Dishonoured women and abandoned children in Italy, 1300–1800

This book seeks to contribute to Italian social history and to deepen understanding of Catholic charity and social policy in past times. It focuses on two groups of disreputable (or at least tarnished) women and children and on the arrangements made to discipline and care for them, both by public authorities and by voluntary organisations and would-be benefactors. The first group consisted of prostitutes, concubines, single mothers, estranged wives, and girls in moral danger. The second was composed of children, many born outside wedlock, who were abandoned by their blood parents, out of shame or poverty or both. A synoptic survey, the book examines the complications involved in the tolerance and regulation of activities considered bad but impossible to suppress. Could licensed prostitution be used as a lesser evil to counter supposedly greater abuses, such as sodomy, adultery or concubinage, and to protect ‘decent’ women? Could child abandonment be tamed and used against the greater evils of infanticide or abortion, to preserve the honour of women who had borne illegitimate children and to save fragile lives? And what should be done to protect and rescue the victims of sexual exploitation and children separated from their natural mothers?

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Missionaries and moralists compensated for the tolerance of magistrates by attempting to rescue some female ‘sinners’ from the ‘evil life [mala vita]’ through penance or marriage. Chapter 5 discusses, with examples, the concept of the prostitute saint, a latter-day Magdalen, who redeems herself by repentance and retreat from the world. It focuses on penitential convents, often called Convertite, and on the redemptive methods employed by conversionists, from sermons to personal appeals. Examined here are the qualifications for entry, the novitiates, the rules and disciplinary systems of the Convertite, and their financial arrangements. The chapter shows how and why they began to forsake their original principles and, rather than accept only ex-prostitutes and former concubines, took to admitting virgins from families in straitened circumstances, who, rather than atoning for supposed depravity, were really seeking to enter inexpensive nunneries.

in Tolerance, Regulation and Rescue

After 1540 rescue operations began to rely partly on institutions which attempted to rehabilitate dishonoured women and endangered girls within the world, rather than by removing them permanently from it. Chapter 6 discusses two new forms of refuge. One, a form of half-way house, attended to (among others) women in failing marriages [malmaritate], be they unfaithful wives or victims of feckless or abusive husbands, and concentrated on reconciliation rather than penance; it was possible, though, that they would be used to discipline wives as much as to protect them. A second type of refuge was the protective conservatory for endangered girls [zitelle periclitanti] aged between about nine and eighteen, designed to train most of them as good wives or domestic servants. Much concerned at first with rescuing the daughters of immoral women, such conservatories tended with time to admit girls of more respectable background and to shelter aging women who had little intention of venturing out into the world.

in Tolerance, Regulation and Rescue
An introduction

Introduced by this chapter, the second part of the book analyses another ambitious rescue operation designed to salvage female honour and to protect unfortunate infants. This was the tolerated, indeed organised abandonment of children, sometimes called foundlings [trovatelli], sometimes cast-aways [gettatelli], many of whom were bastards. Abandonment of children by blood-parents was regrettable, but perceived as a lesser evil compared with abortion, infanticide or contraception, with the dishonour of an unmarried mother and her family, with the loss of unbaptised children’s souls to Limbo, with scandal in the community. The chapter traces the spread of foundling hospitals designed to make abandonment safer and discusses their distribution and organisation, their finances, and their development into some of the largest and most costly charities in Italian cities.

in Tolerance, Regulation and Rescue
Abandonment and other choices

Examining various forms of illegitimacy, Chapter 8 describes the circumstances in which ‘natural’ or ‘spurious’ children were most commonly surrendered to hospitals. Italian societies were inclined to favour the concealment of illegitimate births, the separation of unmarried mothers from their children, and the protection of parents’ identity. They justified the existence of foundling hospitals partly by the argument that they discouraged infanticide, though the logistics of abandonment were complicated and the accessibility of hospitals variable; arrangements were improved by the development of discreet maternity homes in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. One dilemma for hospitals was: how far should they restrict entry to bastards alone, or should they, at the risk of being overwhelmed by insupportable numbers, open their doors to legitimate children whose parents claimed to be too poor to maintain them?

