“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 links the whole with—inevitably—oversimplified theorizing about motive. The difference between killing babies for economic reasons in an infanticide-tolerant society and abusing children in an abortion-tolerant society is not fully brought out; but we cannot blame the author too much for this when most of what could be classed as infanticide falls somewhere between these two points. To make it even more difficult to be precise, infanticide has not usually—as far as can guess, but will never be sure—involved direct violence; before this century, to neglect a child was often enough to kill it.

Her aim in writing the book, Dr. Piers says, was to air the subject so that future infanticide should be prevented. But she stretches the term a long way from its literal meaning; even if we take Shorter’s and deMause’s statements to be exaggerated, actual infanticide is infinitely rarer now than in the past. When she talks about the present day Dr. Piers means cruelty and neglect rather than killing. Most damaged children today—fortunately or unfortunately according to one’s metaphysical assumptions—do not die but expensively live to perpetuate damage. The distinction between neglect, cruelty, and killing, like that between fetus, newborn, and child, is blurred. We must not, then, expect Dr. Piers’s book to be a model of system and thoroughness, but take it for what it is—a brave assault on an extraordinarily difficult subject.

Even her opening section giving examples of infanticide as it still exists shows how various her material is. Over the period of a year, in the sewers of one large American city, four newborn corpses are found. In a small and very poor South American country the infant undertaker does reliable business in tiny coffins; they are usually for the seventh or eighth child in the family, especially if it is a girl. Babies “left behind” in American hospitals still die in a marasmic condition instead of being adopted or fostered. In the Yemen, a girl is forced by her family to stab her newborn illegitimate child. A retarded sixteen-year-old in a black slum kills her baby, perhaps by mistake, and stuffs it into an incinerator.


In the three historical chapters that follow we are in the territory opened up by the historians of childhood, where the barbarities reported are so many and so widespread that they challenge us with the question of whether there really has been, within a fairly short time span, a radical change in what seems most basic to human nature, the mothering instinct. Dr. Piers first discusses the role of the wet nurse, indispensable to the survival of motherless or rejected babies before the arrival of safe bottle feeding, but often a threat to the survival of her own baby, or her charge’s, or both. “Every day we snatch children from the arms of their mothers,” says Montaigne,

and put our own in their charge for a very small payment. We force them to give theirs over to some wretched nurse, with whom we will not trust our own, or to a she-goat; forbidding the mothers, never mind at what risk to their children, either to give them suck or to do anything at all for them.

Like all Austrians of the older generation, Dr. Piers writes, she herself remembers girls from the provinces in bright peasant costumes who came to Vienna to nurse the children of the rich; wet-nursing and prostitution were the two reliable sources of work for poor women at that time. But what became of the girls’ own children? No doubt something like the fate of the family of Paul Dombey’s nurse:

“My good woman,” said Mr. Dombey, “I understand you are poor, and wish to earn money by nursing the little boy, my son, who has been prematurely deprived of what can never be replaced. I have no objection to your adding to the comforts of your family by that means. So far as I can tell, you seem to be a deserving object…. But if you nurse my bereaved child, I wish you to remember this always. You will receive a liberal stipend in return for the discharge of certain duties, in the performance of which I wish you to see as little of your family as possible.”

And with tears and kisses the wet nurse hands over her baby to her sister and her other children to her husband; for they are poor, very poor.

Dr. Piers concentrates in particular on the wholesale wet-nursing resorted to by the aristocratic and merchant classes throughout the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries in Italy. The nurses were not brought into the home; the babies were sent out to them at birth, and there they lived for at least a year or two—or, very often, died, for the nurse’s motivation for keeping them alive, when there were plenty more wanting her valuable milk, was not always strong. In Shorter’s The Making of the Modern Family he quotes, from nineteenth-century France where the arrangement was similarly popular, a tale of two village nurses: “‘Why are they tolling the bells?’ asks the one. ‘Oh, it’s nothing,’ replies the other, ‘just the knell of un Paris dead this morning.’ ” While the penalties for infanticide were everywhere severe, the wet nurse, Dr. Piers argues, was covertly “licensed” to kill; so the check on population, or the hostility which children evoke as well as love—or both purposes—were ritualized and made presentable. Thomas McKeown in The Modern Rise of Population has argued that the role of this and other forms of infanticide in checking population has been greatly underestimated.

In a chapter on eighteenth-century France Dr. Piers condenses, rather too briefly for clarity, a number of complex issues which affected attitudes to infants: the enormous increase both in population and poverty; the droit du seigneur, prostitution, and the bleak fate of discarded women and their babies; the increase, under economic pressure, in actual and implicit infanticide, and its punishment by death until the easing, during the period of the Enlightenment, in the severity of legal and social attitudes.

The third of her historical references, to child-rearing in the nineteenth century, is in some ways even more painful, for it concerns torturing sentient children rather than disposing of babies. While the eighteenth century showed a murderous indifference to the newborn, she argues, the age of high capitalism had an interest in the survival of children: of poor children as cheap machine-like labor, of well-to-do children as raw material for molding in the moral machine of pedagogy.


