Childhood, Class, and Kin in the Roman World

By Suzanne Dixon | Go to book overview

4

CHILD EXPOSURE AND ABANDONMENT

Mireille Corbier

The topic of infant abandonment in western Europe is one well served by scholars of the early modern and contemporary eras. For earlier periods, a possible historian might seem to be John Boswell, whose work The Kindness of Strangers (1988) purports to cover the incidence of child abandonment from antiquity to the Renaissance. But Boswell may not be an ideal choice. To highlight his avowed intention, which is to make sense of a complex of social practices that could not be justified by duress alone, he uses the example of Rousseau, who abandoned no fewer than five children, 1 but this frame of reference is ill chosen. There are fundamental, demonstrable differences between the Roman world and mediaeval and early modern western societies. And Boswell's book, which is not grounded in a critical source-basis, displays the major flaw of equating texts of diverse nature and different epochs, consciously taking literature as a reflection of its society.

The guideline of this chapter is to be the distinction between abandonment and exposure. Harris (1994) recommends the term 'exposure', a translation of the Latin expositio, but its blanket use fails to distinguish the characteristics of abandonment. This distinction lies at the heart of the crucial differences between Roman and Christian societies of the West, and the legal and cultural substratum on which the two concepts of exposure and abandonment are posited.

Study of the topic poses problems of method (Corbier 1999c: 1257-60) which I shall arrange in two principal groupings. An essential preliminary, to avoid lumping together fictions, rhetorical exercises, imaginary laws, Christian pamphlets and so forth as direct evidence of social reality, is a rigorous collection and classification of

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