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Blood Ties and Fictive Ties: Adoption and Family Life in Early Modern France.

Kristin Gager's study of adoption practices in early modern France explores a subject that is quite poorly known - in some measure because it was thought not to exist. From the medieval period onwards, Gager shows, there was a high level of prejudice against the formal adoption of children both in systems of customary law that governed northern France and within the ideology of the Roman Catholic Church. Her goal, however, is to demonstrate the persistence of practices of adoption among ordinary Frenchmen, despite these formidable sources of opposition.

Despite the book's title, Gager's study focuses nearly exclusively on the Paris region. In chapter 1, the author describes the variety of family forms that existed in the sixteenth-century capital, starting from the top of the social structure. She uses the work of Natalie Davis and Lawrence Stone to argue that the early modern period witnessed upper class families' growing consciousness of marriage-based and lineal kin bonds, which encouraged the development of "family strategies" to ensure individual and group success. Adoption, however, does not appear to have been numbered among these strategies. Those Parisians most likely to seek out children for adoption came instead from the middling ranks of the city's population whose family lives were much more open to the creation of "fictive" kin relations through the experiences of wet nursing, apprenticeship and god parenthood.

Chapter 2 addresses issues of medieval laws on adoption and manages to make a potentially arid subject interesting. Most importantly, Gager illuminates the bases of the Church's stated antipathy to adoption, resolving the apparent contradiction between the Church's acceptance of spiritual, invented ties of god parenthood and its suspicion of actual adoption. She shows the importance of the lingering association of adoption with ancient Roman practices in which children were introduced into the family at the wishes of the paterfamilias solely to ensure family continuity. The Church's contrasting emphasis on the marital and biological elements of kinship appears more comprehensible in this light. Gager's examination also suggests that lay Christians and even clergy might accept the actual practice of adoption as long as it appeared to involve values of charity or spiritual kinship that distinguished it from the heirship model of ancient Roman adoption.

Chapter 2 also succeeds in unraveling the legal complexities surrounding the apparent paradox that although compilations of regional customary law (many of them newly compiled, edited, and published in the sixteenth century) declared full adoption to be non-existent or illegal, it nonetheless occurred.(1) Gager resolves this conundrum by clarifying the inheritance rights of adoptive children. Although adopted children had no inheritance rights under most forms of customary law, this did not mean that they could receive no property from their adoptive parents. It meant only that adoptive parents usually had to resort to a written testament and/or the transfer of property inter vivos in order to protect the child's property claims from potentially rapacious collateral kin. These terms were often dictated in the formal adoption records which provide one of the major primary sources of the book.

Gager's analysis of the practice of private adoption is based on some forty notarial contracts of adoption concluded in the capital between 1545-1690. This admittedly thin data base nonetheless allows the author to develop an initial sort of collective portrait of the adults and children involved. The duties of parenthood revealed in the contracts are familiar: adoptive parents promise to treat children as "their own"; to bring them up in the fear of God (and often, given the period under study, as good Roman Catholics), to provide them with education (often), and nearly always with apprenticeship training that will enable both girls and boys to earn their own living decently. Adoptive parents, Gager observes, are nearly all drawn from the "laboring, artisan, and minor merchant segments" of Parisian society, (p. 78) and state in the adoption contracts that they wish to adopt because they are childless, desire an heir and want someone to care for and to care for them in their old age. Gager shows that parent(s) giving up children often transferred funds to the adopting parents to help defray some of the latters' expenses, though children tended to pass from less to more affluent homes. There is no evidence that adoptive parents paid money for the children. Records also show that the two households involved often had pre-existing ties that bound them - ties of kinship, or to a lesser extent, god parenthood and neighborhood. She shows that unmarried and widowed women as well as married couples sought out children for adoption.

Chapter 4 turns to the public form of adoption which involved Parisian couples and orphaned or abandoned children who were wards of the city's foundling institution - the Maison de la Couche, and later the Hopital des Enfants Trouves. Here, Gager discusses the late medieval and early modern history of care for foundlings in the capital. Particularly interesting is her discussion of this subject in the period before the mid-seventeenth century, when royal authority struggled with the Chapter of Notre Dame and other seigneurial authorities to determine exactly who was responsible for foundlings' care. By contrast with later periods, Parisian foundlings in the seventeenth century were few in number, totaling approximately seventy per year.

Gager distinguishes between the Paris foundling hospital and the variety of other institutions endowed to care for legitimate, orphan children from whom foundlings were rigorously distinguished. She notes the existence of systems of short-term "fostering" of legitimate orphans that included stays at the wet nurse or apprenticeships in households in need of labor.

In Chapter 5, Gager examines forty-five cases of adoptions of foundlings in the years 1540-1677 in detail and finds them remarkably similar in many ways to private adoptions. Adults adopting foundling children seem to have been guided by some of the same motives as those involved in private adoptions, with the addition of a more self-conscious statement of charitable impulses that led them to take these stigmatized children into their homes. Foundling children were adopted well after they had passed through the perils of infancy. Boys' ages ranged from 4-8 and girls from 6-12. Like many observers of European foundling institutions, Gager expresses surprise that girls were adopted as often or more often than boys. Girls were particularly favored by unmarried women or widows. The author's earlier discussion of the availability of foster children helps underscore her belief that adoptions of foundlings were real adoptions, and not simply contracts for child labor. Gager observes little evolution in the form of the adoption contract from the sixteenth to the late seventeenth century except for a gradual decline in the use of the term "adoption" itself, which she interprets as possible evidence of notaries' increasing cognizance of the discrepancy between their practices and the prejudice against adoption in customary law.

A final chapter gives a brief overview of revolutionary sentiment favorable to adoption, in which successive cohorts of leaders saw adoption alternatively as a means to equalize social relations, divide great fortunes and therefore enforce brotherhood from above. Although Gager rightly argues that the practice of adoption that she has documented contributed to the continuous appeal of adoption as reality and symbol, one is most struck by the contrast between the overblown rhetoric of revolutionary pronouncements on adoption and the genuine feeling conveyed by the more austere notarial documents. Much to her credit, Gager is a sensitive reader of both kinds of sources. Another strength of the book comes from the author's familiarity with a range of cross-cultural studies of adoption which enables her to see her evidence in broad perspective.

As the author states, she is unable to inform us about the extensiveness of the practice of adoption in Paris or France, since she has focused intensively on those cases she was able to find in notarial documents rather than devising a more elaborate sampling strategy. One gets a sense that the formal practice may have been relatively rare. Yet several features of adoptive parents, children, and their environments suggest that despite certain cultural prejudices and suspicions, adoption was a relatively familiar and widely accepted practice among the middling sort in early modern France, especially in cases of childlessness.

While a number of readers might lament the small number of cases that the author is able to detail, it must be remembered that Kristin Gager has succeeded, at least preliminarily, in studying a practice that was not supposed to exist at all. Her work thereby contributes to a growing body of fine historical research that is demonstrating that the new frontier of family history lies in examining the variety of ways that Europeans constructed kinship relations, both real and fictive, using private and public systems to do so.

Katherine A. Lynch Carnegie Mellon University


1. Gager defines full adoption as pertaining to "those cases in which parental authority is clearly transferred from the natal to the adoptive parents, who take on the full range of parenting duties extending from the child's infancy until adulthood." (p. 73)
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Author:Lynch, Katherine A.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1997
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