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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The fate of children, 19 Dec 2005
Kurt Messick "FrKurt Messick" (London, SW1) - See all my reviews
This book of Boswell's is a fascinating history of an previously unknown and essentially overlooked piece of history -- the situation for children, and what happened to them should they become orphaned or abandoned. Boswell's particular period and geographic centre is in Europe of Late Antiquity to the Renaissance.
Beginning by looking at the ideal of family structure and responsibilities in the Roman Empire (the dominant model throughout the western world), Boswell proceeds through time periods to the Renaissance, examining literary and legal documents for narrative stories of children and caretakers, and for the general policy of church and state organisations toward care or neglect of such. One such narrative as example will serve to illustrate:
' Fresne (The Ash Tree) a married woman has maliciously spread the tale that the birth of twins means that the mother has slept with two men, and when she herself then bears twins, she must face an opprobrium of her own creation. She contemplates killing one, but--significantly--her companions dissuade her from this, arguing that it would be a sin. Abandonment, however, was not...'
The woman gives a child to her maid who then leaves it in a church -- while the story turns out badly, it is not due to the abandonment, which was considered in this High Middle Ages tale quite natural and proper.
Boswell's antipathy toward the Catholic church shows forth a bit in his interpretation (which may nonetheless be valid) with statements such as: '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.'
A wonderful glimpse into a shadowy world at the sidelines of history, yet one of crucial importance for those of us who live in a 'family values' historical period. If we do not know our past, how can we be sure of our present?
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Kindness of Strangers, 16 Jan 2014
Keen Reader "lhendry4" (Auckland, New Zealand) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance (Hardcover)
This book was referenced in another book I read recently, and sounded very intriguing. To be honest, I'd never given much thought to the topic of the abandonment of children in itself. But it's very clear this author has given much thought and consideration to many aspects of the subject. The book covers the period from late antiquity to the Renaissance, and covers the area of Western Europe, so the topic is not covered in the Eastern Empire area, which in itself would fill another book I'm sure.

To start with, how do you define `abandonment'? Was the abandonment of children commonplace or rare? If it's mentioned in literature or legal sources, does that mean it happened and was thus recorded in these sources, or is it a case of `intuitive likehihood' that it may have happened? How can we even begin to find sources from these times that might record such a cultural event? If a parent knowingly sells or gives a child away, is that abandonment? How is abandonment carried out - is it the `exposure' of a child to the elements and fate, or is it the giving of a child to a childless couple to raise, or the selling of a child into slavery or prostitution, or in later Christian times the giving of a child to God as an oblate? If a child is `abandoned' (however that may be defined) does the child retain any rights to any patrimony? Or can they leave the fate they have been abandoned to? Can a parent seek to regain a child that has been abandoned, and if so at what cost and remedy? Is there a social, cultural or legal penalty for abandoning a child? Is there a differentation between abandonment and infanticide, in that the abandonment of a child was done in the hope that the child would be picked up and raised by somebody else? How do you even define a `child'? In law and in different areas this definition varied sharply. These questions, and many more are covered by the author and the result is an astonishing book that opens up so many avenues of thought for the reader, and so many aspects of this seemingly straightforward topic that you would never really have considered.

Given that abandoned children would not often have been recorded in for instance census or taxation records, and given that there must have been many children who, if abandoned disappeared without trace by death or misadventure, what we do know about children and their potential for being abandoned and the various fates (good and bad) that they may have then found makes for astonishing reading. The author concludes that 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." Sadly, the rise of foundling homes from the thirteenth century may well have resulted in the deaths of more children than in previous times. The reasons why children may have been abandoned and the results of such situations make for a startling read, and one well worth pursuing.
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