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Abandonment and Infanticide in Medieval Europe

Children under the age of one represented sixty percent of all child deaths in medieval England. Most of these deaths were caused by fires and other accidents, as children were often left alone during harvest or while parents worked. In other instances, a very young infant left alone might choke on a sucking rag soaked in pap (an infant food of flour and milk or broth).

In medieval Europe abandonment and infanticide of infants was so prevalent that several foundling hospitals were established. In 1201 a legend illustrating the need for such hospitals, begins with Pope Innocent III, prompted by a vision, asking fishermen to cast nets into the Tiber River. Four hundred and twenty-seven drowned babies were retrieved from the river. On the basis of this tale, Santo Spirito de Sassia in Rome, a general hospital, opened a section for expositi (exposed or abandoned foundlings). Some foundling homes had a revolving door so that children could be left without humiliating and identifying parents. The first known foundling hospital, Brephotrophia, was established by the Byzantines in 400 AD for children, both abandoned and orphaned.10 While the establishment of foundling hospitals or homes provided a solution to the widespread problem of infant abandonment (and subsequent death), these institutions had extremely high mortality rates (as discussed in Chapter 1). At Chartres, for example, mortality was an astonishing 100%. Crowding, disease, insufficient sustenance and wet nurses (and the pestilence carried by them) caused most children to die before the age of two.11

The crime of infanticide tended to reflect regional cultural biases. In Venice and England, for example, a mother’s protestation of innocence was often accepted, whereas in other parts of Italy the mother was often met with suspicion when her child died. Illegitimate children in particular were susceptible to infanticide

(discussed further in Chapter 11).12 Infanticide, when identified as such, was punished by excommunication, and in some cities burning at the stake or beheading.

In response to widespread practice of murdering one’s own children, San Bernardino, an associate of the Franciscan Fra Cherubino da Siena, was heard to say, “Go to Ponte Vecchio, there by the Arno, and put your ear to the ground and listen [to].. .the voice of the innocent babies thrown into your Arno and your privies or buried alive in your gardens and your stables, to avoid the world’s shame, and sometimes without baptism”.13

It is often difficult to determine whether infanticide has been practiced, although gender ratios are one reliable method by which to determine whether deaths are a result of natural causes. Normal gender ratios are 105 to100 in favor of males. In fourteenth century England, for instance, the ratio of infants found was 133 to 100—given this great deviation from normal ratios one may deduce that those deaths were not a result of natural causes. In response to the widespread murder of children, myths were fabricated to cover the crime of infanticide with disappearance. Kindlifresser, an ogre who ate toddlers in Berne, Germany, was one such example. Similarly, Jews were accused of using the blood of Christian children for Passover rituals.14

In the Yi li, the Chinese book of etiquette and rites based on Confucianism, mourning rituals are described for children of different age groups. Parents of children, from the ages of three months to seven years, who had died were to wear no mourning clothes, and children younger than three months were “not to be wept for at all”, although some texts state that for an infant under the age of three months, parents may weep one day for each day of the child’s life. Evidence exists to show that many early Chinese, including emperors, disregarded these “rules”, and grieved openly after elaborate funerals.15

Kinney asserts that the absence of funeral rites and burial practices for infants was a reflection of high mortality for very young children and thus a reticence of parents to become too attached; a theme that persists over and over in the child death literature. Materials found during archaeological excavations indicate that parents believed that the spirits of infants and children demanded attention after death. In some cases it was believed that frequent infant death in one family may suggest Jie, an attack on the family’s living infants by the spirit of the deceased baby. In order to be rid of such spirits one could spray the bones of the deceased child with either dirt or ash.16

In Sung era China (907—1279 AD) children could be executed for striking a parent or grandparent. Among the poor, infanticide was common. If a man had numerous sons, he could have no more than four sons and three daughters.

A drowning bucket was kept near the birthing site to enforce this limitation. Eventually in 1659 Choen Tche made the first official edict against infanticide. Abandonment was also common among late-bearing parents whose estate had been divided up by first born children. Later in Hangchow, a foundling hospital was opened to take in these infants.17

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