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which Antonio Vivaldi, appointed director in 1714, wrote music in such prodigious quantity that much of it lies still unpublished in the National Library in Torino.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.

Yet the spirit behind the regulation had changed:

Christians saw themselves as God’s alumni, and, directly or by implication, Christian literature was filled with positive and idealized images of adoption and of transference from natal families to happier and more loving adopted kin groups, including such influential metaphors as the “adoption” of the Gentiles, adoption into a monastic “family,” or baptism itself, the foundation of Christian experience.

In a controversial chapter Boswell claims as part of his province a medieval institution that has been much discussed in terms other than his, especially in its religious implications. This is the procedure known as oblation. The Latin word oblatio means “offering”; oblation was the gift of a child to a monastery to be a lifelong servant of God. Boswell is, he admits, the first modern author to consider oblation as a form of abandonment, but his argument is impressive. The Rule of St. Benedict, dating from the first half of the sixth century, contains instructions for the donation of a child “to God in the monastery” and though it does not specify that the child, once grown, could not leave the monastic life, such a prohibition was firmly fixed in ecclesiastical canons by the early years of the seventh century.

There were of course cases of oblates who on reaching manhood tried to return to secular life. Gottschalk of Orbais, in the ninth century, asked permission to leave the monastery of Fulda, to which he had been offered as a child. It was refused by his abbot, the celebrated churchman Rabanus Maurus (himself an oblate); Gottschalk appealed to higher authority and the Council of Mainz freed him in 829 AD. Rabanus appealed to the Carolingian emperor, who ruled against Gottschalk. Back in the monastery, he wrote theological treatises, but Rabanus condemned them as heretical; he was finally imprisoned in the monastery of Hautvilliers, where he died, insane, twenty years later. His case, however, was unusual; Boswell’s verdict on the institution of oblation is positive. Employed as a means of family limitation it “placed a major form of abandonment not merely under public scrutiny, but under the control of the most admired, conscientious, orderly and public-spirited institution of the Middle Ages, an entity…more likely than almost any other social body to discharge its responsibilities in good faith.”

The eleventh and twelfth centuries were a period of economic expansion and population explosion in Europe. By the year 1000 the population had surpassed the level achieved under the Roman Empire; in the next two centuries the figures more than doubled. During these two centuries of comparative prosperity abandonment declined to a low point. Yet these were the centuries that saw, to quote Boswell’s title for his chapter dealing with the phenomenon, “Oblation at Its Zenith.” Those responsible seem to have been not the poor but the well-to-do, who wished to avoid partition of the family estate and for whom “oblation may have become…a convenient way of divesting the family of supernumerary or awkward children.”

Boswell marshals figures that, inadequate though they may be as statistics, “strongly suggest that oblation accounted for a high proportion of monks from the tenth through the end of the eleventh century and only began to decline in the twelfth.” And there are constant complaints in monastic literature about the quality of the oblates. Ulrich of Cluny, for example, in the second half of the eleventh century, laments that “this holy institution has been corrupted by the greed of parents, who, for the benefit of the [rest of the] family, commit to monasteries any hump-backed, deformed, dull or unpromising children they have.”

Meanwhile pressure increased for release from monastic life for those children who found it unbearable and who had been committed to it long before they reached the “age of reason” (around fourteen for males and twelve for females, according to Aquinas). A series of ecclesiastical rulings made a repetition of the sad fate of Gottschalk of Orbais unlikely if not impossible. Partly as a result of these rulings, perhaps (the monasteries were increasingly reluctant to accept oblates under such conditions), oblation declined between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries—declined, that is, for males. As a method of disposing of unwanted daughters it “remained an important demographic factor in prosperous houses throughout the Middle Ages.”

In the thirteenth century economic development, for reasons that are not fully understood, slowed, and with it the population expansion; after the Black Death of the mid-fourteenth century the population of Europe fell to a low from which it would not recover for centuries. And it is in the thirteenth century, to judge from the wealth of documentary evidence submitted by Boswell, that abandonment of children, by the old method of leaving them at the church doors, resumed on a large scale. “Parents at the close of the thirteenth century,” Boswell concludes, “were, in the end, probably in much the same situation as parents during the previous thirteen hundred years.”

But in the course of the next two centuries a new solution to the problem posed by unwanted children had been developed in many large French, German, and Italian cities: the foundation of institutions specifically designed for the reception and care of abandoned children. In Florence the foundling hospital of Santa Maria da San Gallo opened its doors at the end of the thirteenth century; Santa Maria della Scala was opened in 1316; and the best known of them all, Santa Maria degl’Innocenti, its portico on the Piazza della Santissima Annunziata designed by Brunelleschi, began receiving foundlings in 1445. Within fifty years it was accepting nine hundred children a year. And all over Europe similar institutions were soon offering a more convenient, and, for the parents, more reassuring way to dispose of children they could not support than the age-old practice of exposure to the kindness of strangers.

Unfortunately the concentration of newborn children in foundling homes, in an age that knew little of hygiene or of scientific medicine, resulted in an appalling death rate, mostly due, in all probability, to communicable disease. At San Gallo, for example, in the late fourteenth century, 20 percent of the arrivals died within a month, another 30 percent within a year; only 32 percent reached the age of five. The outside world was unaware of these grim statistics; the problem of unwanted children had been removed from the streets and the view of ordinary citizens; society could, and did, forget them. “Society’s efforts to minimize the possibly tragic consequences of anonymous abandonment produced, with bitter irony, a system that guaranteed the deaths of a majority of exposed children by magnifying their communal vulnerability to ordinary disease.”

