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David I. Kertzer’s “Sacrificed for Honor: Italian Infant Abandonment and the Politics of Reproductive Control”

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            Infant abandonment is not a new phenomenon. In biblical times when the infant Moses was placed among bulrushes, mothers who could not keep their infants considered abandonment as their only choice. In early fifteenth century Florence, mothers could safely abandon their babies by placing them on rotating stone slabs which would carry the infants into a foundling hospital.

In the contemporary Italy, mothers can safely relinquish their infants in a “baby box” at a hospital in one of Rome’s poorest districts. This box, very much similar to a large ATM, has a heated crib with electronic sensors alerting physicians when an infant is left. In Germany, in the early 2000, mothers could leave their infants in “drop slots”, built on the exterior walls of some community clinics. In the United States, there are increasing media reports of infant abandonment incidents often resulting in neonatal deaths.

            In the last 30 years, scholarly interest in the history of newborn abandonment in Europe has significantly increased, as evidenced by the hundreds of studies published on this subject to date. This interest has been encouraged by the recognition that, although the fundamental features of the infant abandonment system have been well-known for a very long time, several questions of extensive relevance both to historical demographers and to institutional and social and are still for the most part unsettled. David I Kertzer’s book Sacrificed for Honor: Italian Infant Abandonment and the Politics of Reproductive Control is a daring attempt to embark upon some of these issues.

            While the book largely centered discussion on the first half of the nineteenth century, the period when Italian newborn abandonment was in its historical apex, the book also maps out the evolution of the infant abandonment system from its medieval origins until it fell down in the late nineteenth century. In general, Kertzer seeks to explain the pervasiveness and persistence of infant abandonment in Italy, a country which is “renowned for the strength of its family ties and for its mothers’ devotion” (p. 171).

Summary of Chapters

            With Sacrificed for Honor Kertzer continues his wide-ranging studies in population and family in Italy. As the title suggests, the book comprises an comprehensive discussion of foundling homes in Italy, particularly focusing on the nineteenth century, and the case study on pre- and post-Unification Italy. While the fascinating book somewhat concentrates on Bologna, the setting of the author’s previous work, it also contains comparative study of the subject for other areas of Italy, and sometimes other European areas, both Protestant and Roman Catholic.

            This book, grounded in rich primary data and relevant secondary research, tells the stories of the pregnant women, who were under stern control of officials of the Catholic church, who were imprisoned, and who were forced to relinquish their infants. These women are the unwed mothers who put their newborn babies onto the ruota (wheel) – a revolving compartment in the wall of foundling homes or municipal offices all over Italy – a device that kept the identity of the mothers. This cleared those mothers who gave up their offsprings the sin of abortion or infanticide. These devices were usually labeled as “little cemeteries”, since most babies consigned to them died before reaching their first birthday, either from disease or starvation (p. 144).

            In the introduction, the author shows that, in the first half of the nineteenth century, there were about 1,200 foundling homes in Italy. In some areas as many as 40% of infants were consigned to wheels. During this period, Italians were relinquishing about 37,000 infants every year, the highest rate in all of Europe.

While most infant abandonment involved illegitimate offsprings, married partners in such cities as Milan abandoned a third of their children at foundling homes. Kertzer explores why Italy, an anti-institutional and a proverbially family-oriented society would so often give over its children to homes being run by the local government and priests. The following exploration makes up an important contribution to topics about gender and power and particularly with shame and honor, the themes with which southern Europe’s ethnography began.

            In Chapter 1, following the brief introduction to the topic, the author discusses the history of infant abandonment in Italy. In his research, Kertzer reveals that the first foundling homes emerged in the thirteenth century and this institution collapsed in the 1860s, when most foundling homes were shut down. Foundling homes quickly spread from Italy into many other Catholic countries in Europe soon after the Reformation. According to the author, Protestants did not embrace the practice of instituting infant abandonment due to their theological belief of individual responsibility and living with the costs of improper and unaccepted behavior.

