Orphans and Foundlings
ORPHANS AND FOUNDLINGS
David L. Ransel
Historical research on orphans and foundlings dates to the mid-nineteenth century when large studies of municipal and regional institutions to care for them appeared. Prominent examples include Andrea Buffini's study of the Milan foundling hospital (1844) and Franz Hügel's wide-ranging report on the Austrian empire and many other parts of Europe (1863). Impressive works on national care programs for unwanted children followed in subsequent decades. Léon Lallemand surveyed the history of abandoned children in France in 1885. M. D. van Puteren did the same for Russia and also drew instructive comparisons with other parts of Europe in 1908. The authors of these and similar studies on other municipalities, regions, and countries were not professional historians, and their purpose was not so much to write history as to influence contemporary debates about the moral and practical consequences of government-assisted care of illegitimate or unwanted children. They did nevertheless compile a wealth of historical material that late-twentieth-century social historians used as a point of departure for their studies.
This new historiography of child welfare began in the 1970s with works by Olwen Hufton and Natalie Zemon Davis on the development of public services in early modern times and has continued in a series of studies on social and institutional responses to child abandonment, including the works of John Boswell on antiquity and the Middle Ages; Claude Delasselle, Rachel Fuchs, and Janet Potash on France; Richard Trexler, Philip Gavitt, David Kertzer, Volker Hunecke, and many others on Italy; Joan Sherwood on Spain; and David Ransel on Russia. Interest in this topic was stimulated initially by the French "Annales school" and its attention to demography and the processes of everyday living. The political protests of the 1960s in the United States and France intensified historians' interest in the lives of the common people and the poor. The rise of movements for women's rights and an unprecedented entry of women into the historical profession in the 1970s fueled research into the primary spheres of female activity: family, work, childbearing, and child rearing. The study of abandoned and orphaned children offered a good vantage point from which to examine issues related to women and the family, such as survival strategies of the poor, the productive and reproductive roles of women, the value of children, the growth of municipal and state institutions for assisting women and families, administrative and policing strategies, the classification and ordering of modern urban life, and industrial production.
John Boswell's study of child abandonment from late antiquity to the Renaissance introduced the novel idea that the disposal of unwanted children in city squares, garbage dumps, and dung heaps was a mechanism for redistributing human resources and balancing out a disorderly reproductive process. Some families produced more children than they needed and by abandoning them either contributed children to others who had too few or delivered them into the hands of slavers and jobbers who could recoup the cost of rearing the children in their later use or sale. Despite Boswell's impressive command of sources, his work received criticism for its transparent moral and political aims and his failure to consider conflicting evidence. One of Boswell's aims was to convince readers that the conventional family models based upon blood or marital relations were recent impositions and not the typical family arrangement known to Western history. Another was to argue that before governments and private charities stepped in with modern technologies of categorization and exclusion such as foundling homes and orphanages, people quite naturally and logically redistributed children among themselves and that they did so with virtually no damage to the children. This libertarian notion, that in the absence of intervention by government and welfare institutions social problems are worked out to the advantage of all concerned, failed to take into account the very high toll in infant life that such an informal mechanism inevitably entailed. Indeed, Boswell contended that most of the abandoned children of antiquity survived, a conclusion that flies in the face of all that has been learned since about infant survival under such conditions. It is difficult, however, to deny Boswell's point that the institutional care of modern times, especially the foundling care programs of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, were likewise accompanied by an excessive infant and childhood mortality.
ABANDONMENT AND INFANTICIDE
In antiquity the decision about whether to spare the lives of children was left to the family or, more accurately, to the father. At first this power was absolute and enduring, but gradually legal restrictions narrowed its scope until a decision to dispose of a child was permitted only in the case of newborns. Not until the end of the fourth century was infanticide outlawed by the Christian church, but the practice scarcely came to end just because a law was passed. Although the church brought about this protection for children, it may initially have shown some tolerance for abandonment and infanticide so long as these acts were not an excuse for unlicensed sexual pleasure. The early church fathers distinguished between infanticide as a way of avoiding the consequences of one's lust, and infanticide for economic reasons. Penitentials proposed much lighter penalties for infanticide committed by a poor woman than for the same act committed by a wealthy woman. This stance was common in the West until at least the eleventh century.
