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The Orphans of Europe

    Abandonment is a vague term “referring to both ‘situations in which a child, usually a baby, is abandoned by a parent or caregiver…with the obvious intent of creating a permanent separation’ and ‘situations in which a parent places a child in a residential institution without the intention of relinquishing the child permanently’” (Panter-Brick, 2).  Whether a child is orphaned or abandoned, the result is that the child is left without a home in which he or she can fully develop.  In Europe, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there were many children whose parents abandoned them for various reasons in environments that were not ideal for their upbringing.

    For example, during the mid-eighteenth to the late nineteenth centuries, many European women were pregnant out of wedlock.  Even those who were married could not always financially or emotionally support their children.  David Kertzer says, in Sacrificed for Honor: Italian Infant Abandonment and the Politics of Reproductive Control, “Although the abandoning parents were often relatively well paid, their factory work kept them away from home all day.  The mother, though not impoverished, found it difficult to take care of her new born” (Kertzer, 172).  Many foundlings were also lost or taken away from their families.  Catherine Panter-Brick states in her book, Abandoned Children, that “the category ‘unaccompanied children’ lumps together ‘those who have become separated accidentally from their families (for example in the process of flight), as well as orphaned and abandoned children, young people who have been abducted or conscripted into armies, and those who have chosen to leave their families’” (Panter-Brick, 2).  Micheline Baulant states in her essay entitled, “The Scattered Family: Another Aspect of Seventeenth-Century Demography,” that the reason for the abandonment of children was the death of the parents.  She says that the children usually ended up living with relatives who cared for them with the least amount of repayment (Forster and Ranum, 109).  Rachel Fuchs notes, in Poor and Pregnant in Paris: Strategies for Survival in the Nineteenth Century, that some of the women were unwed mothers and were afraid of dishonoring their families.  Other children unfortunately, ended up living in institutions or on the streets.  Peter Laslett notes, in Family Life and Illicit Love in Earlier Generations, that there are instances in which one parent was left with the children and remarried another person who already had his or her own children, which created a new larger family (Laslett, 165).  Other children were also abandoned by one parent and were raised by a stepparent.  This created a new family type which included “father, mother, and their children plus a certain number of orphans—half-orphans from a previous marriage or complete orphans who are nephews, cousin, and sometimes even younger brothers” (Forster and Ranum, 114).  Regardless of the reason for abandonment, the children were the ones that were left defenseless in the world.

    Throughout the nineteenth century there were many unwed women having children.  Some were abandoned by their lovers and were left with nothing but a baby on the way.  These women had to acquire jobs to finance the future for themselves as well as their babies.  However, this was not an easy task.  A majority of the jobs offered to women were domestic service positions.  Women could easily lose their jobs if their employers found out they were pregnant and for these women losing their job meant losing their home and their food. “Homes for unwed mothers were nonexistent until the 1890’s and many women could not afford to pay a midwife”  (Fuchs, 216).  As a result, some women during the nineteenth century committed infanticide.  By killing their children immediately after delivery, women concealed the birth from both employers and families.

    Isabelle Caze is an example that demonstrates the extreme lengths some women went to in order to conceal their pregnancies from their families.   She was orphaned at the age of nine and raised by her father.  She had one child, and when she became pregnant again, she went to Paris in 1885 to keep this pregnancy a secret from her father.  After she had the baby, she killed the infant while in the hospital.  During the trial, “she professed that she had given her son all the care she could, and in despair, without thinking, wrapped her scarf around his neck” (Fuchs, 200).  When interviewed about why she did it, “she cried that she feared the reproaches of her family if she had a second child, and yet she dreaded abandoning him...She preferred to see her infant dead rather than placed in the foundling home, where she would condemn him to suffer a miserable existence” (Fuchs, 200-201).