The main problem faced by the author of this magisterial survey is of course that of his sources. One particularly admirable feature of his book is the careful discrimination he displays as he elicits support for his thesis from a polyglot accumulation of disparate, often ambiguous, and sometimes enigmatic material. For an investigation of family limitation in the modern world the historian turns at once to official records and statistics, but for antiquity no such information is available. Even for Periclean Athens and Augustan Rome, the two best-known periods of ancient history, estimates of the population are conjectural and controversial. As for later centuries, by Boswell’s own account,

from all of Europe during the whole of the Middle Ages, at most a half dozen reliable bits of demographic data survive, and they are so widely scattered in time and place that it is nearly impossible to know whether they are typical or peculiar, indicative of continuity or change, meticulously reliable or grossly misleading.

Abandonment of children is not an action parents are likely to leave records of (Rousseau’s confession is a rare item). The evidence consists mainly of legal documents (late Roman and medieval) dealing with the problems involved, moral and ethical texts (Christian diatribes against the practice, for example), and, richest but most difficult to evaluate, fiction.

The legal texts, Boswell is frank to admit, “can be misleading. The fact that statutes are enacted…does not mean that they are enforced, or even taken seriously.” Yet the huge corpus of imperial Roman law contains, besides edicts and rulings, “summaries of actual cases, legal opinions citing custom and practice,” and also “observations about legal and social structures introduced as incidental factual premises rather than arguments,” which “are revealing for precisely this reason.” The ethical treatises—pagan philosophers deprecating the practice or Christian theologians inveighing against it—attest to its prevalence but yield little in the way of detailed information. The last, and most controversial, category, fiction, forms a large part of Boswell’s source material; chapter two is entitled “Rome: Literary Flesh and Blood,” and his discussion of the High Middle Ages includes a chapter headed “Literary Witnesses.” This is of course a very rich vein. Abandonment of a child and its eventual recognition is a standard plot device of tragedy, melodrama, and comedy all the way from Oedipus, left in the wilds of Mount Cithaeron, through the comedies of Menander, Plautus, and Terence, and the child Perdita exposed “in some remote and desert place,” left “to its own protection and favor of the climate,” through the Figaro of Beaumarchais and Mozart to Oscar Wilde’s Ernest deposited in a black leather handbag “in the cloak-room at Victoria Station—the Brighton Line.”

Fictional abandonment may be a rich vein, but it is not historical evidence of the same weight as demographic data, legal decisions, and moral or religious writings that deal directly with the problem or illuminate it tangentially. Boswell has to defend his method on this point, and he does so with skill and telling effect. He is fully aware that fictional abandonment of children, given its rich payoff in terms of plot, may be what he calls a “quicksand problem.” We have all frequently read about, and seen on the screen, characters engulfed in quicksand (there is a striking example in the reconstituted Lawrence of Arabia). We even know, from reading fiction and watching movies, what one should or should not do in an attempt to rescue such an unfortunate. But few of us have ever seen quicksand or known anyone who has. “This is not to say,” Boswell points out, “that quicksand does not exist, or is never a problem for humans: simply that its role in fiction is not a realistic reflection of its importance.”

He presents some illuminating analogies from the relation of modern fiction to real life. One of the mainsprings of the novel is adultery; it is hard to imagine the modern novel without it. As is clear from Kinsey’s figures alone, fiction is not presenting its readers with quicksand here; in real life the incidence of adultery leaves fiction far behind. Abortion, on the other hand, a not unfamiliar feature of modern life, is rare in fiction; the obvious reason is that it is the end of something rather than a beginning, not a useful device for forwarding a plot. Boswell cites murder as an event that is more likely to happen in fiction than in real life, but this may be a reflection of the fact that he lives in New Haven, Connecticut (he is professor of history at Yale), rather than New York or Washington, where statistics suggest that the prospect of one’s life ending prematurely has to be seriously considered by the ordinary citizen.

In addition to his defense of fiction as a mirror of real life he is able to buttress his case by citing real statistics when at last they become available—in the late eighteenth century. It was, as he says, the first century with extensive records and it was also “the last before advances in industrial and agricultural technology could support a much larger population—and before techniques of contraception rendered abandonment less necessary than it had been.” The figures are startling. In the late eighteenth century at Toulouse “one child in every four was known to have been abandoned” (Boswell’s italics). In poorer quarters the rate reached 39.9 percent. In Lyons between 1750 and 1789 the number of children abandoned was approximately one third of the number of births. In Florence in the early nineteenth century 43 percent of all baptized babies were abandoned. Seen against these figures the revelation in Beaumarchais’ Marriage of Figaro that Figaro is actually the son of Marcelline, the older woman he once promised to marry if she would lend him money and who now demands her due, would not have seemed as wildly improbable to the play’s original audience as it does to us.7 “It is a curious turn of history,” Boswell sums up, “that the difficulties of conjugal life and childbearing have been so profoundly eased during the twentieth century that the dark backdrop they provided for audiences of previous ages has come to seem comic fancy to viewers in more fortunate circumstances.”8

Boswell’s inquiry extends no farther than the early years of the nineteenth century: abandonment of children condoned or even regulated by society is not a feature of civilized modern life. But we have no reason to congratulate ourselves. In many parts of the world children are still sold into prostitution; a recent report from Thailand (The New York Times, March 30) describes the sale of daughters by their parents for the thriving “sex industry” of Bangkok. And no one who saw Luis Buñuel’s 1950 film Los Olvidados will ever forget the faces of the rejected and abandoned boys who have turned into mindless sadistic criminals. The scene of Buñuel’s tragic story is Mexico City. “Concealed behind the imposing structures of our great modern cities,” runs the opening voiceover, “are pits of misery, hiding unwanted, hungry, dirty and uneducated children.” But the image on the screen that accompanies these words is that of New York harbor and the island of Manhattan.

This Issue

June 29, 1989