David I. Kertzer’s “Sacrificed for Honor: Italian Infant Abandonment and the Politics of Reproductive Control” Sample Essay


Infant forsaking is non a new phenomenon. In scriptural times when the baby Moses was placed among cat’s-tails. female parents who could non maintain their babies considered forsaking as their lone pick. In early 15th century Florence. female parents could safely abandon their babes by puting them on revolving rock slabs which would transport the babies into a foundling infirmary.

In the modern-day Italy. female parents can safely release their babies in a “baby box” at a infirmary in one of Rome’s poorest territories. This box. really much similar to a big ATM. has a heated cot with electronic detectors alarming doctors when an baby is left. In Germany. in the early 2000. female parents could go forth their babies in “drop slots” . built on the exterior walls of some community clinics. In the United States. there are increasing media studies of infant abandonment incidents frequently ensuing in neonatal deceases.

In the last 30 old ages. scholarly involvement in the history of newborn forsaking in Europe has significantly increased. as evidenced by the 100s of surveies published on this topic to day of the month. This involvement has been encouraged by the acknowledgment that. although the cardinal characteristics of the infant forsaking system have been well-known for a really long clip. several inquiries of extended relevancy both to historical demographists and to institutional and societal and are still for the most portion unsettled. David I Kertzer’s bookSacrificed for Honor: Italian Infant Abandonment and the Politicss of Reproductive Controlis a make bolding effort to ship upon some of these issues.

While the book mostly centered treatment on the first half of the 19th century. the period when Italian newborn forsaking was in its historical vertex. the book besides maps out the development of the infant forsaking system from its medieval origins until it fell down in the late 19th century. In general. Kertzer seeks to explicate the pervasiveness and continuity of infant forsaking in Italy. a state which is “renowned for the strength of its household ties and for its mothers’ devotion” ( p. 171 ) .

Summary of Chapters

WithSacrificed for HonorKertzer continues his wide-ranging surveies in population and household in Italy. As the rubric suggests. the book comprises an comprehensive treatment of foundling places in Italy. peculiarly concentrating on the 19th century. and the instance survey on pre- and post-Unification Italy. While the absorbing book slightly concentrates on Bologna. the scene of the author’s old work. it besides contains comparative survey of the topic for other countries of Italy. and sometimes other European countries. both Protestant and Roman Catholic.

This book. grounded in rich primary informations and relevant secondary research. tells the narratives of the pregnant adult females. who were under austere control of functionaries of the Catholic church. who were imprisoned. and who were forced to release their babies. These adult females are the unwed female parents who put their newborn babes onto theruota( wheel ) – a revolving compartment in the wall of foundling places or municipal offices all over Italy – a device that kept the individuality of the female parents. This cleared those female parents who gave up their progenies the wickedness of abortion or infanticide. These devices were normally labeled as “little cemeteries” . since most babes consigned to them died before making their first birthday. either from disease or famishment ( p. 144 ) .

In the debut. the writer shows that. in the first half of the 19th century. there were about 1. 200 foundling places in Italy. In some countries every bit many as 40 % of babies were consigned to wheels. During this period. Italians were releasing approximately 37. 000 babies every twelvemonth. the highest rate in all of Europe.

While most infant forsaking involved illicit progenies. married spouses in such metropoliss as Milan abandoned a 3rd of their kids at foundling places. Kertzer explores why Italy. an anti-institutional and a proverbially family-oriented society would so frequently give over its kids to places being run by the local authorities and priests. The undermentioned geographic expedition makes up an of import part to subjects about gender and power and peculiarly with shame and award. the subjects with which southern Europe’s descriptive anthropology began.

In Chapter 1. following the brief debut to the subject. the writer discusses the history of infant forsaking in Italy. In his research. Kertzer reveals that the first abandoned infant places emerged in the 13th century and this establishment collapsed in the 1860s. when most foundling places were shut down. Foundling places rapidly spread from Italy into many other Catholic states in Europe shortly after the Reformation. Harmonizing to the writer. Protestants did non encompass the pattern of establishing infant forsaking due to their theological belief of single duty and life with the costs of improper and unacceptable behaviour.