    During the nineteenth century, infanticide was not the only option for pregnant women but to them it seemed like the easiest way out without dishonoring themselves or their families.  Rachel Fuchs explains:

        Giving a baby up for adoption was not a legal option for the poor and pregnant in       nineteenth-century France...The only legal options available to a mother of a newborn were
abandoning the baby at a foundling home, sending the infant to a wetnurse, or keeping the child.  Mothers for whom keeping their infant was an impossibility frequently chose to abandon their baby at the state-supported foundling home...Abandonment of an infant at the foundling home was a free and socially approved strategy of survival for mothers during most of the century (Fuchs, 220).
Rather than killing their babies, women had the opportunity of placing them in foundling homes although many of them chose not to:  “Foundling homes were first established in medieval Italy and spread to the major cities of southern Europe, proliferating in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, until most towns had some institutional provision for the receipt and sustenance of abandoned babies” (Panter-Brick, 14). However, “to abandon her child legally in Paris...a mother had to complete numerous forms and provide her name and a birth certificate for the baby.  This might have deterred many from abandonment and led them to infanticide or child murder instead” (Fuchs, 222).  Although it might seem like abandonment meant forever, some women had every intention of getting their children back when they were financially secure enough to handle the responsibility.  However, this was not the easiest thing to do as revealed by Beatrice Gottlieb in her book entitled The Family in the Western World from the Black Death to the Industrial Age, “…since many of the children had long since died and for those still alive it was often difficult to ascertain their identity.  Furthermore, the parents were presented with a bill for the children=s entire upkeep.  Needless to say, only a very small number of foundlings were ever reunited with their parents” (Gottlieb, 142).
    During the early nineteenth century in France there was a rapid rise in abandonment (Kertzer, 173).  Many married parents left their children in the care of authorities and institutions rather than caring for them because of financial strains.  The abandonment of legitimate babies was blamed on the mothers rather than both parents.  As a result of the industrial revolution many women were leaving the home to work in factories and they were, thus, seen as being evil women because they wanted to work instead of staying home and raising their children.  However, without the existence of birth control, the mothers “used abandonment as their method of keeping down the number of mouths they had to feed” (Kertzer, 174).

    The abandonment of babies created an enormous problem in foundling homes in the late nineteenth century:  “There were financial shortages and problems in feeding a huge intake of babies.  There appear to have been times when the problem of overstretched resources could be resolved only be accepting a higher death rate of foundlings in their care” (Panter-Brick, 15).  The foundling homes were not only for unwed mothers.  The home was a place for legitimate children as well whose parents were not financially capable of caring for them.

Google.comThe government-run institutions for orphans and foundlings were not the only places for children.  Private institutions were available as well for these abandoned children.  In Ireland the Catholic and Protestant churches developed orphanages that were well suited to raise children in a healthy environment.  It seemed like the ideal situation but the churches had an ulterior motive to covert the children to their religion.  In 1810 there were inquiries about the welfare of the orphans.  On the surface they seemed fine, however, Joseph Robins in his book, The Lost Children: A Study of Charity Children in Ireland 1700-1900, discusses the reality of orphanages and foundling hospitals in Ireland.  He states:

        The schools, intentionally placed in remote places so that the children would be out of reach of their parents, were equally remote for the controlling authority in Dublin.  The master, in the absence of effective local control, remained virtually independent and the welfare of the children was completely in his hands.  The schools, moreover, were almost all deliberately located in Catholic areas with the intention of diffusing Protestantism through these districts.  But when the children apprenticed to local Protestant masters those with whom they came into contact were mainly Catholics and, once their apprenticeship ended, many of them relapsed into their former religion (Robins, 88-89).

In Dublin, Ireland, the need for housing was increasing rapidly due to the wealth of the city.  At this point the government became involved in creating housing for all the new orphans and foundlings.  However, this institution was more like a jail rather than a home for the children living on the streets.  In the late eighteenth century the governors of Dublin created a house for the children:  “The governors also resolved that, thenceforth, illegitimate children born in the house would be taken to the foundling institution immediately after birth…the governors further decided that other children accompanied by their mothers would be taken from the mother in every instance where the Visitor decided that she had not finished her daily task to his satisfaction” (Robins, 105).  It seems that this was not an ideal situation for the mothers but the only possible solution to their situation.  It was better to at least have a place to sleep every night instead of living on the streets.

     European women of different circumstances shared the same financial hardship.  This connection is what drove many of them to abandon their children to the orphanages or foundling homes.  The homes that the children were placed in were not the best places in the world but it was better than being killed by their mothers.  The funding for these institutions not sufficient for the number of people they took in which resulted in each individual receiving inadequate care.  The children were poorly fed and were thought of as insignificant.  Perhaps these children would have been better off living with their parents but apparently they thought the state would take better care of their infant.

    For further reading on child abandonment check out Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal.
He has a unique view on the welfare of orphans in Ireland.  He proposes that we feed the orphans to make them healthy for others to eat.  Therefore they are not a burden on their parents or other family members. 

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