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The marriage of female foundlings in nineteenth-century Italy

By David I. Kertzer and Wendy Sigle-Rushton


The large-scale abandonment of infants in the European past has attracted a great deal of scholarly attention in recent years. Its staggering dimensions in many countries of Europe, as recently as the nineteenth century, have prompted some uncomfortable rethinking about family life and parent–child (and especially mother–child) relations in the past. Studies of abandonment have contributed to our understanding not only of gender ideology and gender relations, but also of the roles played by state and Church in regulating sexuality and family life. Yet research on abandoned children to date has had a limited focus. The great bulk of the literature looks at the process of abandonment itself, the terrifyingly high mortality of the foundlings in infancy, and the process by which foundling homes placed their wards in rural foster homes. Perhaps because of the notoriously high mortality of the abandoned babies – though also no doubt due to the greater difficulty of generating suitable data from the archives – little attention has been paid to those foundlings who survived childhood. Typical is the admission found in the major study of foundling homes in Portugal: ‘The fate of the few foundlings who reached adulthood is unknown.’ Yet through the nineteenth century – which provides our focus here – large numbers of foundlings did reach adulthood, and a variety of public authorities were very much concerned about just what kinds of adults they became. Even in determining the placement of infants with wetnurses, foundling home authorities considered the long-term implications for their future as adults. The widespread aversion to placing abandoned infants with wetnurses in the cities was linked to both a belief that the city was corrupt and was likely to produce less wholesome adults than a rural upbringing and to a concern that concentrating a large number of propertyless, family-less foundlings in the city might well create an adult population that would pose a threat to public order

Topics: HQ The family. Marriage. Woman
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Year: 1998
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Provided by: LSE Research Online
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