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Book Title: The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance|
The author of the book: John Boswell
Date of issue: January 20th 1989
ISBN 13: 9780394570051
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 653 KB
Edition: Random House Trade
Read full description of the books The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance:Western societies today recoil in horror, mostly, at the idea of abandoning a child. The exception is safe haven laws: the U.S. has decriminalized baby abandonment (or “relinquishment,” as the safe haven people prefer to call it) in all 50 states and the District of Columbia; you can leave a newborn at a hospital, and in many states other places such as fire stations or police stations, and in Vermont and New Hampshire, churches. In some states the infant can’t be more than 3 days old; in other states, 10 days, 14 days, 30 days, 60 days. In North Dakota, you can abandon a baby up to one year old. Nebraska, oddly, wrote its law to allow abandonment up to 18 years old, then was surprised when suddenly a rash of parents took advantage of it. Over the first four months of the law, 35 children who were not babies were dropped off at Nebraska safe-haven facilities. (Some children even came from out of state.) One man whose wife had just died dropped off nine of his ten children, ages 1 to 17. The law was quickly changed to a 30 day limit. No one keeps accurate statistics, but it’s thought that between 1,500 and 3,000 infants have been “relinquished” since the first safe haven law in 1999.
Late antiquity and the Middle Ages were different times. John Boswell suggests that 20-40% of urban children were abandoned during the first three centuries of the Christian era in Rome, for a wide variety of reasons and in a variety of ways. Abandonment was so commonplace that several church fathers argued against men going to brothels and prostitutes because of the risk that they might end up having sex with their own biological sons or daughters. Although he uses the terms “abandoned” and “exposed” interchangeably in many situations, most parents did not intend for the exposed child to die. Many or most were abandoned in public places in cities, where they would be found quickly: civic buildings, the columns in the Forum, beside well-traveled roads, suspended in trees to keep them from wild animals. Even children left on dung heaps would be found, since they were frequented by human scavengers. As Europe entered the Middle Ages, they were also abandoned at parish churches.
Boswell finds no evidence that girls or children of the poor were more likely to be abandoned (in the contemporary fictional literature, more boys than girls are abandoned), although during these eras many adults could barely (or not even) eke out a subsistence living for themselves, so feeding and caring for offspring was impossible.
Abandonment included the selling of children. Selling was legal in many places and times because it was understood that the alternative was probably death. Children could also be pawned, or left with a creditor until the debt was repaid. Abandoned children in antiquity might end up free, or slave. Sometimes the parent would leave a token with the child which might accompany them through life so they could be reclaimed later: a piece of jewelry, a specific cloth such as silk, or the fabric they were swaddled in might serve to identify them later. Tokens were also intended as an incentive to treat the child well. Parents wishing to reclaim a child would often have to reimburse the foster family for the years of raising and upkeep.
The wealthy abandoned children to decrease the number of heirs and thereby provide larger inheritances to a smaller number of offspring. Or, if a wealthy woman was unable to produce an heir or her children died, a “substitution” might occur: she would feign a pregnancy and an abandoned infant would be obtained.
Oblation, Boswell suggests, was a special case of abandonment. Literally, parents could make an “offering” (oblatio) of a child to the Church – a monastery or convent. For wealthy parents, it also meant donating for the upkeep of the child, a far smaller expense than whatever portion of an inheritance might be due it. Hildegard of Bingen, the tenth child of a noble family, was given to a convent at age eight as a tithe. St. Thomas Aquinas was given to the Monte Cassino abbey at age six. Sometimes oblation was outright donation, other times it was more akin to foster care. Throughout the Middle Ages, ecclesiastical authorities became concerned that it served as a dumping ground for deformed or unintelligent children; also, as it became a financial drain for some institutions, rules limiting oblations to children of nobility were put in place. When times were flush economically, outright abandonment decreased, and most abandonment came in the form of oblation by the upper classes.
What a modern reader will notice in Boswell’s book is not so much the contemporary attitudes toward abandonment, but a focus on what seem to be tangential issues: the Church was more concerned with whether an abandoned or exposed infant had been baptized, and a jurist might be more concerned with a woman passing off someone else’s child as her own. Certainly this suggests that people were not so much riled up about abandonment itself. While there was not uniformity across Europe during this long time period, it was usually either legal, not illegal, or there were no penalties for child abandonment or exposure. Romans during antiquity were not required to keep any children born to them. Norway's was probably the first European legal code to prohibit abandoning children, although only healthy children. Severely deformed children could be exposed to death as long as they had been baptized first. The seriousness of abandoning healthy children can be measured by comparing the fine St. Olaf imposed for it with that for eating horseflesh and eating meat on Fridays: they would each cost you three marks.
By the 14th century (earlier in some instances), many large Italian, French, and German cities had foundling hospitals, and as the number and awareness of them increased, fewer children were exposed. The Innocenti foundling hospital in Florence opened in 1445 to take the overflow of the city’s other two orphanages; within fifty years, it was accepting nine hundred children annually. The death rates at these institutions, primarily caused by communicable diseases but also to some degree neglect, are shocking: at the La Scala hospital in Florence in the 15th century, only 13% of the foundlings reached age six. In the 18th century in Paris, 77% of children in foundling hospitals died before age twelve (as compared to 28% of Parisian children reared at home).
The book is a bit of a slog since half of it is footnotes, but it remained interesting throughout. Boswell was a painstaking historian, meticulous about what he accepted as truthful from sources and what he doubted. You can learn a lot about historiography from reading him, including how to interpret literary sources (as opposed to purely historical sources) and how much weight to give them.
Read information about the authorJohn Eastburn Boswell was a prominent historian and a professor at Yale University. Many of Boswell's studies focused on the issue of homosexuality and religion, specifically homosexuality and Christianity. (from wikipedia)
Librarian note: There is more than one author by this name in the database. See authors with similar names.
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