th century, according to the expert, who adds that social condemnation was “something very urban.”
In the case of the ‘spontaneous’, he emphasizes that they do not even appear in all Galician territories. Nor, he says, is there a law that mentions them, although a jurist of the time, Bernardo Herbella de Puga, “speaks of the right of the spontaneous, not of the duty.” “In many things there are no regulations, but pure custom, which sometimes has almost the rank of law,” he explains. Rey indicates that Santiago, for example, was not done. And from 1800 the cases began to disappear in areas such as Ferrol because “there were so many that it was not possible to control it”.
The professor, professor at the University of Santiago de Compostela, adds other notes to dismantle prejudices about the time. There were ‘spontaneous’ repeat offenders, who returned to declare a pregnancy or more in the following years, despite the fact that the process assumed that they promised to behave in a ‘chaste’ manner. There were also cases of “de facto couples”, who lived together without getting married, as can be deduced from the parish registers in which they appear as parents of several children over time. In the Ferrol area, the presence of soldiers had an influence: permission to marry had a long process and many did not formalize their relationship with a woman before the Church.
When ‘spontaneous’, the women were subject to control: the authorities knew that a baby was to be born and approximately when, and they watched to avoid abortions, infanticides -something that hardly happened in Galicia, according to Ofelia Rey- or abandonment in the inclusa. In that of Santiago, at the end of the 18th century, about 1,000 children entered each year. And inside, mortality was high, more than outside, at a time when about half of babies did not reach adulthood.
In addition, in the process the authority appointed a person who was to watch over the woman and required a guarantor, who could be a close friend or another person and who was liable with his or her assets and patrimony from the upbringing of the baby. Some conditions were imposed on pregnant women, in general leading a demure life from then on and not committing similar offenses again, although the cases of ‘spontaneous’ repeat offenders show that the message was not always accepted.
Ángel Arcay’s study concludes that most of the spontaneous women were young people without training -only eight of the 555 know how to sign, from which it can be deduced that the rest were illiterate-. The average age in these files is 25 years and they make the pregnancy public, on average, in the fourth month, when the belly begins to be evident. Most are single, but there are also widows and celibate women, who had dedicated themselves to religion but become pregnant and have to leave that area. Some of them later appear married in other records, but in general they ended up forming single-parent families.
As for the men they identified, most were also single. There are cases in which the name is not revealed, possibly because they are married. Some of the women hide behind the fact that the man with whom they had sexual relations occupies a “privileged” position so as not to say who he is. There were also, Arcay recalls, many children of priests. Although women’s occupations are not always listed, among those that do include maids, seamstresses and women who worked around the houses. They appear, says the researcher, “expected” episodes such as those of those who become pregnant with the “master or the master’s child”.