            In Chapter 2, Kertzer explores the attitude of the Roman Catholic Church toward infant abandonment and illegitimacy, particularly its desire to avert infanticide and abortion and to avoid the potential loss of the souls of the newborns. In this, the reader learns something about how officials of the Catholic Church, including priests, came up with well-thought spy systems with the intention of identifying unwed pregnant women. Also interesting in this chapter is how women who died with a child still in their womb were opened through cesarian sections to take out the potentially living fetus so that the Church could baptized it.

            In the third chapter, the reader learns important things about institutional control over female sexuality. Here, Kertzer discusses in detail how unwed motherhood was virtually outlawed in Italy. Local pressures and the Italian state laws forced unwed pregnant women to abandon their infants over to the wheel. In a number of cases, mothers who could not afford to pay a fee spent months in the terrible environment of the foundling institutions, wetnursing babies not their own.

            Kertzer examines in the fourth chapter the geographical variability of infant abandonment in Italy. The reader learns that foundling homes across the country were being managed in different ways in various Italian states. Specifically, there were variations in terms of the frequency of the infant’s consignment to the wheel, and to the occurrence of newborn abandonment by married partners.

            Chapter 5 explores the effectiveness of infant abandonment and how married couples could reclaim abandoned children. In this chapter, Kertzer also explores other customs like the naming of foundlings. It is astonishing to know that many common Italian surnames – such as Del Prete, Esposito, Innocenti, among others – are allusions of the names’ priestly origins or of the names of foundling homes. They also allude to the fact of abandonment itself. In addition, the author also teases the reader with only a short discussion in this chapter of the Neapolitan view that the process of passing an infant through the wheel turned it into “Madonna’s child” with unique divine protection.

            The sixth chapter discusses the perpetual problem of ensuring nourishment for the abandoned infants. This chapter also focuses on the different strategies adopted in finding nourishment, like putting infants out with peasant women or recruiting unwed mothers as wetnurses. In this chapter, the reader learns that death rates for abandoned babies were very high. For example, in Florence, in late eighteenth century, about two-thirds of the infants passed into Foundling homes died before their second birthdays. In addition to malnourishment, diseases, such as syphilis, accounted for the staggering death rates among abandoned babies.

            After spending some time in foundling homes, fed by in-house wetnurses, babies who survived might be sent out to go on living with paid, outside wet-nurses. Internal and external wet-nurses are another group whose virtual imprisonment under local supervision and appalling forced labor Kertzer distressingly describes in Sacrificed for Honor. And if the death rates before the age of one that the author reports in the book seem unbelievable by late twentieth century standards, his persuasive description of the conditions and context in foundling homes in the nineteenth century Italy may leave a lot of readers wondering that any abandoned baby survived.

            Kertzer tackles in Chapter 7 the end of the use of the wheel and the decline of foundling homes following the Unification of Italy. This was the time when the Catholic Church in the country became weaker and new ideologies regarding children’s rights extended among intellectuals.

            In the eighth chapter, the reader learns a number of historical explanations of infant abandonment contemporary to the practice as well as in the recent historical literature. Following his discussion of Shorter’s theory regarding parental indifference (which the author does not completely reject, particularly because of the rather common infant abandonment by married partners) and the thought that the increasing child abandonment was a result of industrialization (which he generally rejects), Kertzer argues that this phenomenon of abandonment can best be explained in the framework of state and church control of female reproductive behavior.

            In this chapter, Kertzer reveals that the Catholic Church wanted to make sure to lessen the incidence of abortion and to baptize the children. Moreover, the church attempted at ensuring that the reputations of unwed mothers were protected. Perhaps, most of all, the church wanted to make sure that the honor and reputation of fathers of abandoned infants – they are usually family heads and married; they are also often unmarried sons belonging to elite families – were protected. Essentially, the church achieved these objectives at the cost of the mothers, whose behavior was placed under strict scrutiny. The abandoned infants themselves also suffered because of malnutrition and diseases. The early chapters in the book provide enough foundation for this claim to be persuasive.

