The Kindness of Strangers

An amazing book that has some relation, to my mind, to the Children’s Crusade is “The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance” by Prof. John Boswell.

The rates of abandonment are astounding. For example, he overall rate of child abandonment in the 1st – 3rd centuries is seen as being in the area of 20-40 percent of all live births resulted in the child being abandoned. And these rates are typical for the timeframe discussed in the book.

Amazon review:

“In The Kindness of Strangers, John Boswell argues persuasively that child abandonment was a common and morally acceptable practice from antiquity until the Renaissance. Using a wide variety of sources, including drama and mythological-literary texts as well as demographics, Boswell examines the evidence that parents of all classes gave up unwanted children, “exposing” them in public places, donating them to the church, or delivering them in later centuries to foundling hospitals. The Kindness of Strangers presents a startling history of the abandoned child that helps to illustrate the changing meaning of family. ”

Conclusions by Prof. Boswell

“Children were abandoned throughout Europe from Hellenistic antiquity to the end of the Middle Ages in great numbers, by parents of every social standing, in a great variety of circumstances. The rate of abandonment was probably at its highest from the later empire (beginning around A.D. 250) to the eleventh century when it declined and remained low for perhaps two centuries. It began to climb again sometime around 1200.”

“Parents abandoned their offspring in desperation when they were unable to support them, due to poverty or disaster; in shame, when they were unwilling to keep them because of their physical condition or ancestry (e.g. illegitimate or incestuous); in self-interest or the interest of another child, when inheritance or domestic resources would be compromised by another mouth; in hope, when they believed someone of greater means or higher standing might find them and bring them up in better circumstances; in resignation, when a child was of unwelcome gender or ominous auspices; or in callousness, if they simply could not be bothered with parenthood.”

“Most abandoned children were rescued and brought up either as adopted members of another household or as laborers of some sort.”

“Despite the fact that there was reason to disguise it, an enormous number of sources yield information about many aspects of abandonment, from parental motives to the feelings of exposed children; and they disclose a fascinating complexity of social and folk customs regarding modes of abandoning, possibilities of reclamation, legal views of adoptive versus natal ancestry, the consequences of anagnorisis, and general social attitudes toward parent-child relations.”

“At no point did European society as a whole entertain serious sanctions against the practice. Most ethical systems, in fact, either tolerated or disguised it.”

“Christianity may well have increased the rate of abandonment, both by insisting more rigidly than any other moral system on the absolute necessity of procreative purpose in all human sexual acts, and by providing, through churches and monasteries, regular and relatively humane modes of abandoning infants nearly everywhere on the continent.”

“The great disjunction in (the history of child abandonment) was occasioned by the rise of foundling homes sometime in the early thirteenth century. Within a century or two nearly all major European cities had such hospices, which neatly gathered all of the troubling and messy aspects of child abandonment away from view, off the streets, under institutional supervision. Behind their walls, paid officials dealt with society’s loose ends, and neither the parents who abandoned them nor their fellow citizens had to devote any further thought or care to the children. Even the foundling homes did not have to care for them for long. A majority of the children died within a few years of admission in most areas of Europe from the time of the emergence of foundling homes until the eighteenth century; in some times and places the mortality rate exceeded ninety percent.”

“Abandonment now became an even greater mystery, hidden from the public behind institutional walls from which few emerged, walls that afforded little opportunity for anagnorisis, adoption, or triumph over natal adversity. The strangers no longer had to be kind to pick up the children: now they were paid to rescue them. But because it was their job, they remained strangers; and the children themselves, reared apart from society, apart from families, without lineage either natural or adopted, either died among strangers or entered society as strangers. Mostly, they died: unkind fortune, twisting gentle intentions to cruel ends, finally united in the flesh of infants those fates which had hitherto been joined mostly in rhetoric – abandonment and death.”

Continue below for more information: excerpts from the book and review material from Thomas Leo Briggs.

Specific time periods:

The Roman World

Child abandonment was a common and ordinary reaction of human parents to unwanted children. Parents who exposed a child were not ashamed of the act of abandonment; there was moreover, universal approval and admiration for those who rescued such children. No Roman law posed any barrier to exposing or giving away children through the 300’s A.D. Selling children was slightly more complicated than abandonment but not uncommon. The motives for abandoning children seemed to be gender spacing, poverty, war or famine, illegitimacy, limitation of family size, and economic necessity.

The most common forms of child abandonment were sale, substitution and exposing in public places. One can imagine how the sale of children might be accomplished, but substitution could be surreptitious with the aid of the midwife, or it could be cooperative where both parties wanted to conceal the child’s origin. While some children must have been murdered, it was not the generally desirable outcome of abandonment and so it became the practice to abandon the child in a public place where it was most likely to be found by a kindly stranger, although many were found by strangers looking for slaves or prostitutes.

It became common in Roman times to place the child in a tree so that wild animals would not find it and kill it. It also was common to leave a token with the child, both as a way to show the finder that the child was of well to do parents though unwanted and also as a way to identify the child if years later claims were made to a family that such and such a child was theirs. Tokens also prevented some one from falsely claiming their birth, as they would not have the tokens. Tokens were rings, ribbons, paintings, articles of clothing and the material in which the child was wrapped.

