Death's Alternative & Unwanted Children


by David Martin | Communications Specialist

The difficulty that characterized life in Europe during the Middle Ages is rarely lost on anyone, but how often do we reflect the ways in which this played out for the marginalized of society? How, for instance, did mass poverty and a very high mortality rate affect the youngest and most vulnerable members of civilization?

Many children born during this period of history were, for varying reasons, either unwanted or unable to be cared for by their parent(s), and these newborns were often abandoned. Reasons leading to abandonment included (though certainly were not limited to):

  • Poverty/lack of ability to care
  • Illnesses or deformities in the child
  • Undesired gender of child
  • Extramarital affairs
  • Wars and famines

No class of society was exempt from this propensity to abandon children. A poor family may have felt the pressure of provision and abandoned a child whose needs could not be met. An aristocratic child born out of an extramarital affair would not only have brought shame upon the families involved, but would have complicated inheritance issues. The prevalence of casting off children spread to every corner of the culture. Reasons for child abandonment in the Middle Ages did not differ altogether from leading causes today, though. The same human issues transcend periods of time.

In the early Middle Ages, in Europe, unwanted children were often sold into slavery; however, this lessened with the growth of the church, as Christians did not characteristically buy and sell one another as slaves. In addition, because of the reach and influence of Christianity, infanticide came to be gravely looked down upon in the culture, to the point that abandonment became the preferred alternative, so long as the child was abandoned in such a way as to likely receive needed care.

The first group to offer this needed care was, in fact, the church. Both handicapped and healthy children were often left at the doors of monasteries and churches. The church was considered the only institution that would legitimately take care of these vulnerable children. It was not, however, equipped with the means to provide long-term care for children, and this deficiency led to the cropping up of homes for foundlings. These homes were often religiously-based, but not directly tied institutionally to the church. These homes were able to help in several arenas where other solutions were falling short, but many children still did not live, and being placed in a home was not a guarantee of survival for an infant.

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Still, a much greater chance of survival was allotted to those children who remained in families. Recognizing this, there was a strong advocacy on the part of clergy to place unwanted children in families. Much of the legal red tape of modern society was not present in those times, and a family would often simply take an abandoned child into their home and raise the child as part of the family.

[box] Adoption was the best hope for a child to have a happy and healthy future, and it was notably the church that did the bulk of the labor promoting this. [/box]

Records of inheritances show that a significant bond would often develop between these adopted children and their caregivers. Contrary to what some historical fiction suggests, these children were not seen as sub-par. Adoption was the best hope for a child to have a happy and healthy future, and it was most notably the church which did the bulk of the labor in promoting this.

Also, if not for the church, infanticide would have been much more prevalent. Clergy knew that they had to go farther than simply condemning the killing of unwanted children and walking away. The church knew that its duty was to provide the systems and means to care for these children.

Acts clearly communicates the early church's belief that caring for orphans was one of its central mandates, and hundreds of years later, though still struggling with the severe dynamics of a fallen world, the church is persistently hearing and heeding that call to care for the helpless, and moving forward to do all in its power to remember the least of these. May we do the same today.

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Much insight for this article taken from the book:

Growing Up In The Middle Ages | Paul B. Newman

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