            A brief epilogue suggests that the themes in Sacrificed for Honor provide standpoints about today’s reproductive issues. According to Kertzer, one can look back with horror on the nineteenth century Italian issues of newborn abandonment, illegitimacy, the policing of women by the church, the rights of children, the dreadful conditions of the wetnurses in foundling homes, but that the fundamental issues concerned are still active in the current society. Made less harsh by the improved medical care today, the basic issues presented in Kertzer’s book are still subject to political contest.


            In the first look, one may point to economic factors as the primary causes of infant abandonment in Italy and in many parts of the world. In America, media reports have it that many mothers abandon their children because of extreme poverty: they feel that they can’t afford the expenses of raising a child. However, in Sacrificed for Honor, Kertzer junks economics as the major factor, considering that the highest rates of child abandonment happened in both deprived southern regions like Sicily and in more affluent, northern industrial cities like Milan. Rather, the author stresses the crucial role the Catholic Church played in forcing unwed mothers to give up their infants.

            From a network of neighbors, doctors, and midwives, doctors, local priests gathered information on all pregnancies among unmarried women and ensured that their babies were confided right away to foundling homes. The Church devised such scheme in order to prevent infanticide and abortion as well as to guarantee the baptism, although surely not the health, of all newborns. Church officials, as well as the government, claimed to be safeguarding the honor of unwed women considering that the child abandonment process was anonymous. However, this policy also suggested that these women were in poor shape to raise their own children.

            This remains to be a serious issue today. The Vatican is still opposing use of birth control methods such as condom and pills. This is despite the fact that more and more women are favoring and using some form of artificial contraception. While many polls conducted to predominantly Catholic nations, such as those in Latin America, revealed that the population believed in God, many also used birth control methods. Moreover, while the Catholic Church remains firm on its belief that abortion a grave sin, it is commonly practiced in these countries. In fact, considering the difficulties in accessing birth control methods, termination of fetus has become a primary form of birth control in many countries around the world.

            In Sacrificed for Honor, Kertzer draws a picture of unmarried mothers is one of punishment and surveillance. The foundling homes and maternity hospitals described in the book bore a resemblance to penitentiaries, with the poor single mothers as incarcerated wetnurses. The author illustrates a network of social control. Here, one can visualize the Catholic Church as the panopticon. In the operating principles of the panopticon, prisoners are to be impounded in single cells built in a ring that surrounds an observation tower. Prisoners can only see outward from their cells, however, their actions are constantly visible from the watchtower.

            In the context of infant abandonment as described in Kertzer’s book, while the single mothers are aware of the physical source of observation activity – the Church – Church officials must be undetectable to them. This was crucial to the Church’s (panopticon’s) operation, for although, at any one moment, unwed mothers may not be under direct observation, they should be aware that they might be under continuous surveillance. Therefore, the disciplinary effect is steady even if the surveillance itself is not, allowing a small number of Church officials to exercise control over a large number of unmarried women.

            This remains true in the case of today’s women and the Catholic Church. At present, the Church expects women to become self-disciplining: they should not engage in premarital sex, become single mothers, avoid extramarital affair, avoid abortion, must practice abstinence instead of using birth control methods, etc. Especially in predominantly Catholic countries, it is expected that any act of disobedience will be revealed to moral guardians and will be sanctioned accordingly (in the form of stigma, among others).

            While Church officials considered women’s sexual relationships outside of marriage as a carnal sin, and that it viewed the presence of unmarried mothers with babies as immoral and scandalous, the goals and power of the Catholic Church across Europe were not uniform. The Italian Church authorities, for example, significantly differed with their French counterparts. While unwed mothers were forced to abandon their infants to foundling homes in Italy, unmarried mothers in France were not forced to abandon their children, in fact, many Catholic officials in the country urged these mothers to keep their infants.

