Using old records and tales, Boswell traces one of the main fates of unwanted children: abandonment. From antiquity through the end of the Middle Ages, European parents of every social standing, in every circumstance (from rape to incest to adultery to married couples), abandoned or sold their children, in expectation that they would be adopted or raised elsewhere. The rates were highest from the late Roman Empire (beginning around 250 AD) through the eleventh century, dipped during the next two prosperous centuries, and then started to rise again around 1200. "At no point did European society as a whole entertain serious sanctions against the practice. Most ethical systems, in fact, either tolerated or regulated it...Christianity may well have increased the rate of abandonment, both by insisting more rigidly than any other moral system on the absolute necessity of procreative purpose in all human sexual acts, and by providing, through churches and monasteries, regular and relatively humane modes of abandoning infants..." The main change in abandonment from antiquity to the Middle Ages is that with increasing worth put upon lineage and birth, adoption of abandoned children decreased in both rate and the value people placed upon it. Before, adopting a child meant that the parent-child bond was even more powerful, since it was chosen; after, adopted child-parent bonds were considered inferior. During antiquity, children survived via the kindness of individuals, and added to a parents' glory. Later, they were usually given to the Catholic church as oblates, were they were forced to live the rest of their lives as monks or nuns. In the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, European cities created foundling hospitals, which took in hundreds of infants a year but killed most of them through communicable disease.
Boswell lays out his arguments, interpretations, and sources with meticulous detail and a wonderfully dry, sarcastic style. See my status updates for statistics or anecdotes that particularly struck me.