Why so many abandoned babies?

In the 1600’s and 1700’s the government and the church got together with a project to prevent infanticide. A high number of babies were being abandoned on church steps, doorsteps, even thrown in the river (like Moses). Tiny corpses were found in out of the way places. Remember that these babies were the physical evidence of ‘sins’ committed by the mothers who bore them. The father’s are rarely mentioned!
To save the souls and honour of these unfortunate and sinful women who might kill or abandon their babies without the benefit of baptism a system evolved that covered all of Italy.
Ruota or wheels where babies could be abandoned anonymously and safely were set up in all towns of a reasonable size. In many places priests, doctors and midwives were recruited to police unmarried and pregnant women to ensure that their babies were abandoned in the proper manner so that these unfortunate souls could be baptized and ensured a place in heaven. In some areas where there was a risk that the woman might attempt abortion, she was escorted to a ‘safe house’ where she stayed until the birth. Even if she wanted to keep and raise her child in many areas this was not permitted. The child was removed and sent to the nearest orphanage. The fact that this orphanage was many hours or days away and that often the child would not be fed during the trip meant that many did not arrive alive at the orphanage. Those who did were often in poor condition and frequently fed by women prostitutes who were infected with syphilis. Often it was the child of a prostitute that infected the wet nurse!
Thousands and thousands of babies who were abandoned or forcibly taken from their mothers died before their first birthday. The lucky ones were those born in the hospital attached to the orphanage and who were entrusted within hours of their birth to a farming family whose own child had just died and who would be paid a small salary for feeding this orphan.
In many rural communities far from the official orphanages often found a local woman who would feed the child for a small salary. Usually until about age 2 or 3 when they would have to be reassigned.
It was not unusual for legitimate children to be abandoned in this way as families grew faster than their ability to feed them. Sometimes a mother who was often still breastfeeding her last child, would deliver in private, put the baby in the wheel and tell her husband the child had died at birth. If the mother was not in agreement, the child would be removed and abandoned by the midwife or a relative telling the mother the child had died especially if the child was obviously deformed or handicapped in some way.
It is easy to understand that in a culture where so many children died before their second birthday of disease, or illness that a mother would not have a strong bond with that child. The pain of losing a child so frequently would be too great. The lack of a strong maternal bond made it easier to treat children as commodities, raise them for work in the fields and even abandon those who were surplus. It is hard for us to understand this attitude and certainly it does not prevail today in Italy, in fact the pendulum has swung much too far the other way where children are encouraged by the Italian Constitution to remain dependent on their parents for life!

One comment

  1. Great blog post Ann! I’m researching an abandoned child myself right now though my wife’s family in San Fele, Potenza, Basilicata. I figured out the adopting parents and know the true birth mother, but trying to get any more information (including the father) has been problematic (I’ve been trying to get baptismal records for a clue but to no avail). I’ll keep trying!


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