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Orphanages in the Medieval and Early Modern Period

Updated on December 2, 2014
Amsterdam Orphans
Amsterdam Orphans | Source
At the monastery gate (Austrian Orphan)
At the monastery gate (Austrian Orphan) | Source
Ospedale degli Innocenti, Florence Italy Established as an orphanage in 1419
Ospedale degli Innocenti, Florence Italy Established as an orphanage in 1419 | Source

Orphanages in the Medieval to Early Modern Period

There were always orphans. People married early and had many children. Most people did not see thirty. Women died in childbirth and both sexes of contagious diseases. Fathers died and left a family destitute. Mothers could not care for children as they were having to work as servants, or day laborers. Others had poor extended families who could not help.

Many children were orphaned. A quarter of all families had lost a father by the time they were ten. It was worse if the mother died, children died at twice the normal rate. Younger children died more often. In French, English, and Spanish villages at least one-third of the children lost one of their parents during childhood.

There were different types of homes. Foundling homes, which no longer exist, were created by the church in the middle ages. They were established to keep poor parents from murdering their own infants. Some of the infants were illegitimate and not wanted. These became widespread. Parents would leave their children in front of the facility or slip them through a turning receptacle in the door. The nuns would care for the infants, baptize them, and place children with willing homes. The treatment of children varied. They could be treated like the children of the home or as servants. Often infants were sent to rural poor families. Each lactating woman had six children to care for. They died in great numbers. There were large numbers of children in Catholic countries in these sorts of facilities. As time went on parents who had fallen on hard times would leave their older children in these places. They were like the foster care homes of today.

There were also almshouses. Whole families went to almshouses. The Church would collect alms for the poor. Some alms houses evolved from hospitals others were established in the late medieval period. These were something like the projects only much worse, and they provided work of an unpleasant nature. The family tried desperately to be independent.

Then there were hospitals. A hospital then was not what it is now. They were originally not created to treat the sick but a place to care for travelers, the aged, dying and indigent children. They were concerned with saving souls and helping different poor people. There were hospitals for retired bakers, lepers and also children. These were something like the nursing homes of the present.

All of these were run by the Church.

In the later era cities, wars and plagues created a number of orphans that was no longer manageable. Often there were no relatives after catastrophic events to care for them. Those who were not raised by relatives became beggars and prostitutes. Orphan children were locked up with the mentally ill and tramps in hospitals in cities like Venice. The first real orphanages in the modern sense were from the 16th century. Cities and secular organizations began to take a role. This was the start of the modern orphanage, although the living conditions were often terrible and when there were epidemics, famines or war, they were the first to die.

Orphanages were different. Belgium founded the first schools for poor children. They taught children ands they were for the poor, not just orphans. The father could be dead, in the military, or sick to put the family in financial straights. They provided some training but only for boys. It is assumed that the girls went into domestic service. Very often they required the children to beg. Paris founded an institute to educate poor children. The orphanage with complete care was founded after that in England, Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands. However their philosophies varied a great deal and had very different results.

Orphanages did well in parts of Italy and the Netherlands where they were given a lot of money. To be accepted in an Italian orphanage you have to be a citizen, seven to twelve, legitimate, and fit for work. The Dutch founded the orphanage based on confiscated Catholic property and restricted their orphanages to Dutch citizens. They thought it was in their interests to preserve a middle class. They were fed well and trained for the same positions as their parents and had low mortality. The basic motivation was to provide enough so that people did not end up swelling the ranks of the poor. The administrators were the elite who were trying to get higher appointments. It was financed in large part by the government and only 16% by benefactors.

In Germany orphans were apprenticed out. The orphanage providing certain things including all funding. Special training was given to a small number. 75% of orphans survived in Germany in an institution. Half died outside it. The alternative it was thought was to become a vagabond and a burden. Children were to be employed at fifteen. The orphanage provided funding, the master, training in a profession. The goal was to find employment that suited the aptitude of each child.

In Sweden children who were begging were taken off the street and forced into the orphanage where they did work under horrendous conditions. The orphanage was regarded as an alternative to begging and provided a source of cheap labor.

Orphans in France and Spain had infant mortality above 80%. Some were places where all infants died. Children were put out when they were fourteen where they had to fend for themselves and find work. Often they had to serve as servants or apprentices at earlier ages than other children.

Leaving children at an orphanage indicated desperation. Relatives were made responsible by law for the education and property of orphans. Godparents were to care for the children until they were adults. After the French revolution Godparents were still required to swear this in a civil ceremony. But still there were many unclaimed in the modern era. Before putting the children in an orphanage the family would have the children leave home to work younger, and they were often placed as servants or apprentices with relatives. Families would reclaim children if they could. Children were left with a piece of cloth.

In general those who lived through the orphanage experience were given a start in life. Girls were sent to be servants and given small dowries. Boys were made to work for very little as teenagers for the local merchants and then sent to the army.


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      3 years ago

      Nicely done

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      3 years ago

      Thanks! This was really helpful!


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