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The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance Hardcover – 1 Jan 1989

4.5 out of 5 stars 2 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Hardcover
  • Publisher: Pantheon Books (Jan. 1989)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0394572408
  • ISBN-13: 978-0394572406
  • Product Dimensions: 23.6 x 16 x 4.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,828,355 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Review

"Highly original, learned, and skillfully written. . . . A mine of fascinating and surprising information about every aspect of the history of family limitation in ancient, medieval, and Renaissance Europe."--Bernard Knox "New York Review of Books "

"A formidably learned, ingenious, at times eloquent investigation. Professor Boswell is a young historian of rare force and originality."--George Steiner "New Yorker "

"Bold, original and, very likely, controversial. . . . This is a pioneering work of large importance, the first to map out and explore a tangled, mysterious region of human experience."--Mary Martin McLaughlin "New York Times Book Review " --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Format: Paperback
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:
'...in 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.
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By Keen Reader TOP 50 REVIEWER on 16 Jan. 2014
Format: 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'?
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 3.8 out of 5 stars 7 reviews
23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Strangeness of Times Past 4 April 2008
By Gio - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
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!
21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Staggering Erudition 13 April 2003
By mOjo Cosgroove - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
First, let me explain that I am not using this book in any class I teach(unlike the other 2 previous reviewers). I read this out of my own interest. Second, it is odd that only 2 prior reviews exist on this site, since I believe this to be an important book by the author of two well-known and controversial works about homosexuality and Christianity.
Third, allow me to rebut the negative review below. It is unclear how "college students" could fully evaluate Boswell's scholarship. While his numerous and lengthy footnotes can be a chore, his meticulous referencing of sources is admirable. And he quotes those sources in their ORIGINAL languages in many cases:Greek, Latin, Italian, Irish, Norse, Icelandic etc. How did the college students mentioned above possibly find his references "contradictory and wrong??"
In sum, this book is provocative and original. It would take scholars in the field of child history (granted a small field, if it indeed could be deemed one)an entire year to fully digest this tome and scrutinize its sources. Any thinking person interested in the evolution of human attitudes towards adoption, the protection and rearing of children, and child abuse MUST reckon with this marvelous work.
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The fate of children 27 May 2003
By FrKurt Messick - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
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:
'...in 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?
5.0 out of 5 stars Nothing is new 1 Aug. 2007
By Susan Cromby - Published on Amazon.com
You think stories of children left abandoned in garbage cans is new? Then you need to read this book. People have been dumping unwanted children forever. What do you do when you can't feed the ones that actually have a chance to live and a new baby comes along? You take your child to the crossroads or some other place that strangers frequent and you leave it. And then, for the rest of your life, you pray that the kindness of strangers worked out for your little one. Maybe some passing rich person would find the infant and take it into their home. If it didn't die of exposure. If it wasn't eaten by dogs or rats. If something else didn't kill it first. This book is a serious history detailing the dilemma of thousands of parents through the ages. It's really eye-opening.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent History of the abandonment of Children 27 May 2007
By Bradford Hamilton - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
I picked up this book at a thrift store with no real idea of what it was about. The topic sounded interesting and I thought it was worth a try. What a shock it was to read how children where abandoned in the past because they were defective, illegitimate, inconvenient and threaded to mess up inheritance laws.

When we read history we tend to assume our current values applied in the past too....this is not the case...we learned from out mistakes and made changes in our life's to try to put value on human life.

I recommend this book to anyone; including teens....it will open your eyes and your heart.
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