Thanks to the Brothers Grimm, we are all familiar with the tale of Hansel and Gretel, the young brother and sister who were abandoned by their father and stepmother in the woods of medieval Germany. While the tale is fiction, it is actually a metaphor for a practice that was rather common during long stretches of history. John Boswell’s magisterial 1988 book, The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance, goes into the matter in depth. Not only was abandonment common, but so also was the turning over of children to monasteries, where the shortage of wet nurses frequently meant starvation, and “overlaying,” the intentional smothering of infants, a practice largely ignored by authorities of church and state.
Why? Well, before the Industrial Revolution, the spread of literacy, and the development of science and modern medicine, life tended to be short and brutish. Women frequently died in childbirth; many men went through several wives, and thus there were many stepmothers. (Even today in the United States, it is estimated that about one-third of pregnancies experience some sort of difficulties). Contraception was unknown, and abortion was very dangerous. Population grew only very slowly until industrialization, science, modern medicine, and antibiotics made possible the burst of growth that is illustrated by the famous “hockey stick” graph. In my lifetime, world population has grown from under two billion to over seven billion.