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The Cradle of Fate : THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS : The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe From Late Antiquity to the Renaissance by John Boswell (Pantheon Books: $24.95; 488 pp.; 0-394-57240-8)

July 02, 1989|Robert Maniquis | Maniquis is the director of "1789-1989, The French Revolution: A UCLA Bicentennial Program."

Garbage bins are where people today sometimes leave their babies. We have all heard such stories and we all wonder at such barbarity. But do street smarts, especially of the poor, suggest that the garbage heap is where unwanted babies are most likely to be found? Are people who abandon their children in this way both callous and kind?

Attitudes toward children, as John Boswell shows, always have been contradictory. All European society until the 15th Century, where this history stops, witnessed multitudes of babies left--not in the garbage but near pagan altars or on church steps or in the branches of trees--by pathetic parents who, even as they left their children perhaps to die, still hoped for kindness somewhere. Boswell begins by reminding us of Rousseau, that most influential of 18th-Century social thinkers, whose psychological contradictions point us toward the past and forward to the present. Rousseau sincerely cultivated familial sentiment: He insisted that mothers nurse their babies and that fathers carefully guide their children's education. None of this prevented him from abandoning all of his five children to foundling hospitals. Contradictions of this kind we might attribute to modern social disruption, if they could not also be traced far into antiquity.

Given what Boswell describes here and what we know from other studies, it is clear that child abandonment has always been common and complicated: "At no point did European society as a whole entertain serious sanctions against the practice. Most ethical systems, in fact, either tolerated or regulated it. Ancient and early Christian moralists sometimes reproached parents for exposing their offspring, but rarely because the act itself was reprehensible: It was usually condemned as a token of irresponsible sexuality, or as a dereliction of some wider duty to state or family." Abandoned children were commonly taken up and cared for, though the "kindness of strangers" produced both legal problems and much fear of accidental incest with the many abandoned children who became prostitutes. This last concern was long-lasting and was emphasized under Christianity which, urging sexuality only for procreation, may have actually swelled the number of unwanted children, many of whom found their way into monasteries and nunneries.

Boswell's skillful weaving together of social continuities with specific historical moments renders his knowledge of early Europe important to those interested in antiquity, the Bible, the Middle Ages, demography, family history, early European literature, and even modern culture. Many kinds of specialists will gradually decide just how important this book is, and their criticisms may be severe, since Boswell must rely heavily on fictional literature, which causes him constantly to warn us about his evidence. Still, he is not given to dramatic claims where there is no drama. Few pages go by without Boswell telling us how much we do not know about one or another aspect of his subject--an admission of ignorance buttressed by Greek, Latin, and Hebrew footnotes that gobble up whole pages. Giant footnotes should not, however, keep the general reader from the fascinating themes of this book, just as the author's prudence has not kept him from posing interesting questions.

Boswell challenges, for instance, an assumption, common in studies like that of Philippe Aries' "Centuries of Childhood" (1962), that before about the 17th Century, Western civilization cultivated very little feeling for children. Our own conceptions of the child are tied to our own social, economic and political necessities. Definitions of childhood shape educational philosophy, which in turn authorizes our definitions, all this in an ideological tradition that runs from John Locke's political writings of 300 years ago to psychological theories and social policy of today. Modern, self-conscious obsession with childhood, however, may have also led us to exaggerate ancient and medieval disregard of children. Societies tolerant of abandonment seem also to have been concerned with children, if we can judge by the socially improvised ways those abandoned were taken up and nurtured. Here Boswell is especially useful in gauging the importance of slavery, fostering, prostitution, and religious oblation in the absorption of abandoned children into society.

Children abandoned today are more likely to survive than in the 5th Century BC or in the High Middle Ages. But abandonment takes many forms and, as Boswell shows, it has good and bad remedies. Reading this book will not diminish our sadness at the idea of a child of antiquity left on a hillside or another deposited with yesterday's garbage. Sadness here will only be more informed and cause us to wonder just how many lonely children, now wending their way as prostitutes, beggars and thieves or simply starving in the world's mean streets, await a better fate than their counterparts did 2,000 years ago.

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