Along with some tolerance of infanticide to keep population in line with economic resources, there may also have been some acceptance of non-marital sexual activity in the early centuries of Christianity. But this changed in the eleventh century after the Council of Rome in 1074. The church began to stress the importance of confining sexual indulgence to marriage, an emphasis that was strengthened toward the end of the Middle Ages and carried forward even more vigorously by the Reformation. While bastards and the women who bore them were widely tolerated in the Middle Ages, after the Reformation the position of the unwed mother became increasingly isolated and precarious. She faced social ostracism and the prospect of having to turn to prostitution or other unsavory means of staying alive if she did not rid herself of her baby before its existence became known. It is impossible to say if abandonment and infanticide increased, but they became different. If they had earlier occurred with some degree of understanding from the community, they now became a desperate means of escaping communal censure. These acts became personal rather than social, and they arose from and contributed to the mounting misogyny of Christian Europe as the Roman and Protestant churches campaigned ever more vigorously against social deviance, especially as personified in the most exposed and vulnerable women.
By the sixteenth century, states joined the churches in the crusade against extramarital intercourse and its products, the illegitimate child and infanticide. In several countries, unmarried servant women were regularly inspected to see if they had breast milk. The presence of milk in the breasts justified, according to article 36 of the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina, introduced in the Holy Roman Empire under Charles V in 1532, the application of torture to discover the cause. The even more draconian article 131 introduced a presumption of guilt for murder in cases in which an unmarried woman was alone at the time of birth, hid the baby, and the child was later found dead. This rule was subsequently written into French law in 1556 and confirmed as late as 1708. Presumption of guilt based on similar or slightly modified conditions, usually involving failure to register an extramarital pregnancy, subsequently found its way into the codes and practices of many other countries, including England in 1624, Sweden in 1627, Württemberg in 1658, Denmark in 1683, Scotland in 1690, and Bavaria as late as 1751. Punishment was harsh and usually included painful or prolonged death (being cast upon a fire or buried alive). A misogynous regime in Russia brought equally ferocious punishment, even if there matters never went so far as to fix in law a presumption of guilt for an unwed mother whose child had died.
THE FIRST FOUNDLING HOMES
While the church had led the way in campaigning against illegitimacy and infanticide, it was also the first institution to come to the aid of unmarried women and innocents. The religious orders of the Italian cities began establishing foundling homes as early as the thirteenth century, with the opening in Rome of the San Spirito hospital in 1212. (Some sources date the first such home to 787 in Milan, but little is known about this effort.) The stimulus for creating the San Spirito refuge was said to be the scandal of women throwing babies into the Tiber River. Similar hospitals soon appeared in other Italian cities. In Florence during the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries two hospitals, the Santa Maria da San Gallo and the Santa Maria della Scala, took in unwanted children. These multipurpose institutions also accepted poor people needing medical assistance. In time, strain on the limited resources of the hospitals led to differentiation and specialization. In the mid-fifteenth century, the city fathers collaborated with the silk guild to establish an institution dedicated to the care of foundlings, the great Ospedale degli Innocenti.
By this time, Florentines considered the work of these hospitals essential to the character and stability of their community. Failure to aid exposed and abandoned children would not only undermine their society by reducing its population, but would also erode the myths of solidarity that bound the community together in its earthly life and linked it to the heavenly city. Thus, children left to die were not considered only as a sanitation problem but as amputated limbs of the communal body and unbaptized souls lost to God. Efforts to save the children were valued as a means of drawing the community together, and the rescued children played an important role in the salvation of the community because of the blessings that their prayers were thought to bring to the city.
