If you read thsi book at all, read it slowly and thoughtfully. Don't rush to assume that it reveals an anti-Catholic bias, as other reviewers have, and don't facilely dismiss the author's theses about long-term trends of illegitimacy, child abandonment, and infanticide being in lock-step with the structures of the Christian religion. Boswell is a very thorough scholar; before you challenge his conclusions, you'd better try the same research.
This is a study of oblation and the historical attitudes toward childhood that the practice of oblation exposes. An "oblate" is by definition any person who gives her/himself to the church, but in Boswell's sense an oblate was a child given or abandoned to the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages. The majority of oblates grew up in and became lifetime members of monastic communities. Conversely, in some cases, the majority of the inhabitants of monasteries had entered the Church as oblates, often as infants. Imagine! A Medieval monastery was not just a cloister of chanting monks or nuns. It was also an economic community, with only a select elite of chanters and scribes, and a larger population of workers and servants not in tonsured sanctity, and of all things, a throng of children! a nursery!
"Them that's got shall get," goes the old blues song. It was surely so in the case of oblates. Families who could donate resources - land especially, or money - along with their child could insure that child a place of status in the religious community. Infants left in the baptismal font would wind up as "lay brothers" tending the grange, milling, or manufacturing the products their monastery sold to outsiders.
Boswell discusses the reasons for oblation, the role of oblation in dealing with inheritance problems of land-owning families, the possibility that oblation was effectively a method of population control, and the eventual abuse and decline of the practice in later centuries. One of the striking effects of oblation was the frequency of handicapped and deformed persons in monastic settings, since imperfect children were routinely abandoned, killed, or given to the Church! Boswell also describes the conditions of life that oblates enjoyed or endured, and the mutual obligations between cloistered monks/nuns and their birth families, especially those of the nobility. Like the practices of money-lending, land-leasing, and endowment-after-death, oblation created linkages between the "religious" and the secular, of great importance in both directions. The Medieval monastery was not as isolated or insulated from the world as many of us imagine.
The monasteries of the Middle Ages were enormously important in the total social economy of the regions where they grew, to a degree that hugely differentiates their world from ours. This dense, challenging, unaccomodating book is perhaps one of the best introductions to the real Middle Ages precisely because it is unabashed in detailing those differences.
The Kindness of Strangers is a seminal work in family history. Though massively footnoted, it's not laborious reading. I've only hinted at the wealth of narrative and illustration it contains. I first encountered it when I was preparing a performance of a French liturgical drama, not the Play of Daniel but something similar. Can you guess the connection? Perhaps you'll need to read this book to understand the rebirth of drama in Europe. Five stars in Boswell's crown!