Foundling Homes

Nicholas Terpstra

in Renaissance and Reformation

ISBN: 9780195399301
Published online June 2012 | | DOI:
Foundling Homes

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  • Modern History (1700 to 1945)
  • Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy


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Institutional foundling homes first emerged in late-14th-century Italy as distinct charitable initiatives of civic governments, confraternities, and guilds, and aimed to curb the exposure and to channel the abandonment of infants, most of whom were illegitimate. Some historians see precedents for institutional care in the practice of monastic oblation, and certainly by the 13th century general hospitals accepted foundlings as well. There were few specialized foundling homes outside of Italy before the 17th century, but by the 18th century their numbers had expanded rapidly across Europe. This spread, together with the different types of documentation that were kept and preserved after that time, has shaped scholarship on the homes. With few exceptions, such as Florence’s exceptionally well-documented Innocenti home where 375,000 children were abandoned from the 15th century through the 20th, the most statistically rich and quantitatively sophisticated demographic studies deal with homes from the 18th and 19th centuries. The terms used for abandoned infants suggest differences in legal culture and mentalité across Europe. Northern Europeans used terms that emphasized these children’s status as having been “found” (enfant trouvé, foundling, findelkind). Southern Europeans more often used terms that emphasized how they had been “lost”: exposed, abandoned, or thrown away (esposto, abbandonato, gettatello). Where comparative statistics are available, it appears that far more children were “lost” in southern Europe than were ever “found” in the north, a fact that may explain the greater and earlier proliferation of institutional homes in the south.

Article.  4961 words. 

Subjects: Modern History (1700 to 1945) ; Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy

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