During the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance the Italians worked out an approach to foundling care that relied on large institutions supported by a combination of religious, corporate, and municipal resources. Usually the infants brought to the institution were screened and sent out to wet nurses in the town or more often the surrounding countryside. Eventually the survivors returned for education at the institution, and finally were assigned to apprenticeship, military service, menial labor, or marriage. This approach, known as the Latin or Catholic system, moved across the Alps into France and Austria, where in the sixteenth century humanist writers stressed the need for organized relief and other public welfare measures to curb increasing problems of urban disorder. Begging and vagrancy were their major concerns, but humanist values also promoted a new solicitude for poor children. For the smallest and most helpless, the abandoned and exposed babies, many towns provided foundling homes on the Italian model. For poor or unsupervised children who had survived early childhood, towns established institutions for their care and training in line with the humanist belief in education as an instrument for making good citizens.
France offers the best example of the development of the Latin system north of the Alps. A multipurpose hospital, the Grand Hôtel-Dieu de Notre-Dame-de-Pitié in Lyon was taking in children as early as the beginning of the sixteenth century. Marseille and Paris may have provided such assistance earlier still. By 1536 the state began to play a role. Francis I opened a hospital in Paris designed exclusively for the care of foundlings and named it the Hospice des Enfants-Dieu. An important contributor to this work in the next century was the clergyman Vincent, later St. Vincent de Paul, who devoted much of his life to caring for abandoned children. With the help of the Dames de la Charité (Ladies of Charity), he opened the Hôpital des Enfants Trouvés in Paris in the 1630s. Within a few decades this institution was having difficulty managing its growing population of foundlings, difficulties that arose even before the great explosion of illegitimacy and child abandonment in the eighteenth century.
THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY
By early in the eighteenth century, the sight of infant corpses lying in ditches, on garbage heaps, and in sewer drains was familiar throughout Europe. Sewers, being less visible, were evidently the most frequent points of deposit. After a fire that devastated Rennes, France, in 1721, workers rebuilding the city opened the sewers and found the skeletons of over eighty babies. Even in the 1690s the slaughter had been disturbing enough that the crown ordered municipalities to use their local Hôtel-Dieu as a receiving point for abandoned children. But many localities were not able to shoulder the cost of caring for foundlings, and when the burden on local institutions became too heavy, they discouraged admissions. People responded by bringing their unwanted children to the Paris hospital, often over long distances, because the Paris home had support from the crown and accepted nearly everyone. By the mid-eighteenth century, a brisk trade had sprung up between the provinces and the capital, as people paid carters to convey babies to the Paris foundling home. Some local welfare facilities even organized their own expeditions to deliver abandoned children to the Paris institution.
During the eighteenth century, public opinion was swinging away from the punitive approach to the unwed mother. Concerned with population growth, enlightenment writers fostered a new understanding of her plight and encouraged a revolt against the ferocious penalties that had been visited upon her. In the sentimental literature of the age, unwed mothers were portrayed as victims as often as were their children. The public was persuaded that both the children and the mothers had a better chance of surviving if the mothers could anonymously dispose of their babies, and a consensus formed in favor of an open admissions policy like that of the central Paris foundling home. This policy was usually symbolized by the turning cradle, a device that allowed a woman to deposit her baby unseen at the door of the home by rotating a cradle that pivoted between the outside and the inside of the building. First used in Italian foundling homes, the device spread to other Roman Catholic and even some eastern Orthodox lands by the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
For much of Europe the use of the turning cradle was limited to the time of the Enlightenment revolt against persecution of unwed mothers. It was most often found and remained longest in strongly Catholic lands, with their strict norms against premarital sex and opposition to paternity searches in cases of illegitimacy. Conservative Catholic authorities defended the turning cradle as much for its role in protecting the honor and sanctity of the family as for preventing desperate women from killing their infants. By concealing the identity of unwed mothers, the device shielded families from scandal and from the property claims of illegitimate offspring. Communal solidarity required protection of family interests in places where the family formed the essential building block of society. The country in which families most effectively dominated social and political life, the kingdom of Sicily, was also the quintessential home of the turning cradle. By law, every town in the kingdom had to erect a foundling home with this device and keep it open day and night. The turning cradle was common in other Mediterranean lands and their dependencies. Spain and Portugal supported homes with the devices throughout their metropolitan provinces and also exported them to their American colonies. To the east, the turning cradle appeared in Orthodox lands of the Balkans and was instituted in Russia by Catherine the Great as early as 1764 and maintained right into the 1890s, later than in any other country.
