Getting rid of them

Tom Shippey

  • Betrayal: Child Exploitation in Today’s World edited by Caroline Moorehead
    Barrie and Jenkins, 192 pp, £15.00, March 1989, ISBN 0 7126 2170 9
  • The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance by John Boswell
    Allen Lane, 488 pp, £20.00, April 1989, ISBN 0 7139 9019 8

The first of these books has a clear plan, allowing several people to work on it. It pulls in material from all over the world, giving scope for frissons of strangeness and variety. Most of all, it has an ‘issue’ about which everyone can be guaranteed to feel strongly, and similarly. The issue is child exploitation and child neglect. There can be no question that both are rife, both are sad, and both are desperately serious. But they are serious in ways which this book cannot explain. While the authors are boldly prepared to say that they are in favour of motherhood, and definitely against the man-eating shark, on more delicate and less obviously emotive matters they are not prepared to comment.

What, for instance, should be expected of children? Caroline Moorehead, the editor, must have an opinion here, but she does not explain what it is. ‘In Medieval Europe,’ she declares, ‘children were regarded as adults in miniature: small, immature grown-ups who needed time – but not very much of it – in which to grow, both physically and mentally.’ Only in the last century were children ‘at last perceived as a separate kind of creature’. Whatever one may think of Ms Moorehead’s view of Medieval Europe – it comes just after a sentence which declares that the Black Death drove all fit people to work on the land, a view so wrong one hardly knows where to start correcting it – the tone of confidence in modern progress and ‘the Western World’ is unmistakable. But are children really ‘a separate kind of creature’? They do grow into adults, and (one has to say) in an inseparable kind of way. If one read ‘people’ for ‘grown-ups’ in the passage quoted above, and deleted the qualifier about ‘not very much of it’, would the allegedly Medieval view be so unacceptable? The Medieval/Modern opposition has not been thought through. Its ill-effects are perceptible at many places in this volume of essays.

Several of the contributions are genuinely alarming, or appalling, like the essay by Andrea di Robilant on ‘street children’ in Brazil, the one by Cameron Forbes on sexual exploitation of children in the Philippines, the one on abused children in Great Britain by Sarah Hobson (consisting largely of taped statements). It is hard, though, to take as seriously the exposé, by the editor again, of children working in ‘sweatshops’ in Naples. No doubt the children are underpaid, and no doubt they play truant from school. Would school do anything for them, though? What else is on offer? On Saturdays and Sundays Gianni ‘sleeps late and goes out riding on his motorbicycle; in the summer he goes to swim off the rocks that divide the grand hotels of the esplanade from the sea.’ Many middle-class children all over England would cheerfully swap with him, from that account. Gianni’s problem is not that he is a child, it is that he is poor, and the unthinking assumption that all children in all societies should be kept in separate institutions till they reach some defined ‘school-leaving age’ is just that: unthinking. Rich solutions are no answer for poor societies.

Elsewhere contributors spoil strong cases by simple gullibility. No doubt Thai babies are stolen for adoption, or perhaps for prostitution, but how would you use a baby for drug-smuggling? Is the ‘thinking’ behind this that customs officers won’t look at a corpse? If so, why not use an adult corpse? How do you explain ‘repatriating’ a dead baby? It’s a pity to snatch at a thrill and miss a point.

Because there is a point to this book, and a serious one, even if it never comes into focus. It is one of demography. By the year 2000, the editor says, and I believe her, more than a quarter of the world’s population will be under 16. But not here: not in Great Britain, not in Western Europe, nor in Eastern Europe, nor even in the USA. Here the demography is the other way. By 2025, we’re told, on current trends (though I’m not sure I believe this all the way), more than half the British population will be over 65. A giant child-surplus in some countries, a painful worker-dearth in others. And who is going to do anything about that? And what? The Moorehead volume is about emotion, and its allegation is ‘betrayal’. But on the whole betrayal of justified trust seems rare in its accounts – except in the painfully indignant letter written by a British male to the judge who tried his public-school teacher on charges of assault and in time-honoured British style bullyragged the 11-year old witnesses till they collapsed, two of them later to commit suicide. Now that is betrayal, of the weak by the strong, of the young by the old, of the victims by the system. But the adult Third World ‘exploiters’ here are not much less victimised than the Third World children they exploit. What is needed is not unfocused emotion, but mechanisms for coping: first, contraception.

