Lost but not yet Found: Medieval Foundlings and their Care in Northern France, 1200-1500
By Anne E. Lester
Journal of the Western Society for French History, Vol.35 (2007)
Introduction: The High Middle Ages was an important period of transition in the care of France’s “miserable persons,” that is, the poor, sick, widows, orphans, aged, and infirm. By 1400, civic initiatives, parish networks, and lay sponsored hospitals began to take over the care-giving traditionally carried out by monastic houses and episcopal institutions. Foundlings are part of this larger group of the poor and marginal, yet they are more difficult to track within the available sources, and once they were passed on to an institution or a community, their long term care is almost always impossible to follow.
This article is an initial foray into the process of finding foundlings in the archives and available texts and of placing these references in a social context that illuminates their plight and the networks of charity that assumed their care in northern France. The growth in numbers of foundlings during the High Middle Ages as well as the strategies that emerged for caring for such children shed light on the larger issue of how particular types of charity were administered and discussed between 1200 and 1500.
The challenge of writing about foundlings is in part documentary. We learn of foundlings almost exclusively through casual references. Indeed, when people and actions – even mundane ones – do not want to be found, remembered, or recorded because of poverty or shame, as in the case of suicides and abandonment, the challenges of writing their histories are particularly profound. Most archival encounters with medieval foundlings are largely unintended or the product of a chance reference.