Abandoned children became slaves, prostitutes, eunuchs, were recovered by the natal parents, and in some cases became happy alumni of foster parents. While some children died as a result of abandonment there are no literary sources which depict the death of such children, no historian has commented on dead abandoned children, nor about concern for them and there is no historical comment on assigning responsibility for the burial of dead abandoned children. It seems that it was the overwhelming belief in the ancient world that abandoned children were picked up and reared somewhere else.

A substantial percent of abandoned children were female. Perhaps the majority of all women who reared more than one child had also abandoned at least one. The overall rate of child abandonment in the 1st – 3rd centuries is extrapolated to be in the area of 20-40 percent of all live births resulted in the child being abandoned.

Post Roman Empire Christianity

Christians of the first 5 centuries A.D. were denizens of the Roman Empire and thus affected by Roman culture, meaning that attitudes toward child abandonment would not have changed much from those held by the Romans. The objections of most Christian moralists centered on the possibility of the death of the abandoned child, which they considered to be murder, and a fear of incest. The fear of incest grew out of the idea that a man or woman might have sexual relations with someone who turned out to be their own abandoned child with this event most likely happening to men who visited brothels. This fear appears often in the surviving writings of the time and says a lot about how much child abandonment there must have been and how much out of marriage sexual activity there was if incest with one’s own abandoned child became such an obsession.

St. Ambrose, a well known moralist of that time, exemplified Christian moral theology as his writings demonstrate a transition from disapproval of child abandonment to resignation that it was going to happen no matter what the Church’s stance might be. Later St. Augustine recognized that most parents who abandoned children had little choice and directed his disapproval at those parents he assumed did have a choice. The councils and ecclesiastical authorities of the early church were concerned with means to ensure that abandoned children were properly cared for, not prohibiting or condemning parents for the act of abandonment. During this period it became common to abandon children at the doors of churches and this may have been a Christian continuation of the Roman practice of abandonment in a public place.

The Early Middle Ages

By the 6th century the institutional and cultural unity provided by Roman government and Greco-Roman culture had collapsed. Much that was Roman, however, survived only in the upper classes of Europe and the Near East and among all classes in some areas of Italy, Spain and France. Child abandonment was a common aspect of life in all areas of Europe as it had been in the Roman Empire. Life in this time period became less organized than it had been previously. There were fewer standard locations for abandoning children. There wasn’t as much government to supervise the treatment of abandoned children. The status of abandoned children reared in new homes was less clearly defined. There were still laws passed in defense of abandoned children but their lives were more affected by circumstances than by institutions or laws.

In this vacuum, Christianity wielded enough power to have an effect. The Church composed new rules for exposing, selling and rearing children. It facilitated finding new homes for abandoned children through its web of churches and parish organizations. A system (oblation – the donation of a child to a monastery) for caring for abandoned children was created under which there was no social, legal or moral disadvantage to having been abandoned.

For the period of the 6th to the 11th centuries there are comparatively few sources on any aspect of social life. Literacy was rare and of less value than martial or agricultural skills. Governments were unstable and records were few. The economies were subsistence or less. There was less commerce, less mobility and less production. The great majority was servile agricultural workers. Given the difficulty of documenting child abandonment under the best of conditions, it is striking how frequently it occurs in the records of these centuries.

Child abandonment was widespread during this period. It occurred most often because of poverty and the general attitude toward it was morally neutral. There was general acknowledgment throughout Christian society of the superior claim of the finder over the natal parents.

What happened to abandoned children is less clear. The poor may have adopted some proportion of abandoned children, formally in the upper classes and informally. Friends of the parents may have reared some abandoned children and some may have survived on their own. Most likely the majority were brought up as servants in the severely depressed economy of the early Middle Ages. The childless rich may have adopted foundlings, but fertile couples of all classes employed them as domestics, and the church itself regarded them as slaves in many areas. This makes them extremely difficult to locate in the documents of the period after the abandonment itself, because most of Europe at the time was servile, and because the terms for “children”, “servant” and “slave” are interchangeable.


It seems to be Prof. Boswell’s opinion that oblation was a Christian innovation in response to the problem of unwanted children. In general, people did not want to murder their children nor abandon them to certain death; nevertheless, the children were still unwanted. Oblation was the donation of a child as a permanent gift to a monastery. By the end of the 5th century there were large numbers of children in monasteries in Western Europe. By the opening of the 7th century oblation was well defined and well established. Oblation became a religious act as well as a means of divesting the family of unwanted children. When parents donated a child to the church, the donation earned the donor spiritual reward, not just as a result of the gift itself, but the child was expected to pray for the parents for the rest of its life, thus earning spiritual reward for the parents. Oblation was a favored method of child abandonment since it was superior to all other forms of abandonment. The child was not harmed, animals did not kill it, the child was not enslaved and there was no chance of unwitting incest.

High Middle Ages (1000 – 1400 A.D.)