In Chapter 2. Kertzer explores the attitude of the Roman Catholic Church toward infant forsaking and bastardy. peculiarly its desire to debar infanticide and abortion and to avoid the possible loss of the psyche of the neonates. In this. the reader learns something about how functionaries of the Catholic Church. including priests. came up with well-thought undercover agent systems with the purpose of placing unwed pregnant adult females. Besides interesting in this chapter is how adult females who died with a kid still in their uterus were opened through cesarean subdivisions to take out the potentially living foetuss so that the Church could baptise it.

In the 3rd chapter. the reader learns of import things about institutional control over female gender. Here. Kertzer discusses in item how unwed maternity was virtually outlawed in Italy. Local force per unit areas and the Italian province Torahs forced unwed pregnant adult females to abandon their babies over to the wheel. In a figure of instances. female parents who could non afford to pay a fee exhausted months in the awful environment of the abandoned infant establishments. wetnursing babes non their ain.

Kertzer examines in the 4th chapter the geographical variableness of infant forsaking in Italy. The reader learns that foundling places across the state were being managed in different ways in assorted Italian provinces. Specifically. there were fluctuations in footings of the frequence of the infant’s cargo to the wheel. and to the happening of newborn forsaking by married spouses.

Chapter 5 explores the effectivity of infant forsaking and how married twosomes could repossess derelict kids. In this chapter. Kertzer besides explores other imposts like the naming of abandoned infants. It is amazing to cognize that many common Italian family names – such as Del Prete. Esposito. Innocenti. among others – are allusions of the names’ priestly origins or of the names of foundling places. They besides allude to the fact of abandonment itself. In add-on. the writer besides teases the reader with merely a short treatment in this chapter of the Neapolitan position that the procedure of go throughing an baby through the wheel turned it into “Madonna’s child” with alone Godhead protection.

The 6th chapter discusses the ageless job of guaranting nutriment for the derelict babies. This chapter besides focuses on the different schemes adopted in happening nourishment. like seting babies out with peasant adult females or enrolling unwed female parents as wet nurses. In this chapter. the reader learns that decease rates for derelict babes were really high. For illustration. in Florence. in late 18th century. about two-thirds of the babies passed into Foundling places died before their 2nd birthdays. In add-on to undernourishment. diseases. such as pox. accounted for the astonishing decease rates among derelict babes.

After passing some clip in foundling places. fed by in-house wet nurses. babes who survived might be sent out to travel on life with paid. outside wet nurses. Internal and external wet nurses are another group whose practical imprisonment under local supervising and shocking forced labour Kertzer painfully describes inSacrificed for Honor. And if the decease rates before the age of one that the writer studies in the book seem incredible by late 20th century criterions. his persuasive description of the conditions and context in foundling places in the 19th century Italy may go forth a batch of readers inquiring that any abandoned babe survived.

Kertzer tackles in Chapter 7 the terminal of the usage of the wheel and the diminution of foundling places following the Unification of Italy. This was the clip when the Catholic Church in the state became weaker and new political orientations sing children’s rights extended among intellectuals.

In the 8th chapter. the reader learns a figure of historical accounts of infant abandonment coeval to the pattern every bit good as in the recent historical literature. Following his treatment of Shorter’s theory sing parental indifference ( which the writer does non wholly reject. peculiarly because of the instead common infant forsaking by married spouses ) and the idea that the increasing kid forsaking was a consequence of industrialisation ( which he by and large rejects ) . Kertzer argues that this phenomenon of forsaking can outdo be explained in the model of province and church control of female generative behaviour.

In this chapter. Kertzer reveals that the Catholic Church wanted to do certain to decrease the incidence of abortion and to baptise the kids. Furthermore. the church attempted at guaranting that the reputes of unwed female parents were protected. Possibly. most of all. the church wanted to do certain that the award and repute of male parents of derelict babies – they are normally household caputs and married ; they are besides frequently single boies belonging to elite households – were protected. Basically. the church achieved these aims at the cost of the female parents. whose behaviour was placed under rigorous examination. The derelict babies themselves besides suffered because of malnutrition and diseases. The early chapters in the book provide adequate foundation for this claim to be persuasive.

