In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Foundling Homes

  • Introduction
  • Historiographical Overviews on Demography, Illegitimacy, Infanticide, and Abandonment
  • Historical Context of Ancient and Medieval Culture
  • Sociological Context of Family Structures and Gender
  • Law and Custom on Abandonment and Adoption
  • General Hospitals and Urban Systems
  • Specialized Foundling Homes
  • Art, Architecture, and Cultural Production
  • Economics
  • Rural–Urban Dynamics

Renaissance and Reformation Foundling Homes
Nicholas Terpstra
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 April 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0126


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.

Historiographical Overviews on Demography, Illegitimacy, Infanticide, and Abandonment

Foundlings were most often abandoned by single mothers (servants, slaves, prostitutes, and other marginal persons) who lacked the economic or social resources to raise a child on their own. Abandonment frequently took place within days of birth, and girls were more frequently abandoned than boys (Pullan 1994). Early Renaissance commentators wrote of large numbers of illegitimate infants being thrown in rivers and on trash heaps, and their rhetoric led some modern historians (e.g., Trexler 1973a and Trexler 1973b) to link illegitimacy and abandonment as drivers in a cultural trend to infanticide; Tilly 1992 and Lynch 2000 find this assertion is not supported by either demographic or cultural data. The wide-ranging essays in Boutry 1991 explore how demographic pressures and social conditions strained informal means of surrogate care, and religious values led to the opening of institutional foundling homes and orphanages. Hunecke 1991 and Viazzo 2000 emphasize that where institutional homes opened to accept abandoned children, the incidence of abandonment increased.

  • Boutry, Philippe, ed. Enfance abandonnée et société en Europe, XIVe–XXe siècle: Actes du Colloque international organisé par la Società italiana di demografia storica . . . [etc.], Rome, 30 et 31 janvier 1987. Rome: École Française de Rome, 1991.

    An international and multilingual collection of forty-six essays which comprises a valuable starting point to research on abandonment. While most essays deal with the 19th and 20th centuries, the questions, methodological models, hypotheses, and bibliographies found here have broader utility for early modern research.

  • Hunecke, Volker. “Intensità e fluttuazioni degli abbandoni dal XV al XIX secolo.” In Enfance abandonnée et société en Europe, XIVe–XXe siècle: Actes du Colloque international organisé par la Società italiana di demografia storica . . . [etc.], Rome, 30 et 31 janvier 1987. Edited by Philippe Boutry, 27–72. Rome: École Française de Rome, 1991.

    The opening of foundling homes triggered a boom in abandonments, related initially to illegitimacy and increasingly to urban poverty. There were no homes outside Italy until the 15th century. The shift from smaller local homes (established in the 15th and 16th centuries) to larger regional homes (established in the later 18th) across Europe increased abandonments.

  • Lynch, Katherine A. “Infant Mortality, Child Neglect, and Child Abandonment in European History: A Comparative Analysis.” In Population and Economy: From Hunger to Modern Economic Growth. Edited by Tommy Bengtsson and Osamu Saito, 133–164. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

    Mortality, neglect, and abandonment were not conscious household strategies for controlling family size. Moral constraints and collectively supported institutions like foundling homes moderated such deliberate strategies, which were demographically risky because of high infant mortality rates. High death rates in foundling homes may nonetheless have suppressed some local populations.

  • Pullan, Brian. “Orphans and Foundlings in Early Modern Europe.” In Poverty and Charity: Europe, Italy, Venice, 1400–1700. By Brian Pullan, III: 5–28. Aldershot, UK: Variorum, 1994.

    The clearest narrative overview and introduction to the subject, providing an orientation to shifts in practice from 1400 to 1800 and exploring how much the north/south divide in the treatment of foundlings was rooted in distinctly Catholic and Protestant approaches to family, legitimacy, and charitable care for the poor.

  • Tilly, Louise A., Rachel G. Fuchs, David I. Kertzer, and David Ransel. “Child Abandonment in European History: A Symposium.” Journal of Family History 17 (1992): 1–23.

    A status quaestionis article reflecting on the conclusions generated in the great increase in research produced through the 1980s, and useful in conjunction with Boutry 1991. Authors discuss particularly quantitative, social psychological, institutional, and demographic dimensions of abandonment.

  • Trexler, Richard. “The Foundlings of Florence, 1395–1455.” History of Childhood Quarterly 1 (1973a): 259–284.

    The opening of foundling homes increased the incidence of abandonment, and parents resorting to the Innocenti foundling home were sufficiently aware of high mortality rates that their action was tantamount to infanticide. Data on two homes are tabulated for gender, origins, motivations, and outcomes.

  • Trexler, Richard. “Infanticide in Florence: New Sources and First Results.” History of Childhood Quarterly 1 (1973b): 98–116.

    Trexler argues that infanticide was a fact of life in Florence, citing the high death rates among children left with wet nurses. Whether employed by parents or by hospitals, wet nurses killed so many infants through malnutrition, neglect, and suffocation that we must assume either cultural values or government policy at work.

  • Viazzo, Pier Paolo, M. Bartolotto, and A. Zanotto. “Five Centuries of Foundling History in Florence: Changing Patterns of Abandonment, Care, and Mortality.” In Abandoned Children. Edited by Catherine Panter-Brick and M. T. Smith, 70–91. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    The chances of Innocenti foundlings reaching adolescence were slim in the 15th century, nonexistent in 1630, and poor in the 18th century. Family and demographic crises triggered most early abandonments, and sharp differences in mortality only declined together with those of gender and illegitimacy from the 19th century.

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