            However, although the Catholic Church played a pivotal role in the development of the infant abandonment system in Italy, Kertzer discusses that its functioning was largely reliant on support provided by state authorities. The collaboration of doctors, midwives, and a number of secular agencies also helped the Church in developing this system. Moreover, single mothers were pressured to relinquish their infants not only by the representatives of authority (local church officials, priests, doctors, policemen, or policemen); they were also forced by relatives and neighbors who were very concerned with saving the single mother’s honor. Certainly, the author’s crucial conclusion is that “obsession with female honor” (p. 25), drove the entire infant abandonment system in Italy.

            One of the major strengths of the book is that it raises interesting questions about appropriate characterization and periodization with respect to the complex history of the sexes and sexual relations. The author repeatedly exhibits that from the seventeenth century, the Catholic Church in Europe more and more deviated from Protestant in excusing men from any potential accountability with regard to children they fathered outside of marriage. The Napoleonic Code buttressed this tendency by ruling out paternity suits. Italians embraced paternal protection more ardently and more undyingly than other people in Catholic countries. On the contrary, single mothers were required to safeguard their own family’s and the man’s honor by abandoning their infants and by paying a large amount of money for its care, or by submitting themselves, as wetnurses for a year.

            Another strength pf the book is that Kertzer bases a great deal of his data from a large body of recent local studies and harmonizes it with his own library work in Bologna. The author’s accomplishment is to have built a convincing framework for understanding the extent of infant abandonment in Italy and the diversity within the country. On addition, Kertzer also does many European historians a service by putting the Italian experience regarding infant abandonment in a larger geographical perspective. His comparison with Protestant countries supports that thesis that the Church, with the help of the government, was above all responsible for providing both an institutional structure and an ideology that forced many single mothers to relinquish their babies.

            On the minus side, Kertzer could have paid more attention to class differences, which would certainly help the reader’s understanding of child abandonment. While the author makes distinction between the abandonment of legitimate and illegitimate infants, he fails to show that the Catholic Church’s ideas of family honor and sexual shame dominated the urban poor rural or the peasantry. In effect, the reader has no idea about the socio-economic status of the mothers who abandoned their children.

Moreover, the reader does not know what their kinship set-up may have been, or if these mothers were relinquishing first or subsequent babies. Definitely, social values are at the heart of the infant abandonment in Italy. However, Kertzer somewhat sets aside his anthropological education when he attributes the abandonment system mainly to the Church. The author also dismisses the high rates of infant abandonment by married partners as an anomaly localized to Milan and Florence, yet they would appear to propose that a deeper set of cultural values is at work. This smudges, but does not completely downplay the Kertzer’s work.

            Another shortcoming of Sacrificed for Honor is that the last chapter and the epilogue almost deliberately bristle with limited insights regarding causal theories and regarding contemporary connections; Kertzer could have taken more space to develop this. The endeavor to explain away or, on the other hand, to demonize cultures with beliefs, policies, and practices uncongenial to the researchers’ own has proved tempting to many earlier scholars, unfortunately to the disadvantage of their work. The book is also attacked in that it fails to allow for the women’s agency. The lives of the women who chose not to relinquish their infants are obscured by those who appeared in the police and hospital records that the author so carefully mined.


            This review cannot do justice to the riches of information contained in Sacrificed for Honor, and to its perceptive and stimulating treatment of a whole series of very important and complex problems. The book also raises many significant questions more provocatively compared to other previous studies of the same topic. Despite some major flaws, the book is a scholarly, authoritative, and vigorous study suggested for an extensive, interdisciplinary readership. Kertzer’s work is an important addition to the literature on child abandonment and merit to be read and discussed.


Kertzer, D. I. (1994). Sacrificed for Honor: Italian Infant Abandonment and the Politics of Reproductive Control. Boston: Beacon Press.

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