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Sacrificed for Honor: Italian Infant Abandonment and the Politics of Reproductive Control.

Sacrificed for Honor offers a fascinating look at a grim topic--the large-scale abandonment of new-borns in nineteenth-century Italy. Few readers might guess that illegitimacy and abandonment were common in Italy. Aware of our stereotypes, Kertzer asks us to ponder why so many babies were cast out "in this most family-centered of Western societies". To answer this question, Kertzer focuses on church and state institutions that oversaw the short lives of foundlings and that encouraged unmarried women to abandon infants. Kertzer recognizes that Catholic clerics believed they saved the souls of babies and protected women's honor and men's privacy by doing so. Still, he views the development of a "system of infant abandonment" as a peculiarly Catholic contribution the policing of women, marriage and sexuality.

Kertzer divides his book into two sets of linked chapters. Four chapters examine infant abandonment in historical and comparative perspective. The book's central three chapters focus on the abandonment of babies in Italy's many regions in the nineteenth century.

Kertzer argues that the institutionalization of abandonment originated in the Catholic Church's complex reaction to the Reformation. Increasingly, it sought to baptize abandoned infants, thus saving their souls. It sought also, and with new vigor, to force religiously sanctioned marriages on an indifferent populace. Kertzer suggests that rural Italians in the 1600s distinguished little between "legitimate" and bastard children, and that they cared little about female sexual purity as a mark of family honor. Ultimately, Kertzer's analysis encourages us to see two key elements of Italian folk culture as products of Church power.

Hoping to regulate reproduction more effectively, the Church developed strategies for removing bastards from the immoral women who produced them, while simultaneously providing redemption opportunities for "fallen women" by concealing their sinful pregnancies. It showed little interest in the fathers of bastards. Instead, religious institutions that received abandoned babies worked with midwives and local priests to identify unmarried pregnant women. They were to be taken to hospices and prisons, and then forced to pay for their internment by nursing several newborns--but never their own child.

From Italy, Kertzer argues, this "system" spread throughout Catholic Europe. No such system developed in the newly Protestant regions. There, social policy and religious attitudes apparently discouraged abandonment. Few institutions received abandoned children. Women kept their children, identified the fathers, and expected these men to contribute to the support of the child. Kertzer himself casts his interpretation of child abandonment as "a kind of morality play".

Sacrificed for Honor offers a heart-rending and excellent analysis of the geography of abandonment in nineteenth-century Italy. A fascinating chapter establishes the huge regional variations in illegitimacy, patterns of abandonment, and institutional responses before and after Italy's unification. Subsequent chapters examine the institutions of local child abandonment: la ruota (a turntable mounted in a secluded wall outside a foundling home, into which women deposited infants); the foundling home; wet-nursing and fostering. Increased abandonment of illegitimate children clearly overwhelmed these institutions in the nineteenth century. Kertzer documents shocking rates of disease and death among abandoned children (and, not incidentally, among their mothers and the women who nursed them). In a final chapter, he shows how high rates of foundling mortality and new biological notions of maternal responsibility led to the closing of Italy's "wheels" by 1900.

The case study of Italy in these chapters sometimes fits uneasily with the general interpretations of Kertzer's "morality play." We find surprisingly little evidence here that unwed mothers ever routinely kept their children. By contrast, Kertzer documents that both unmarried and married parents abandoned infants in appalling numbers before systematic church intervention. (Most of these children died of exposure, or were eaten by dogs.) While illegitimate birth certainly swelled the numbers of infants abandoned in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, abandonment rates never equalled those of the tumultuous 1600s, when Church initiatives had only begun. Even much later, reformers' campaigns aimed as much to force married people (in places like Florence, Milan, and Palermo) to keep their children as to force the unmarried to abandon theirs. Did the Church really have to force most parents to give up their children? Kertzer works hard to show clerical coercion throughout Italy, but his richest evidence comes from the Papal States, where clerical power--although under repeated attack after 1800--prevailed most effectively.

Kertzer urges readers in an epilogue to consider how this Italian "morality play" resonates in contemporary debates. He is surely correct that beliefs about female sexuality remain central to today's discussions of medical supervision of pregnancy, teenage child-bearing, abortion, and welfare payments. He is also correct that moral and religious convictions shape policy discussions. But how does our understanding of nineteenth-century Italy help us make sense of these issues? Are we to see present-day Catholic opposition to abortion as a contemporary effort to force women to abandon their children? Or is it instead an effort to force them to keep them? Are we to see welfare payments to unmarried women as comparable in some way to foundling homes? By contrasting Protestant "laissez-faire" to Catholic "policing" of illegitimacy throughout his book, Kertzer ignores the possibility that laissez-faire produces its own coercive practices--notably "shot-gun" weddings and scarlet letters. Clearly, there are several compelling moralities at play here--as there were in the European past Kertzer explores.

Because Kertzer has been willing to raise very large comparative questions and to pose them in provocative fashion, Sacrificed for Honor will undoubtedly shape a new round of research on infant abandonment. The questions he poses, however, will require comparative methodologies, rather than case studies of individual nations or individual centuries. As our understanding of abandonment across Europe improves, we may find the "lessons" of history too complex to summarize in a morality play.

Donna Gabaccia University of North Carolina at Charlotte
COPYRIGHT 1994 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Gabaccia, Donna
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1994
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