Something different happened in the north and northwestern parts of Europe. During the Renaissance, foundling homes on the Italian model had reached as far north as many of the German cities, but they did not endure there. The retreat of the sponsoring Roman Catholic institutions after the Reformation partly explains this. Although some writers believe that the Protestant emphasis on personal rather than communal responsibility was also a major factor, this emphasis may only have reinforced a preexisting family system and moral climate. Even in Catholic principalities of Germany, cities soon turned away from large central foundling hospitals and sought to lay the cost of support for illegitimate children on the parents. In contrast to Latin Europe, paternity searches were legal in the north, and families were expected to maintain control over their members and not look to the community to care for the products of misbehavior.
Later, responding to the humanitarian revolt of the eighteenth century and the new sympathy for unwed mothers, some northern cities erected large foundling hospitals and allowed anonymous admission. In Denmark, for example, such an institution was established in the middle of the eighteenth century when a turning cradle was attached to the Copenhagen workhouse. Institutions in London and Stockholm provided the same opportunity. But, as had happened farther south, this open admissions policy soon generated a deluge of children, including the importation of unwanted infants from outlying areas, and in the case of Denmark, even from a foreign country, Sweden, across the sound. In 1774 the Danes replaced the turning cradle with a system requiring unwed mothers to rear their own children, if necessary with financial assistance from the community. England and Sweden soon turned away from large centralized foundling operations for the same reasons. So, once again, as in the Renaissance, this type of institution proved short-lived in the north. England, the Nordic countries, and much of Germany henceforth provided homes and training only for true orphans or other children for whom no one could be found to take responsibility. Homes of this type were supported either by municipal governments or civic and religious organizations such as the Free Masons and Pietists. Orphans were usually brought up to about age eight and then turned over to masters as apprentices or servants.
In the north, the structure of financing the care of unwanted children and the values that underlay this structure differed from those in the Catholic Mediterranean lands and in Russia. In England and the continental Protestant countries, the cost of foundling care was borne directly by the community or its immediate representatives and was not cushioned by large private endowments, self-generated revenues from associated enterprises, or church and central government subsidies. Accordingly, in Protestant lands, ratepayers or their representatives imposed limits on the amount of money available for this service and forced tighter admissions policies. Underlying this approach to public welfare were the strength in Protestant countries of corporate bodies other than the family and no doubt, too, the emphasis on personal rather than community responsibility. The disclosure of illegitimacy and the assignment of responsibility for it were lesser threats to community solidarity in these lands than were its concealment and the laying of its cost upon the public. Since the Reformation, the temporal powers had taken a greater role in enforcing social norms, and the family, which was less crucial to maintaining social discipline than was the case in the south, required less protection from the disorderly behavior of its members.
THE NINETEENTH CENTURY
Between the wholly Catholic lands to the south and the Protestant-dominated polities to the north stood France and Belgium, whose experience revealed an ambivalence about the application of the two prevailing systems of foundling care. The turning cradle came late to these lands and then briefly swept all other systems aside. Before the nineteenth century, foundling care was a local matter, and the large area encompassed by Belgium and France subsumed a variety of value systems and corresponding diversity of responses to child abandonment. Methods in Flanders and Brittany resembled those in Protestant lands. In Flanders, the parish alone bore responsibility for abandoned infants or illegitimate children whom parents could not support; in Brittany, a subdivision similar to the parish, the générale des habitants, played the same role. Unlike other jurisdictions in France and Belgium, these two permitted, even demanded, paternity suits so that the father could be made to support his illegitimate child and relieve the parish of the burden.