As an example of the first group she describes something of the life of the orphan Robert Blincoe as he presented it to a parliamentary inquiry into child labor around the middle of the century: leaving the St. Pancras poorhouse at seven years old to start work in a stocking mill, working a sixteen-hour day, semi-starved, beaten whenever his attention strayed from his work. And from the well-born group she selects the case of the Schreber father and son as it has been described in Morton Schatzman’s Soul Murder: Daniel Schreber’s psychotic sufferings in middle life, described in the famous Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, are traced back to his upbringing at the hands of his father, the distinguished medical authority on child-rearing and inventor of the Schrebersche Geradhalter and Kopfhalter, forms of strait jacket designed to mold the child’s body and soul. Schreber fils was well and truly molded and became very mad indeed; his brother committed suicide. Perhaps, as Philippe Ariès has suggested, increasing concentration over the centuries on the specialness of children, on their position as a burden of responsibility laid on the parents, can be more oppressive than the fatalistic indifference of earlier times.

How, we ask, could they do it?—the Italian mother send all her children away at birth, the wet nurse bury a couple of babies a year without too much distress, the Parisian slum-dweller “post” her babies into the open box at the hospice, the factory overseer whip overworked children black and blue, the Victorian parent terrorize with threats of damnation, the orphanage nurse see babies die en masse for lack of contact and stimulation? Dr. Piers suggests certain common threads linking all such cases and present-day child abuse as well, but perhaps in each case there is a different answer. Aggression has to be distinguished from neglect, and the taking of life from the causing of suffering. The mother who suffocates a newborn so that her other children’s food supply is not diminished, and the mill owner who has ragged children whipped because he sees them as scarcely human have it in common that they view the child as a thing, an expendable; but they have reached that position by entirely different routes.

Where true infanticide (usually of newborns) is concerned, rather than sustained cruelty, it can hardly be overestimated how different from ours was the attitude of past centuries to the young baby, with its fragile hold on life. Montaigne in his essay “On the Affection of Fathers for Their Children” accords great importance to parental love and recommends gentleness in the rearing of children, but mentions only in passing that “all” (how many?) his children but one died at nurse; he “cannot entertain that passion for caressing new-born infants, that have neither mental activities nor recognizable bodily shape by which to make themselves lovable…. A true and regular affection should spring up and increase with our growing knowledge of them.” James Boswell, an affectionate if erratic father, was no more than saddened when his first (legitimate) child died two hours after birth, and was rebuked for his feeling by his friend Temple:

You ought not, you cannot feel much for what you have lost. People of reflection love their children not so much from instinct as from a knowledge and esteem of their good and amiable qualities. Think then no more of your misfortune and trust that Providence will be more favourable to you upon another occasion.

These, of course, are the remarks of men, not mothers; but women themselves could not have endured losing several infants if they had taken each loss too deeply to heart. It has been argued that it was because of this detachment that babies died rather than vice versa, but this seems to be at best a chicken-and-egg argument. Even in families not brutalized by the economic and social pressures Dr. Piers describes, the death of a baby was a misfortune rather than a tragedy; and since a baptized child went straight to Heaven without having to suffer the tribulations of earthly life, regret was a foolish, selfish thing.

On the other hand, the implication that parents scarcely knew how to love and empathize with their children until modern times is surely a gross exaggeration. The poverty and disease that parted them must also have caused anguish. Shorter quotes a letter that was pinned to the dress of an abandoned child in the eighteenth century:

The times are so hard and so unfortunate and the misery so great that we’ve been forced despite ourselves to abandon our dear child of three years. We ask the good sisters of the hospital kindly to try to keep our poor girl apart by means of some mark and by the time of day of her abandonment, so that we shall have the joy of recognizing her and taking her back.

And a hundred years later Macready the actor recorded in his diary anguish at the death of his daughter:

Unable to do anything but think and fear…I had nowhere to go, no one to go to. All were around this blessed precious infant making despairing efforts. I threw myself on my bed and, wrapping the coverlid over my head, lay in a state of misery such as I have never felt before…. It was unutterable and hopeless agony.

The complexity of the situation, the core of ambivalence persisting throughout historical changes, might be summed up in the person of Rousseau, living at a mid-point between the casualness of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries and the moral pressures of the nineteenth: writing an enormously influential book on the ideal education of the cherished, liberated child—and consigning his own children to the foundling hospital. Even in our own child-centered age we have a blind spot for our new and less obvious barbarities—induced births, immediate separation of newborns from their mothers, time-tabled feeding, guilt-laden cleanliness training, isolation in hospital during illness, and other subtle but powerful ways of causing anxiety and loneliness.

As for those present-day environments that are still in no way childcentered, Dr. Piers does not suggest that, if the history of childhood is indeed “a nightmare,” we have by any means awoken from it yet. Her aim is to make it clear that cruelty to children persists, and to set it against its historical background; and if there is one thing she succeeds in doing it is clearing our minds of the cant that we all, all the time, love little children. Children are weak, and the weak get hurt; and where there is hurting there are always lies—hypocrisy, rationalizations, the claim that the victim is not really human, or is being hurt for his own good. The core of Dr. Piers’s argument is that

the careless neglect of the nation’s urban poor children is a contemporary version of the age-old practice of infanticide, of the industrialists’ treatment of the “throwaway” children of the nineteenth century…. What they have in common with their earlier counterparts is that they are conceived of as insignificant. They are expendable. And, as long as we are able to pin the blame for so many violent misfits on some scapegoat institution, be it the media or the schools, we do not need to feel guilty about nor responsible for the beatings children receive. Like the cinquecento burghers, like the French government in the eighteenth century, we can wash our hands of the chain reaction of violence.

This Issue

June 29, 1978