What would you do if you didn’t have contraception? Is there another mechanism for coping with surplus fertility? The ancient and long-successful answer, suggests John Boswell, is abandonment: handing your child over to The Kindness of Strangers. What Boswell starts from is some well-known stories, those of Oedipus, of Romulus and Remus, of Paris, Perdita, or Moses in the bulrushes. The child cannot or must not be kept but may not be directly killed, so it is put out, thrown out, exposed – different terms in different societies, from Icelandic bera ut to Latin exponere, but always the same idea. Most of us have assumed that most such children died. That was the point of the exercise, at least in the case of Oedipus. The survival of children in stories indicates only their great good luck, or the favour of the gods, or the power of fate. Not so, says Boswell. The fact is that most such children survived, the parents knew they were going to: the practice of abandonment was not a form of modified murder, but really a sort of child-exchange.

The evidence for this (once assembled) is overwhelming, and culled from a quite fantastic variety of sources. The job of an academic, it used to be thought, is to read books, and Professor Boswell has been doing his job. Legal texts, in Latin and Spanish and Old English, monastic arguments, penitentials, Icelandic sagas, Greek romances, Medieval romances, chronicles and commentaries – long before page 100 a deep sense of envy had settled on this reviewer, never to lift again, perhaps the surest tribute other than imitation. What makes the achievement even more remarkable, though, is that this evidence has all been weighed and sifted. Very early on Boswell introduces the useful notion of a ‘quicksand topos’. Quicksands, he notes, are common occurrences in Western fiction, from Blazing Saddles to Don’t point that thing at me. That doesn’t mean that the average person has ever seen one. Could abandonment be like quicksands, primarily useful in fiction as a plot device? Or was it instead more like adultery: something very much more common, and more casual, in real life than in fiction – so common, in fact, that there was no point in commenting on it unless it led to something (as with Oedipus or with Moses)?

If it were not the latter, there would be no need for a standard form on which to notify such events. But Boswell even has one of those, as chilling in its implications as the rubber-stamp for indicating fatal accidents to miners in The Road to Wigan Pier. A document from sixth-century Anjou, written in horrible Latin, signifies the finding of a child by (blank), the agreement of the priest (blank), and its sale to (blank) sicut apud nos consuetudo est, ‘as is the custom among us’. Moral energy, in this letter, is reserved for cursing any possible future reclaimer of the child, aut domenus vel parentis, ‘whether owner or parent’. That seems to have been the main Roman worry in such cases, under the Empire and later. Parents had every right to sell or give away their children, and it was the rare commentator (like Basil of Caesarea) who even saw the potential for pathos in parents who didn’t want to sell. What exercised the legal mind much more was not even whether parents had a right to take such children back (they did), but how much compensation they should pay to the child-rearers, how identity should be proved, and, most worrying of all to the Roman mind, whether free-born children might not possibly be reduced unknowingly to slavery, or, of course, slave-born children raised improperly to freedom.

Either eventuality seems to have been as likely as the other. The general presumption that only poor people would abandon babies is not borne out, Boswell thinks. Rich people might want to avoid inheritance problems; peasants might only want to rear daughters after they had had a son. The Roman Empire abandonment rate, Boswell suggests, ran maybe at 20-40 per cent. This is barely conceivable by modern British or American standards, where every foundling is instant news: but our proportion of babies handed over for adoption is relatively high (maybe 1.5 per cent), and – a striking point – it is still not high enough. In the USA some two million couples are chasing fifty thousand available babies per year, an annual success rate of one in 40. Even now, one may say, if there were an accepted place to leave babies where they would be certain to be picked up, who knows how many mothers would take advantage of it?

Picked up by whom? In the ancient world, wrote Quintilian, they went to ‘the pimp or the gladiator-trainer’. Or to the professional beggar, who mght collect expositi and cripple them so that they would become more efficient objects of pity. All this was strongly disapproved of, but not to the extent of anyone ever blaming the neglectful parents. The Roman ideal, it seems, by no means totally unrealistic, was that the unwanted child would become an alumnus, in another family, to reach at least some status in the world, and even not inconceivably to be reclaimed by or reunited with the natal parents at some time in the future. Putting babies out, then, was, under the mechanisms then operating, as often like offering them for adoption as it was like infanticide.

