Child abandonment, mostly in the form of exposing newborn babies either in the wilderness or in public places where they could be noticed, is a widespread theme in religious and imaginative literature. Famous examples include Moses, who was rescued by Pharaoh's daughter, and many gods and heroes of classical mythology, from Zeus and Oedipus to the twins Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, who were found and suckled by a wolf. Similar stories have been reported from societies all over the world. The Yaudapu Enga of New Guinea, for instance, have a narrative tradition that includes supernatural beings who take abandoned children and rear them to live privileged lives. Such a pervasiveness in myths and folktales is, however, no proof that abandonment was widely practiced in real life. One may also wonder whether most deserted infants were actually rescued, as the happy ends of legendary tales would seem to suggest. These issues are the subject of intense debate among historians and other scholars.

The Kindness of Strangers

Until the mid-1980s historians and anthropologists broadly agreed that in most premodern societies, including ancient and medieval Europe, infanticide was an important means of population regulation. They also maintained that exposure, rather than outright killing, was the most common method of disposing of unwanted babies, thereby implying that abandonment was tantamount to infanticide. This view was challenged in 1988 by John Boswell in his influential book The Kindness of Strangers, which traces the history of child abandonment in Western Europe from late antiquity to the Renaissance. Boswell did not deny that in the ancient world abandonment was widespread. His analysis of a large body of literary, legal, and ecclesiastical sources confirmed that abandonment was not confined to deformed babies or infants born of incestuous and other forbidden relationships; legitimate children, too, were likely to be given up by parents who desired to limit family size. This led him to estimate that in the first three centuries C.E. urban Romans abandoned 20 to 40 percent of their children through exposure. According to Boswell, however, the same evidence also indicated that most of them were rescued. Since in the ancient world there were no institutional arrangements for abandoned children, they owed their survival to what Latin sources called aliena misericordia, or the "kindness of strangers" who found and raised the unwanted children. Although some FOUNDLINGS doubtless became slaves, most of them were apparently granted the status of foster children. Childless couples, or parents who had lost some of their offspring, were especially keen to retrieve exposed babies and raise them.

Boswell's picture of child abandonment as an efficient and almost painless mechanism of redistribution, whereby families with a surplus of children surrendered some of them to parents who had too few or none at all, has been criticized on various grounds. It has been argued, in particular, that his contention that most exposed children did not die is too rosy, for survival clearly depended on a combination of lucky circumstances, such as being discovered before harm had been done and being placed with a woman who had fresh milk to give. Nevertheless, Boswell's point that child abandonment should not be conflated with infanticide, whatever its death toll, is supported by ethnographic studies that emphasize that in many cultures it makes a crucial difference that abandoning parents do not actually take the child's life and therefore give the baby a chance to survive. These studies also show that abandonment does not always end in death. Even in supposedly infanticidal societies such as the Netsilik Eskimo society, in which abandonment was frequent, the infant's crying was a message to other members of the group that they might save the infant and adopt it if they wished.

Indeed, in much of Europe as well as in many other societies, abandonment was actually regarded as an alternative to infanticide. This distinction is crucial to understanding Christian attitudes toward abandonment. Like Jews and Muslims, and in contrast to the Greeks and Romans, Christians believed that infanticide was murder and condemned it resolutely. On the other hand, abandonment was treated less harshly. Sharing the views of philosophers like Epictetus, Musonius, and the Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo, who had been the only ancient writers to object to abandonment, early Christian moralists initially had denounced child abandonment as equivalent to infanticide. From the fourth century on, however, early disapproval was replaced by an attitude of resignation and sympathy toward those who abandoned their children as a result of destitution or other misfortune. Whereas infanticide and abortion were strongly condemned throughout the Middle Ages, no councils or ecclesiastical authorities prohibited abandonment. A similar attitude prevailed in medieval Muslim society.

