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Los Olvidados

The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance

by John Boswell
Pantheon, 488 pp., $24.95

One of the most popular tourist attractions of eighteenth-century Venice was the all-girl orchestra and choir of the Ospedale della Pietà, for which Antonio Vivaldi, appointed director in 1714, wrote music in such prodigious quantity that much of it lies still unpublished in the National Library in Torino. The girls were foundlings. Abandoned by their families, brought up in the charitable institutions of the Catholic Church and trained as musicians, they were eventually married off with a dowry provided by the Serenissima, or assigned to a convent. The large audiences at the concerts saw the girls only from a distance, through convent gratings, but Jean-Jacques Rousseau, secretary to the French ambassador in Venice in 1743, managed to get a closer view. A friend who was one of the governors of the Ospedale invited him to a meal with the musicians. Jean-Jacques went there full of anticipation, feeling an “amorous trembling” but was cruelly disappointed when he saw the “angels of beauty” close up. “Sophie was hideous…. Cattina…had only one eye…. Bettina…was disfigured by smallpox. Scarcely one of them was without some notable defect.”1 It was all too clear why their parents had abandoned such unmarriageable girls to the care of the Church.

Jean-Jacques was not unacquainted with the phenomenon of abandoned children. During his tour of duty in Venice he joined with his friend from the Spanish embassy, Carrio, in the purchase of a “little girl of eleven or twelve” to be raised as their shared mistress. Carrio, he tells us, was tired of “going to women who belonged to others and took it into his head to have one of his own.” Jean-Jacques himself had to leave Venice before the girl was, to use his word, “mature,” and in any case his feelings toward her had by that time become paternal. What happened to her after his departure we do not know, though he thought he detected similar feelings in Carrio.2

By the time he came to write his Confessions (1765–1770) he had himself made a considerable contribution to the foundling population of the period. “My third child,” he tells us,

was thus deposited in a foundling home just like the first two, and I did the same with the two following: I had five in all. This arrangement seemed to me so good, so sensible, so appropriate, that if I did not boast of it publicly it was solely out of regard for their mother…. In a word, I made no secret of my action…because in fact I saw no wrong in it. All things considered, I chose what was best for my children, or what I thought was best.3

This extraordinary statement is the epigraph for the introductory chapter of John Boswell’s account of the abandonment of children over a long stretch of Western history—from the classical age, through the Middle Ages, to the eighteenth century.

Until well into the nineteenth century of our era, most of the population of Europe lived at the sheer edge of the subsistence level. Family limitation was a grim necessity for the poor, but it was an imperative also for the upper and middle classes if they were to avoid a ruinous division of property among their children. Contraceptive methods were crude and unreliable; married couples who wished to limit the number of their children often had recourse to non-reproductive forms of intercourse. Herodotus tells the story of the Athenian tyrant Pisistratus, who married the daughter of a powerful political opponent as a condition of his support, but since for dynastic reasons he did not want to have children by her he “cohabited with her in an unnatural way.” He got away with it until the bride innocently, or, as Herodotus slyly suggests, under questioning by her mother, revealed the truth, whereupon the political alliance came to an abrupt end and Pisistratus was forced to go into exile.4 Almost a thousand years later St. Augustine roundly condemned “embraces in which conception is avoided”; the practice was evidently widespread.

Abortion, of course, whether tolerated by society or frowned on, legal or illegal, has always been an option open to the unwed mother, the rape victim, or the overburdened family. It may well have been, over the centuries, as common a recourse as abandonment, but it is only for recent years that statistics are available, and those who resorted to it or made it their profession in the times when it was illegal have naturally left us no evidence. In ancient Greece, it is widely believed, doctors were specifically forbidden by the famous Hippocratic oath to perform it. But we know neither the date nor the provenance of this text and have no reason to think it was generally administered. In fact it contains one provision—an undertaking not to perform surgery in cases of the kidney stone—which was certainly not binding on most Greek physicians, who regularly used the knife. One medical writer, the author of the Hippocratic treatise The Nature of the Child, gives a detailed description of a six-day-old embryo and explains how he came to see it. A kinswoman of his owned a slave girl, a valuable danseuse who was employed as a prostitute, and who would have lost her value if she became pregnant. She was worried because, after intercourse with a customer, “the seed had not come out of the womb.” The doctor advised her “to jump up and down, touching her buttocks with her heels at each leap.” After she had done this seven times, the embryo fell out. It seems unlikely that the doctor had sworn the Hippocratic oath.5

In the Roman Empire official disapproval of abortion (for example, under the Augustan program of laws designed to promote larger families among the governing class) and, later, legislation with harsh penalties (under the Severan emperors) seem to have had little effect; Juvenal, in his long invective against women, mentions abortion casually and without comment—some women, he says, prefer a eunuch as their sexual partner (“no need for an abortion”) and Ovid, with the Augustan moral program in full career, includes in his racy Amores (“warning to Puritans: This volume is not for you6 ) a prayer for his mistress Corinna, who has tried an abortion and is lying between life and death. The triumph of Christianity put an end to permissiveness on this front, but Tertullian’s denunciation of the practice in the early years of the third century bears witness to the fact that it was still widespread in pagan society before the Church established its full ecumenical authority, and abortion was driven underground until its legalization in the civilized countries of the twentieth century.