Morals in Brittany were severe and illegitimacy low. But, by the same token, nearly all unwed mothers sought to escape shame by abandoning their infants. In the factory areas of northeastern France, illegitimacy was judged less harshly, its incidence was higher than in Brittany, and a smaller proportion of women abandoned their children. There people were more likely to condemn an unwed mother for abandoning her child than for keeping it, especially after the initiation of aid for unwed mothers in the middle of the nineteenth century. This attitude contrasted sharply with the moral climate of southern France, which in its concern for family honor and solidarity was more like that in the neighboring Mediterranean lands. Despite these varied value systems, both the adoption of the turning cradle early in the nineteenth century and its removal after 1840 occurred as a single process throughout France and Belgium, an example of the universalizing effects of the French Revolution. In 1811, in order to fulfill the promise of the Revolution to care for all illegitimate children, the national government ordered foundling shelters everywhere to use the turning cradle. But it soon became clear that this decision complicated rather than facilitated the goal of caring for illegitimate children, since the system of anonymous admissions led to the deposit not just of illegitimate children but also a burgeoning number of legitimate children and soon exhausted the resources intended for the care of the illegitimate. Moreover, many abuses were discovered. Married women would contrive to abandon their babies to the foundling hospital and then receive back their own children as nurslings. For this wet nursing and fosterage of their own children they obtained a regular subsidy and eventually a pension. Although the authorities tried to counter this fraud by transporting children deposited in one province to another for nursing and fosterage, this solution simply led to a skyrocketing death rate among the children. The French soon declared the system of blind admissions a failure, and by midcentury the turning cradle was rapidly being phased out and replaced by a system that identified and excluded legitimate children and provided financial assistance to needy unwed mothers to rear their own children.
Although Catholic conservative opinion continued to argue for the turning cradle on the grounds that its abolition would increase infanticide, cause scandal in the family and community, and entrust the rearing of children to women of demonstrated immorality, the move away from institutional care and toward a modern welfare system of individual subsidies proceeded apace. The Belgians adopted the French reform within a few years and returned to the methods in use earlier in Flanders. Others soon followed. Spain began to phase out anonymous admissions in the 1850s, and Portugal did so between 1867 and 1871. In Italy, the birthplace of the turning cradle, the process began about the same time, and by 1878 only one-third of the Italian homes continued to operate with the devices.
In Russia the change did not come until the 1890s, a tardiness associated with the peculiar history of the Russian imperial foundling homes. Catherine the Great, a German princess by birth, and her education adviser, Ivan Betskoi, a man who had spent many years in western Europe, established these institutions, which in time became the largest in all of Europe. The Russian foundling homes were consciously designed on the most progressive Western models and constituted another aspect of the country's rapid, self-conscious westernization in the eighteenth century. Founded at the height of the humanitarian revolt against the persecution of unwed mothers, they enjoyed the most liberal admissions policy on the continent. Children were accepted at all hours with no questions asked. At first, admissions were even artificially stimulated by advertisement of the homes. The reasons for this liberality were two. First, Catherine and Betskoi hoped not merely to save illegitimate children but also to build from them an educated urban artisan and service class, "a third rank of people," as they said, a social estate that Russia then lacked. Second, the homes, constructed on a lavish scale in the heart of the Moscow and St. Petersburg, were intended to serve as symbols of tsarist solicitude for the common people.
Not surprisingly, the homes were soon swamped with unwanted infants. At their peak in the mid-nineteenth century, admissions at the Moscow home alone surpassed seventeen thousand children a year. The hope of building an urban estate from these children quickly faded, because even the much smaller numbers entering the facility in the late eighteenth century could not be kept alive in urban institutions and had to be turned over to wet nurses in the countryside for care and feeding. Local fosterage saved some children, but even so mortality rates ran as high as 85 percent. When the English reformer Thomas Malthus visited Russia in 1789 in connection with a survey of foundling hospitals throughout Europe, he assessed the mortality at the Russian homes and quickly punctured the rosy public image of this tsarist philanthropy. He remarked dryly that "if a person wished to check population, and were not solicitous about the means, he could not propose a more effectual measure, than the establishment of a sufficient number of foundling hospitals [like these], unlimited in their reception of children" (quoted in Ransel, p. 58). The symbolic importance of the Russian homes as the most visible and well-financed tsarist charity nevertheless remained and caused difficulties for reform. Modifications in the admissions policy were introduced now and again, in particular at the time of the great reforms of the 1860s and 1870s, but fundamental reform did not take place until 1892, and the homes continued to operate right up to the Bolshevik revolution.
