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Orphans and Foundlings


ORPHANS AND FOUNDLINGS. The early modern understanding of an orphan was more inclusive than the contemporary definition, that of a child who has lost both parents to premature death. It encompassed as well children whose parents were either unable or unwilling to support them. Children could thus be left orphaned due to parents' economic hardship, extended military or naval service, debilitating illness, or widowhood, in addition to mortality. In particular, foundlings were those children who were left (often anonymously) by an incapacitated or unwilling parent to the mercy of charitable or civic resources. Many families hoped to reclaim such children when the crisis that precipitated family dissolution had been overcome. To this end it was not uncommon for foundling children to be left with some sort of cryptic identification, such as a piece of clothing or cloth or other family trinket that could eventually be used as identification to assist in the return of the child to its proper family.

Orphans and foundlings were understood throughout Christian Europe to be an important subset of God's poor (along with widows and the disabled), and therefore fully deserving of the succor of the community. Thus, the provision of charity to such individuals was efficacious for the preservation of the soul of the giver, and abandoned children were thought to play a vital role in the spiritual economy of Christendom. Nonetheless, the physical needs of the children posed a practical problem for society. Ideally, in the small rural communities of the medieval West, "fatherless" children would be cared for by extended family members or neighbors, or willing employers if the child was old enough to perform useful work. Such children could also be supported by religious communities devoted to the care of the poor.

With the expansion of towns, first in late medieval and Renaissance Italy and subsequently in the early modern trade centers of the northwest coast, care for orphans and abandoned children became increasingly institutionalized and ultimately secularized as well. In this new model, children were brought together under the single roof of a foundling hospital or orphanage, fed, clothed, and educated together, and upon reaching maturity, released to the community as marriageable girls with modest dowries, domestic servants, apprenticed craftsmen, or military and naval recruits. In both Catholic and Protestant Europe these institutions had religious affiliations of one kind or another, but they were nonetheless important components of the social and economic policy increasingly being enacted by civic governments. In the sixteenth century they were vital to efforts to suppress public begging, and from the seventeenth century onward they served as important regulators of local labor markets, especially in the emerging capitalist centers of the Low Countries, Germany, and England.

The life chances of an orphaned or abandoned child varied over time and geographical circumstance, but outcomes were highly correlated with the general economic prosperity of a community. If one considers mortality outcomes alone, a clear pattern of success and failure emerges. Orphans fared well in the well-endowed institutions of late Renaissance Italymost especially in the Florentine Ospedale degli Innocenti during the latter fifteenth centuryat Christ's Hospital in London in the sixteenth century, and again in urban Dutch institutions for citizen children during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, most especially the Amsterdam Municipal Orphanage. In these places infant and child mortality were well within the norm for the community at large, reacting strongly to periods of epidemic but not otherwise justifying a reputation as houses of death. However, orphans in late-eighteenth-century Rouen, Paris, Moscow, and Madrid (to name those few places where data allows for detailed study) fared much worse, with infant and child mortality exceeding 80 percent even during non-epidemic years. During the years of the French Revolution and the general European warfare at the turn of the nineteenth century, some institutions suffered mortality approaching 100 percent, and the orphanage became nothing more than a place for abandoned children to go to die. Even the once remarkably healthy Innocenti suffered infant and child mortality rates in excess of 70 percent during some periods in the eighteenth centuryearly success was no guarantee of continued success in the face of economic decline of the surrounding community.

For those orphans who survived the rigors of early childhood illness and communicable disease, information on final outcomes is even harder to come by than on the subject of mortality. Historical legend has it that orphanages were the breeding grounds for soldiers and East India Company sailors, with their concomitant high rates of early mortality, an association that is particularly strong in the Netherlands. While it is true that foundling hospitals in such large port cities as Amsterdam did send considerable numbers of male graduates into service on ships bound for the East Indies, particularly as native volunteer recruits became harder to find over the course of the eighteenth century, orphanages that housed citizen children, such as the Amsterdam Municipal Orphanage and the city orphanages (one Catholic and one Protestant) of Augsburg were much more likely to place their male graduates into the respectable artisan trades. For girls, domestic service and perhaps eventually marriage were the most likely outcomes, making theirs not easily distinguishable from the life trajectories of their non-orphaned peers. The orphanage need not have been a death sentence, in either the immediate or longer term, for those children placed in its care. However, only the most prosperous of societies were able to provide institutional care for parentless children that rivaled the care children might otherwise have received if their parents had been alive and able to keep them at home.

See also Charity and Poor Relief ; Childhood and Child-rearing ; Poverty ; Public Health ; Youth .


Cunningham, Carole. "Christ's Hospital: Infant and Child Mortality in the Sixteenth Century." Local Population Studies 18 (1977): 3740.

Fuchs, Rachel Ginnis. Abandoned Children: Foundlings and Child Welfare in Nineteenth-Century France. Albany, N.Y., 1984.

Gavitt, Philip. Charity and Children in Renaissance Florence: The Ospedale degli Innocenti, 14101536. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1990.

McCants, Anne E. C. Civic Charity in a Golden Age: Orphan Care in Early Modern Amsterdam. Urbana, Ill., 1997.

McClure, Ruth K. Coram's Children: The London Foundling Hospital in the Eighteenth Century. New Haven, 1981.

Safley, Thomas Max. Charity and Economy in the Orphanages of Early Modern Augsburg. Atlantic Highlands, N.J., 1996.

Sherwood, Joan. Poverty in Eighteenth-Century Spain: The Women and Children of the Inclusa. Toronto, 1988.

Anne E. C. McCants

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