Public Intervention

From about 1000 to 1200 abandonment was less common than it had been previously, but in the thirteenth century it was again on the increase owing to the combined effects of demographic growth and adverse economic circumstances. It was in this period that foundling homes were created in a number of Italian cities, as part of a more general movement by civic institutions, both religious and secular, to handle social problems. Until the nineteenth century foundling homes were regarded as important manifestations of Christian piety. One major reason behind the establishment of these hospices devoted to the care of abandoned children was the fear that infants might be killed by unwed mothers who wanted to avoid social disapproval or by parents made desperate by poverty and hunger.

The appearance of foundling homes was a turning point in the history of child abandonment; the private "kindness of strangers" was superseded by public intervention. The Italian model spread rapidly to Portugal, Spain, and France, though not immediately to the rest of Europe. A new chapter in the history of the care of infants opened during the ENLIGHTENMENT, when a second generation of foundling homes was established in many European cities, especially in the Catholic countries and in Russia. This institutional development paralleled a dramatic growth in the number of exposures, which in early nineteenth-century Europe reached a height of perhaps 150,000 per year. Such a massive increase was due partly to rising rates of illegitimate births, and partly to the growing tendency of impoverished parents to trust the care of at least some of their offspring to the foundling hospitals. In most parts of Europe admission was supposedly restricted to illegitimate children, but large numbers of unentitled children were smuggled into the hospitals through the "wheels," revolving cradles that were arranged so as to allow people approaching from the street to introduce infants without being seen from within the building. Tokens of various kinds were often left as potential signs of identification, and it was not unusual for abandoning parents to return to the hospital after a year or two to reclaim their children. However, the chances of finding them alive were slim, since it was rare for more than half the foundlings to survive the first year of life.

Although institutionalized abandonment made some inroads in northwestern Protestant Europe, by the early nineteenth century a striking contrast was clearly discernible between such countries as Prussia, England, Switzerland, and the United States, where newborns were seldom abandoned, and Russia and the Catholic countries of southern and central-eastern Europe, where mass abandonment was exerting a mounting pressure on foundling homes originally intended for a much lower number of children. During the course of the nineteenth century, the closure of the wheels began to be seen as the only way out of an increasingly unbearable situation. French hospitals were the first to make this move. By 1853 most wheels there had been shut, and in the second half of the century the French example was to be followed all over Europe.

The closure of the wheels resulted in a sudden and drastic decline of child abandonment, which helped to curb foundling mortality. In the last decades of the nineteenth century the abandonment of illegitimate children also began to fall, a change partly linked to the spread of contraception. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the classic form of child abandonment had virtually disappeared. The term abandonment is nowadays used to designate a different and much wider range of childhood experiences, including the few cases of infants and young children who are exposed, but also the predicaments of street children, victims of war, CHILD PROSTITUTES, children of refugee parents, and runaway children who actually abandon their parents and unhappy homes to escape from troubled environments.

See also: Foster Care; Homeless Children and Runaways in the United States; Orphanages.


Boswell, John. 1988. The Kindness of Strangers. The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance. New York: Pantheon.

Fildes, Valerie. 1988. Wet Nursing. A History from Antiquity to the Present. Oxford: Blackwell.

Gil'adi, Avner. 1992. Children of Islam. Concepts of Childhood in Medieval Muslim Society. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer. 1992. "Fitness Tradeoffs in the History and Evolution of Delegated Mothering with Special Reference to Wet-Nursing, Abandonment, and Infanticide." Ethnology and Sociobiology 13: 409–442.

Kertzer, David I. 1993. Sacrificed for Honor. Italian Infant Abandonment and the Politics of Reproductive Control. Boston: Beacon Press.

Panter-Brick, Catherine, and Malcolm T. Smith, eds. 2000. Abandoned Children. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Scrimshaw, Susan C. M. 1984. "Infanticide in Human Populations: Societal and Individual Concerns." In Infanticide. Comparative and Evolutionary Perspectives, ed. Glenn Hausfater and Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. New York: Aldine.

Tilly, Louise A., Rachel G. Fuchs, David I. Kertzer, et al. 1991. "Child Abandonment in European History: A Symposium." Journal of Family History 17: 1–23.