It still seems a cold-hearted business. How was this practice of the ancients modified by Christianity? One might have expected it to be forbidden: the Icelandic accounts of the conversion to Christianity in the year 1000, as Boswell notes, cite the exposure of infants together with the eating of horsemeat as the main marks of paganism, to be tolerated only temporarily. But Christians have never been forbidded to eat horsemeat, Boswell protests. Nor were they especially forbidden to expose their children, as long, of course, as they did not commit murder, and in particular as long as there was no risk of a child dying unbaptised. Around 906, Regino of Prüm prescribed very severe penalties for infanticide and even for neglect, but, typically, contented himself as regards expositi by regulating reclaiming and compensation, and advising priests to urge errant young women to leave their babies at the church door. Christianity, indeed, says Boswell, may have stimulated the practice of abandonment for several reasons: strict limitation of sexual activity, which made child-bearing at the wrong time an embarrassment; superstitious fear that deformed children (or even twins, as in Marie de France’s ‘Lai Le Fresne’) were pointers to some kind of sexual sin in the parents; perhaps most strongly, the creation of classes of people who could not afford to be connected with children at all. In an Appendix Boswell translates for the first time the barbarous tale of the Nun of Watton, from Aelred of Rievaulx: a novice, reared in a convent, who had an affair with a monk-workman and became pregnant. The nuns flogged and chained their unhappy sister, but then tricked her into betraying her lover, caught him, made her castrate him, and stuffed his genitals into her mouth. ‘You see what ardour enflamed the guardians of modesty,’ wrote Aelred: ‘I praise not the deed but the zeal ... I commend the great outrage of the holy virgins against immorality.’ The point of the tale, according to him, is that as a result of the nuns’ prayers the girl’s baby miraculously disappeared from her womb, freeing the convent from the horror of scandal. One cannot help thinking what in practice happened to babies in similar situations who were not miraculously vaporised: abandonment, in other words, was the real obverse of the merry tales of Boccaccio or the fabliaux. Society could not have managed without it.

One returns to demography. Possibly there were times and places in the Middle Ages when abandonment was rare. In England after the Black Death hands were scarce and children valuable. Langland knows all about the practice of beggars crippling children, but he does not think they are other people’s children: the beggars conceive them immorally, ‘as wilde bestes with “wehee” worthen uppe and werchen’ (mount and go to it), but then they break their own bastards’ backs, ‘and goon and faiten with hire fauntes’ (go and feign with their children) ‘for evermoore after’. Old Germanic literature – also mostly recorded just after a major European ‘die-back’ – does not provide much material either. Boswell toys with the notion of fostering as a kind of abandonment, but it obviously isn’t. ‘I was seven winters,’ says the aged Beowulf, ‘when the lord of treasures took me from my father ... he gave me feast and treasure, he remembered our kinship. Never in life was I more hateful to him than any of his own children.’ This is even more than an alumnus relationship: the child loses a father, but stays in a family. Nor does a fostered child forfeit any rights to marriage, to gaining property and starting a family of his own.

Perhaps that is the major final query about the Boswell thesis. Did abandonment have any great effect on population growth? Could it have been a sort of contraceptive (by reducing children’s economic status and so their chances of breeding in their turn), or did it by contrast make adults all too careless about producing unwanted offspring? Data here are hard to come by. The practice of ‘oblation’ – putting children in convents or monasteries – effectively kept the population down, renegade nuns notwithstanding. Selective abandonment of females may have had the same result; as two world wars have shown in several European countries, killing men does nothing at all to stop the population growing, but breeding a preponderance of men very likely would. Maybe the element of luck and chance in abandonment kept people guessing, allowing the practice to be a ‘slow and gentle’ brake on demographic increase, as in our century abortion and contraception have, worldwide, singularly failed to be.

One final paradox: the worst thing that ever happened to the European child population, Boswell argues, was the well-intentioned invention of the foundling hospital. In ancient times children were left publicly at the churches or the lactaria, waiting for aliena misericordia, ‘the kindness of strangers’. As time went by, things became more efficient. Charities founded hospitals; errant mothers, cold-hearted fathers, Jean Jacques Rousseau himself, all came and put their babies on a little wheel, or ruota. It was rotated; the babies went anonymously inside the walls; they were looked after by paid functionaries; usually, they died of contagious disease, smallpox or scarlet fever or cholera, for which large foundling wards were ideal incubators. Everyone was very proud of this communal charity, so similar in spirit to the good intentions (but real disinclination to be bothered) of relieving Europeans today. Oedipus himself would not have survived it.