A brief epilogue suggests that the subjects inSacrificed for Honorprovide point of views about today’s generative issues. Harmonizing to Kertzer. one can look back with horror on the 19th century Italian issues of newborn forsaking. bastardy. the policing of adult females by the church. the rights of kids. the awful conditions of the wet nurses in foundling places. but that the cardinal issues concerned are still active in the current society. Made less rough by the improved medical attention today. the basic issues presented in Kertzer’s book are still capable to political competition.


In the first expression. one may indicate to economic factors as the primary causes of infant forsaking in Italy and in many parts of the universe. In America. media studies have it that many female parents abandon their kids because of utmost poorness: they feel that they can’t afford the disbursals of raising a kid. However. inSacrificed for Honor. Kertzer junks economic sciences as the major factor. sing that the highest rates of child forsaking happened in both disadvantaged southern parts like Sicily and in more flush. northern industrial metropoliss like Milan. Rather. the writer stresses the important function the Catholic Church played in coercing unwed female parents to give up their babies.

From a web of neighbours. physicians. and accoucheuses. physicians. local priests gathered information on all gestations among single adult females and ensured that their babes were confided right off to foundling places. The Church devised such strategy in order to forestall infanticide and abortion every bit good as to vouch the baptism. although certainly non the wellness. of all neonates. Church functionaries. every bit good as the authorities. claimed to be safeguarding the award of unwed adult females sing that the kid forsaking procedure was anon. . However. this policy besides suggested that these adult females were in hapless form to raise their ain kids.

This remains to be a serious issue today. The Vatican is still opposing usage of birth control methods such as rubber and pills. This is despite the fact that more and more adult females are prefering and utilizing some signifier of unreal contraceptive method. While many polls conducted to preponderantly Catholic states. such as those in Latin America. revealed that the population believed in God. many besides used birth control methods. Furthermore. while the Catholic Church remains house on its belief that abortion a grave wickedness. it is normally practiced in these states. In fact. sing the troubles in accessing birth control methods. expiration of foetus has become a primary signifier of birth control in many states around the universe.

InSacrificed for Honor. Kertzer draws a image of single female parents is one of penalty and surveillance. The foundling places and pregnancy infirmaries described in the book bore a resemblance to penitentiaries. with the hapless individual female parents as incarcerated wet nurses. The writer illustrates a web of societal control. Here. one can visualise the Catholic Church as the panopticon. In the operating rules of the panopticon. captives are to be impounded in individual cells built in a ring that surrounds an observation tower. Prisoners can merely see outward from their cells. nevertheless. their actions are invariably seeable from the watchtower.

In the context of infant forsaking as described in Kertzer’s book. while the individual female parents are cognizant of the physical beginning of observation activity – the Church – Church functionaries must be undetectable to them. This was important to the Church’s ( panopticon’s ) operation. for although. at any one minute. unwed female parents may non be under direct observation. they should be cognizant that they might be under uninterrupted surveillance. Therefore. the disciplinary consequence is steady even if the surveillance itself is non. leting a little figure of Church functionaries to exert control over a big figure of single adult females.

This remains true in the instance of today’s adult females and the Catholic Church. At present. the Church expects adult females to go self-disciplining: they should non prosecute in prenuptial sex. go individual female parents. avoid adulterous matter. avoid abortion. must pattern abstention alternatively of utilizing birth control methods. etc. Particularly in preponderantly Catholic states. it is expected that any act of noncompliance will be revealed to moral defenders and will be sanctioned consequently ( in the signifier of stigma. among others ) .

While Church functionaries considered women’s sexual relationships outside of matrimony as a animal wickedness. and that it viewed the presence of single female parents with babes as immoral and disgraceful. the ends and power of the Catholic Church across Europe were non unvarying. The Italian Church governments. for illustration. significantly differed with their Gallic opposite numbers. While unwed female parents were forced to abandon their babies to foundling places in Italy. single female parents in France were non forced to abandon their kids. in fact. many Catholic functionaries in the state urged these female parents to maintain their babies.

