Some statistics appall. Here is one recently encountered in Carlo Cipolla's book, Before the Industrial Revolution: in Milan and Venice between the 17th-18th centuries, foundlings numbered near a tenth of births.[1] Fernand Braudel gives another like it: in Paris around 1780, abandoned children represented about a quarter of births.[2] And these are only recorded abandonments.[3] It is hard to comprehend the tragic mess summarised in such numbers.

Cipolla also sees these as pointing to the harsh limits of preindustrial life, where low productivity meant fewer dependents could be supported. Greater child abandonment was one response. This brings to mind Adam Smith's introduction to The Wealth of Nations, where he tells of how struck he was by "savage nations of hunters and fishers",

so miserably poor that, from mere want, they are frequently reduced, or, at least, think themselves reduced, to the necessity sometimes of directly destroying, and sometimes of abandoning their infants, their old people, and those afflicted with lingering diseases, to perish with hunger, or to be devoured by wild beasts.[4] 

Yet the above statistics suggest Smith's own society was not so far removed from this state.

Or should they? Both Cipolla and Braudel caution that the children abandoned in cities were often brought in from surrounding areas.[5] But this means the number of foundlings in Milan, or Venice, or Paris, shouldn't be related to births in those cities alone, but also to births in the surrounding countryside. And as preindustrial populations were predominantly rural, such an adjustment makes a big difference.

In roughly the same time periods as the above statistics, the urbanisation rate was ~15% in Northern Italy and ~10% in France (residing in cities of at least 10,000 inhabitants).[6] Using these, we can roughly re-estimate the above rates of child abandonment relative to total births – if we (a) take the rate of child abandonment in Milan, Venice and Paris as representative of all cities above 10,000 population in their regions;[7] (b) only consider those children abandoned in cities, where data is available; and (c) assume equality between urban and rural birth rates. (All three should be questioned).

Doing this re-estimation, the rate of child abandonment falls to ~1.5% of total births in 18th century Northern Italy (=10%*15%), and ~2.5% in late 18th century France (=25%*10%). Of course, these rough calculations only include the recorded number of urban abandonments. But I am still struck by how the results become much more in line with modern societies. In the United States, for instance, the number of children becoming available for adoption each year was apparently equivalent to 1.5% of births in the late 20th century.[8] Hence the adjustment dramatically changes the conclusion.

If such calculations are at all accurate, my takeaway is that those interested in the impacts of material progress shouldn't strongly claim that preindustrial societies had much higher rates of child abandonment, nor make the implied link to average productivity.

So I'm interested in anyone's thoughts or suggested reading on this issue. In particular, what do we know about preindustrial child abandonment outside of the big cities, and particularly in rural areas?


[N.B. I'd like to apologise to anyone for whom the above issues connect on a personal level, and recognise that the term "abandonment" is strong and can have inappropriate connotations. The above thoughts-in-progress have been written quickly and without much sensitivity to this. Sorry.]

  1. ^

    Carlo M. Cipolla (1994) Before the Industrial Revolution: European Society and Economy, 1000-1700; Third Edition, p.57-58

  2. ^

    Fernand Braudel (1981) Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century, Volume I: The Structures of Everyday Life: The Limits of the Possible, p.491

  3. ^

    The number of recorded foundlings is likely lower than the actual number of abandoned children: for instance, they had a high mortality rate and may have died before being recorded. Note, however, that at the same time abandoned children were also probably not captured in the official birth statistics (against which their number is being compared), due to the act's nature of secrecy.

  4. ^

    Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Introduction and Plan of the Work

  5. ^

    Cipolla, Before the Industrial Revolution, p.57; Braudel, The Structures of Everyday Life, p.491

  6. ^

    Jan De Vries (1984) European Urbanization, 1500-1800, p.39

  7. ^

    In The Kindness of Strangers (p.15-16) John Boswell provides more data on child abandonment as a share of births for cities across France: "In every city in France in the eighteenth century where it is known, the rate of abandonment was 10 percent or better." In Toulouse it averaged 10% in the first half of the 18th century, and 17% in the second. Between 1750-89, it was about a third in Lyons and 20%-30% in Paris.

  8. ^

    John Boswell (1998) The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance, p.16


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