But from antiquity through the Middle Ages and on to the eighteenth century the safest and most favored method of family limitation was abandonment. In pre-Christian ages this took the form of exposure: the child was left in a public place in the hope that someone would take it up to raise it as a foster child, a servant, or a slave. Or the child, especially if it was a girl, might be sold, usually to be raised as a prostitute. In later ages the child would be consigned to the care of the Church, by exposure at the church doors or by delivery to religious institutions for foundlings. Sales of children, however, went on in the Christian Middle Ages (Boswell quotes thirteenth-century German and Spanish legal documents that attempt to regulate the process) and, as is clear from the case of Rousseau and his friend Carrio, they were not uncommon in eighteenth-century Italy.

In his highly original, learned, and skillfully written book Boswell charts the course of this phenomenon from ancient to modern times. He is a medievalist, author of a prize-winning and revolutionary study, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, and in this new book he again presents a bold and controversial thesis. It is supported by his mastery of an astonishing range of recondite sources in languages that include Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, and Old Norse as well as modern and medieval French, German, Spanish, and Italian. The footnotes, in fact, which constitute a good third of the book, are a mine of fascinating and surprising information about every aspect of the history of family limitation in ancient, medieval, and Renaissance Europe.

Abandonment, Boswell claims, has not been given its due attention by ancient historians, who often identify it with infanticide. In the regimented society of archaic and classical Sparta, where children judged unlikely to grow up fit for arduous military service were abandoned in a mountain ravine, this was in fact the case. But abandonment of children in a city, especially when the child was left in a much-frequented public place, was more likely to result in its appropriation by others, to be reared as a foster child (the original meaning of the word alumnus), as a household slave or for later sale as an industrial slave (in the mines, for example), or as a prostitute. Greece and Rome, Boswell reminds us, were slave societies “in which the major source of energy was human labor.” Abandoned children could be a valuable investment.

Evidence for the practice is relatively spotty for ancient Greece and early Rome but swells to an impressive volume for the centuries of Roman imperial rule. From such diverse materials as the hypothetical (and melodramatic) law cases of the elder Seneca, the correspondence between the younger Pliny, governor of Bithynia, and the emperor Trajan on the “problem of persons born free and abandoned, then picked up by someone and brought up in slavery” (a problem, Trajan says, which “has often been discussed”), from the writings of the Roman jurists and the edicts of Constantine, from Roman mythology, Greek novels, Roman comedy and satire, Boswell makes a convincing case for the abandonment of children as a practice accepted by law, though decried by moral philosophers—a practice affecting “every type of extant record, from inscriptions to novels, from laws to plays, from moral advice to imperial chronicles.”

The triumph of Christianity made surprisingly little difference; Christians abandoned children just as their pagan predecessors had done. The early Fathers of the Church, Tertullian, for example, roundly denounced those who abandoned children “to the kindness of strangers,” but later authorities, such as St. Basil of Caesarea in the East and St. Ambrose of Milan in the West, recognized that though the rich exposed children for selfish reasons, to avoid division of the family property when they died, the poor had no alternative. Ambrose, in Boswell’s words, “exemplified, if he did not effect, the transition…from early disapproval of abandonment to the resignation that would characterize Christian writings for the next millenium.” Children were now left at church doors, but since most Christian churches were converted Roman public buildings (a basilica was a columned hall used for official proceedings or commercial exchange before it became a place of Christian worship) little had changed except that attempts to regulate the process took the form of ecclesiastical canons instead of imperial decrees.

  1. 1

    Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Confessions, translated by J.M. Cohen (Penguin, 1953), pp. 295–296.

  2. 2

    Rousseau, The Confessions, pp. 302–308.

  3. 3

    To do him justice, Rousseau later regretted his action; he even tried, unsuccessfully, to trace one of his sons.

  4. 4

    Book I, chapter 61.

  5. 5

    G.E.R. Lloyd, ed., Hippocratic Writings (Penguin, 1982), pp. 325–326.

  6. 6

    Ovid, The Erotic Poems, translated by Peter Green (Penguin, 1982), p. 111.

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