By the 14th century the practice of requiring the wealthy to divide their estates among all heirs had just about disappeared. The new practice that had developed in the High Middle Ages was that the inheritance would go to the oldest male heir. Thus, there was an increase in the number of children in wealthy households. There was no longer a need to abandon additional children in order to maintain the size of the family estate and keep it from being divided into small parts. This time period also saw the development of the concept of nobility. This notion would probably discourage abandonment in such “noble” families.

The social ethics of the time regarding sexuality changed profoundly and thus illegitimacy became less scandalous. Moreover, there were greater opportunities to better oneself. Thus, the years 1000 – 1200 saw less abandonment but concomitantly the full flowering of the practice of oblation. This might have continued but by the 1300’s, which saw much famine and plague, abandonment was again on the increase. By the beginning of the 14th century the influx of oblates into the church, primarily from the illegitimate children of priests, was staggering.

Later Middle Ages

The 14th – 15th centuries saw an increase in the use of hospitals to receive abandoned children. Institutions were established specifically for abandoned children in many large cities of Germany, France and Italy. By the 16th century nearly every major European city would have some public institution specifically for the receipt and care of abandoned children. Such institutions were more prevalent in southern European states than in northern.

“Most children were conveyed to the hospital by servants, friends, relatives, or clerics, or simply left at its doors. The parents were often known and recorded, even when the baby was left anonymously: communities were small, and pregnancies difficult to conceal, especially among the lower classes, who could afford little privacy. The keeping of records about parents or tokens left with children at hospitals was doubtless intended to enable the hospital to assess any later parental claims for recovery, and perhaps also to forestall inappropriate marriages. Parents who reclaimed would normally be expected to reimburse the hospital for expenses, which may be part of the reason reclamations were extremely rare. The earliest series of such records is from Florence in the first half of the fifteenth century and suggests that (then and there, at least) the children abandoned were usually unweaned infants of urban origin, in good health when they reached the hospital; about sixty percent were female. Approximately half were abandoned as a result of social catastrophe (famine, poverty, war) or personal difficulties: for example, after his wife died and he was unable to care for them, a Florentine weaver abandoned to San Gallo (a hospital for abandoned children in Florence) four of his seven children, aged six, five, four and two.”

The first concern of a hospital was whether a baby had been baptized. If there was no evidence of baptism, the baby was baptized conditionally and then assigned a wet nurse, sometimes within the hospital but more often in the countryside. The length of time to weaning, the pay for wet nurses and their rules of conduct, how much hospital supervision, and the fate of the child after returning to the hospital varied widely but little is known of the details. Boys were apprenticed as soon as possible and girls were sometimes arranged a marriage, but marriage was an uncertain proposition because social standing was very important in the society.

Some children were adopted, but in spite of hospital efforts to insure they were not being used for cheap labor, that was probably the case since most of the bodies of such adoptees were returned to the hospital for interment rather than burial in the adopted family’s plot. Older systems of abandonment where families took responsibility for the children imposed less stigma on the abandoned children than abandonment to foundling hospitals, “which produced classless, familyless, unconnected adolescents with no claim on the support or help of any persons or groups in the community.”

“But becoming a nonperson socially was less terrible than a much more common fate of children left at hospitals. Paradoxically, tragically, and, from a modern point of view, predictably, gathering so many infants in one place in societies with very little awareness of hygiene and almost no real medicine resulted in an appalling death rate. In the later fourteenth century 20 percent of the infants died within a month of their arrival at San Gallo, and another 30 percent within a year. Only 32 percent lived to age five. At La Scala in the next century 25 percent died within a month, and another 40 percent within a year; only 13 percent reached their sixth year.”

“The primary culprit was certainly communicable disease, endemic and deadly, following the children into the hospital, sweeping through its wards, and pursuing its victims out into their nursing homes. 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.” “Did no one care? In fact, few people could have known. This was a case in which the mysteries surrounding abandonment obscured it even from contemporaries. A major benefit of the foundling-home system was that the problem of unwanted children was removed from the streets and the view of ordinary citizens. The children disappeared behind institutional walls, where specialists were paid to deal with them, so that parents, relatives, neighbors, and society could forget. How could a parent know that the vast majority of such children died? Even if a father or mother attempted to reclaim a child and learned that the child had died, this would not in itself be suspicious. A high percentage of parents in premodern societies had experienced the death of at least one child.”

“It is no accident that the Renaissance was most notable in Italy: the destruction of the period was also most pronounced in Italy. It was in Italy that the plague first came ashore from Asia, on an Italian ship; in Italy that political upheaval was most pronounced during the later Middle Ages, leaving the peninsula, by the opening of the sixteenth century, a tattered assemblage of decaying municipalities and foreign colonies. It was in Italy that economic fluctuations were most disruptive, that the catastrophic fortunes of the papacy were most devastating, that the displacement of feudal structures by commercial economies (and of chivalric armies by mercenary troops) was most keenly felt, and where the dislocation of medieval intellectual patterns by new cultural movements was most obvious. Italy experienced rebirth first because Italy died first, both physically and culturally.”