“Good mothering,” a historian of childhood has roundly declared, “is an invention of modernization”; and “the history of childhood is a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awaken,” writes another.* The school of historians who are turning their attention away from public affairs to family relationships is, for the most part, bringing us a depressing story, and it is still an open question whether we can take such sweeping statements as the last word. In the meantime, if we had supposed that our present-day increase in mental illness and loneliness was somehow linked with the indifference of a mechanized society toward the un-mechanized—toward the mother-and-baby, for instance, who are not allowed a quiet comfortable place for birth and lactation—we have been forced to think again, and wonder if we idealized the customs of simpler societies. For from their study of religious tracts and parish records, child-care manuals and legal decisions, from memoirs, correspondence, and a host of other sources, the historians of childhood have put together a sorry picture of child labor, punishment, indifference, and intolerance, of children persistently treated as things rather than persons.
Of all the horror stories unearthed by the new researches, the perpetration of infanticide, directly or covertly, is the one that most shocks our sensibilities today. (Reading Updike’s novel Rabbit Run, for instance, we take the sexual detail lightly but are horribly jolted by the fuddled, half-accidental drowning of a baby; perhaps in another century the reactions might have been reversed.) We find it hard even to believe that in the ancient world the exposure of weakly or unwanted babies was accepted, that in the eighteenth century healthy children were abandoned in enormous numbers to public institutions where they were almost certain to die, and that in many periods, even as late as the nineteenth century, certain social classes handed their legitimate infants over wholesale to wet nurses popularly known as “angel makers.”
Our shock is partly conditioned by the fact that, although at least one in six fetuses in our time is estimated to die through surgical abortion, we make an absolute rather than a relative distinction between the creature three months from conception and nine months from conception: apparent indifference to abortion, horrified disbelief in infanticide, are linked by the same kind of denial. That previous ages probably did not make the distinction so absolute is one of the factors that make it easier to understand the material assembled by Maria W. Piers in Infanticide. Other important factors are economic, religious (the assumptions about the value and destination of an infant soul), and medical: until recently a young baby’s life was a provisional thing, almost as likely to flicker out as not.
Dr. Piers’s examination of her tabooed and still mysterious subject is not a systematic one: she jumps from historical data, to infanticide as it still occurs in backward cultures, to its rare occurrence in modern urban settings, to the general question of cruelty to children, and…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.