However. although the Catholic Church played a polar function in the development of the infant forsaking system in Italy. Kertzer discusses that its operation was mostly reliant on support provided by province governments. The coaction of physicians. accoucheuses. and a figure of secular bureaus besides helped the Church in developing this system. Furthermore. individual female parents were pressured to release their babies non merely by the representatives of authorization ( local church functionaries. priests. physicians. police officers. or police officers ) ; they were besides forced by relations and neighbours who were really concerned with salvaging the individual mother’s award. Surely. the author’s important decision is that “obsession with female honor” ( p. 25 ) . drove the full baby forsaking system in Italy.

One of the major strengths of the book is that it raises interesting inquiries about appropriate word picture and periodization with regard to the complex history of the sexes and sexual dealingss. The writer repeatedly exhibits that from the 17th century. the Catholic Church in Europe more and more deviated from Protestant in pardoning work forces from any possible answerability with respect to kids they fathered outside of matrimony. The Napoleonic Code buttressed this inclination by governing out paternity suits. Italians embraced paternal protection more ardently and more undyingly than other people in Catholic states. On the contrary. individual female parents were required to safeguard their ain family’s and the man’s award by abandoning their babies and by paying a big sum of money for its attention. or by subjecting themselves. as wet nurses for a twelvemonth.

Another strength pf the book is that Kertzer bases a great trade of his informations from a big organic structure of recent local surveies and harmonizes it with his ain library work in Bologna. The author’s achievement is to hold built a convincing model for understanding the extent of infant forsaking in Italy and the diverseness within the state. On add-on. Kertzer besides does many European historiographers a service by seting the Italian experience sing infant forsaking in a larger geographical position. His comparing with Protestant states supports that thesis that the Church. with the aid of the authorities. was above all responsible for supplying both an institutional construction and an political orientation that forced many individual female parents to release their babes.

On the minus side. Kertzer could hold paid more attending to category differences. which would surely assist the reader’s apprehension of child forsaking. While the writer makes differentiation between the forsaking of legitimate and illicit babies. he fails to demo that the Catholic Church’s thoughts of household award and sexual shame dominated the urban hapless rural or the peasantry. In consequence. the reader has no thought about the socio-economic position of the female parents who abandoned their kids.

Furthermore. the reader does non cognize what their kinship set-up may hold been. or if these female parents were releasing foremost or subsequent babes. Decidedly. societal values are at the bosom of the infant forsaking in Italy. However. Kertzer slightly sets aside his anthropological instruction when he attributes the forsaking system chiefly to the Church. The writer besides dismisses the high rates of infant forsaking by married spouses as an anomalousness localized to Milan and Florence. yet they would look to suggest that a deeper set of cultural values is at work. This smudges. but does non wholly understate the Kertzer’s work.

Another defect ofSacrificed for Honoris that the last chapter and the epilogue about intentionally bristle with limited penetrations sing causal theories and sing modern-day connexions ; Kertzer could hold taken more infinite to develop this. The enterprise to explicate off or. on the other manus. to demonise civilizations with beliefs. policies. and patterns incompatible to the researchers’ ain has proved alluring to many earlier bookmans. unluckily to the disadvantage of their work. The book is besides attacked in that it fails to let for the women’s bureau. The lives of the adult females who chose non to release their babies are obscured by those who appeared in the constabulary and infirmary records that the writer so carefully mined.


This reappraisal can non make justness to the wealths of information contained inSacrificed for Honor. and to its perceptive and stimulating intervention of a whole series of really of import and complex jobs. The book besides raises many important inquiries more provokingly compared to other old surveies of the same subject. Despite some major defects. the book is a scholarly. important. and vigorous survey suggested for an extended. interdisciplinary readership. Kertzer’s work is an of import add-on to the literature on kid forsaking and virtue to be read and discussed.


Kertzer. D. I. ( 1994 ) .Sacrificed for Honor: Italian Infant Abandonment and the Politicss of Reproductive Control.Boston: Beacon Press.

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