in Tolerance, Regulation and Rescue

Did foundling hospitals succeed in rescuing large numbers of foundling children, or did they, through neglect or fundamental indifference, merely replace parental infanticide with institutional manslaughter? This chapter discusses the processes of delivering babies to hospitals, both by the babywheel and by other routes, and the conditions they encountered in nurseries on arrival. Important in explaining high infant mortality were children’s long journeys from outlying communities to overburdened city hospitals; the difficulty of recruiting wetnurses for reception wards; the absence of nutritious substitutes for human milk; the danger that venereal disease would be transmitted by promiscuous breast-feeding. While some abandoned children had probably been damaged before birth by attempts at abortion and concealment, most were placed at high risk by the practice of separating them from their mothers in the first few hours of life.

in Tolerance, Regulation and Rescue

This chapter traces the next steps in the progress of children under the care of foundling hospitals. Survivors of the nursery were sent out to wetnurses and foster parents who cared for them in the city or (more often) in the supposedly healthier countryside. Some were eventually adopted and others returned to the hospital at ages which varied through time. Families, especially country families, valued the extra income from nurses’ wages, and both breast-feeding and adoption may have had roles in determining family size. Hospitals made some attempts at the systematic inspection of foster families, both to protect children’s wellbeing and to save themselves from fraud, though some miscreants succeeded in escaping their vigilance and even at one point in organising a black market in foundling children.

in Tolerance, Regulation and Rescue

This final chapter discusses foundling hospitals’ attempts to bring up children returning from foster homes in conservatories which imposed, especially on girls, a convent-like regime. Most boys became artisans, though a few were educated as clerics or professional men, while some girls were sent (despite misgivings) to be domestic servants, and some pupils of both sexes served the hospitals themselves. Small numbers became privileged musicians and singers, though some hospitals rejected any notion of creating a talented elite and sought to impose a drab, levelling discipline on all their pupils. Numbers could only be controlled if some young women agreed to marry, a prospect for which many had no enthusiasm, while a few became victims of rascally husbands perfunctorily selected for them. Abuses and rebellions were not unknown in conservatories and the status of many foundlings remained ambivalent: should they be treated as innocents deserving of rescue and social integration, or would they sink into an underclass facing grave prejudice, presumed to have inherited the temperaments of their wayward parents?

in Tolerance, Regulation and Rescue
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The conclusion makes comparisons between the medieval and early modern notion of the lesser evil and the more recent concept of harm reduction, and asks how far recent debates on prostitution, child abandonment and the adoption of illegitimate children are still being conducted in broadly similar terms. It argues that, while between 1300 and 1800 charity towards the victims of sexual misconduct and the sex industry grew broader and more imaginative, there were pitfalls in almost every move made and no continuous progress. Institutions often departed from their original aims or failed, through lack of resources, to achieve them. But it is possible to draw attention to significant turning points, and some of those identified in the text are reviewed again here.

in Tolerance, Regulation and Rescue
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The Introduction identifies two related strategies which influenced charity and social policy in Italian communities, ca.1300-ca.1800. The first was a policy of regulating rather than trying to suppress certain morally dubious activities, and also attempting to rescue some of their victims; the second was the practice of showing tolerance for a so-called lesser evil [minus malum] in the hope of averting a much graver one. The book will show how these strategies applied to two spheres of action: the control and protection of dishonoured women, and the treatment of foundlings. The Introduction explains how in this book the term ‘dishonoured women’ will apply not only to public prostitutes but to all women of tarnished reputation, the term ‘foundlings’ chiefly to children believed to be illegitimate. By way of preliminary it indicates how the people and institutions in the book related to general Italian ideas about poverty and the organisations designed to relieve it.

in Tolerance, Regulation and Rescue