PUBLIC STANDARDS FOR PERSONAL DECISIONS
The arguments for reform of the open admissions policies in southern Europe, France, and Russia were based on an understanding of the rapidly changing social terrain of the countries in which the turning cradle was used. Critics acknowledged that in the past the family had been the key to social discipline and needed protection from property claims and from the implied loss of control that illegitimacy signaled. The turning cradle had afforded the required secrecy. But, the critics continued, the family had changed, individuals had become less dependent on the family and less loyal to it. In these circumstances, the turning cradle acted more as an assault on the family than a protection, since it permitted married couples to turn their children into wards of the state. As for unwed mothers, it was far better, contended opponents of the turning cradle, to oblige them to declare themselves so that they could benefit from the financial assistance, professional guidance, and encouragement that would persuade them to keep their children. In these arguments one sees the emergence of a central idea of modern social-work intervention: the imposition of public standards on personal decisions about the size and character of families. It led directly to what Jacques Donzelot called the "policing of families," for if subsidies were to be furnished to women who were not only poor but also regarded as immoral, then the same program would have to be extended to other more deserving women such as widows with children, mothers of large families, and working mothers. In short, according to Donzelot, the reform of foundling policy planted the seed of the modern family allowance and the state surveillance that accompanied it.
The advent of the welfare state, government subsidies, and fosterage of unwanted children ended the era of the large-scale institutionalization of unwanted children in western and central Europe. In the twentieth century, children's homes continued to operate in most large cities, providing care for children who could not be placed with families and helping to manage periodic surges in the orphan population that resulted from war and other calamities. The Armenian massacres of 1915 spawned tens of thousands of orphans, who were placed in homes in Russian Armenia and Greece. The number of children orphaned and abandoned during the Spanish civil war reportedly ran to ninety thousand. World War II is thought to have produced a staggering thirteen million abandoned and orphaned children. As many as a half million were artificially manufactured by a Nazi policy of kidnapping children from occupied countries and Germanizing them so that they could be turned into loyal instruments of state policy (the Lebensborn program).
In Eastern Europe the socialist regimes established in Russia in 1917 and elsewhere after World War II introduced welfare measures to protect mothers and children. Even so, on occasion, the number of abandoned and runaway children reached catastrophic proportions, as in Soviet Russia following the civil war and famine of the early 1920s. Estimates of the number of "unsupervised children" in Russia in those days range between four and seven million. This crisis was scarcely brought under control when a new wave of orphans appeared in the wake of the brutal campaign to collectivize agriculture and the devastating famine that followed in the early 1930s. World War II produced another generation of orphaned children in Russia, and in the late twentieth century, as a result of the political and economic collapse of the Soviet Union, the numbers again mounted into the hundreds of thousands. Romania, where abortion and contraception were banned under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceauşescu (ruled 1974–1989), maintained a large and miserably cared for orphan population that became an unfortunate legacy for the regimes that followed. The Balkan wars of the 1990s produced a new stream of East European refugees, including a substantial new orphan population.
In sum, the very different approaches to child abandonment that characterized the southern and northern regions of Europe from the Reformation to the end of the nineteenth century ultimately resolved themselves in a welfare system that provided subsidies to mothers to care for their own children or, in the case of true orphans, opportunities for fosterage, adoption, and, in infrequent cases, institutional care. Russia and some other countries of eastern Europe, despite public commitments to provide full welfare services and protection for mothers and children, failed to deliver on these promises for a number of reasons: lack of sufficient prosperity to support such services, choices to invest in heavy industry and military goods rather than social services, and periodic political and economic crises.
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"Orphans and Foundlings." Encyclopedia of European Social History. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 17, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/international/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/orphans-and-foundlings
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