Monday, August 19, 2013

Book Review: Sacrificed for Honor by David I. Kertzer

After I recently discovered that my great-great-grandmother Anna Pace was probably abandoned as an infant in Italy in the 1860s, fellow genealogist Peter Barbella recommended that I read Sacrificed for Honor: Italian Infant Abandonment and the Politics of Reproductive Control by David I. Kertzer. With a subtitle like that, what person in my position could say no?

It's times like this that I'm most glad to have joined such an active, welcoming, online genealogical community, both through Geneabloggers and on Google+. It honestly hadn't occurred to me, when I saw the records of a number of abandoned babies in the southern Italian towns that my family came from, that there might have been a monograph written about it. Only other people researching the same topics could have brought it to my attention.

Sacrificed for Honor is a book that's specifically about the widespread practice of infant abandonment in the 18th and 19th centuries, but it contains such a wealth of information about Italian social, religious, cultural, and familial practices that I'd suggest it to anyone with an interest in Italian history or genealogy.

The book focuses primarily on northern Italy, particularly the large cities of Milan and Florence, where most of the research thus far has been done. However, it gives enough history of practices in the south to put my Anna Pace's life in context for me. I'm expanding on this by using the records found on Antenati to create my own index of babies abandoned in Grumo Appula in the 1860s (g-g-grandma was born in 1864) to see if I can figure out the local context for abandonment. For example, the book tells us that in the South, many small towns had a "wheel" at which abandoned babies were left. (This in comparison to the North, where babies from small town were brought to nearby cities and left at their wheels.) However, having looked, so far, at 24 babies abandoned in the course of 18 months, there's no mention of a wheel,  and each of the babies is described as having been discovered "behind the door of her house" by one of the 3 local midwives.

Kertzer provides a ton of national context for the practice of infant abandonment. For example, did you know that unmarried parents in Italy were essentially required to "abandon" their illegitimate children to the huge network of foundling homes and foster parents set up to receive them? (The book even mentions one case of a 6-year-old boy, whose parents were unmarried but living together. When authorities found out that he was illegitimate, they intervened at that late date to remove him from the home and send him to a foster family - from which, of course, he promptly ran away.) Or that the vast majority of infants sent to foundling homes perished within the first 2 years of life, most of them within their first months, due to the difficulty of obtaining wetnurses in the days before safe, nutritious formula? This, despite the fact that the entire system was arranged to protect illegitimate babies from the ever-present dangers of abortion and infanticide.

I can't say that I agree with all of Kertzer's conclusions, particularly where he extrapolates into modern moral and political arenas. I won't spend too much time on my reasons on a blog that doesn't have a political purpose.  Suffice it to say that the book makes clear where his beliefs and mine differ on things like women's rights and the sanctity of all life, at all stages of development. Had abortion been an officially sanctioned, accessible option in 1864 like it is today, there's a very good chance that Anna Pace never would have been born, and neither would her 7 children who survived infancy, among them my great-grandmother; or her 7 children, among them my grandfather; or his 8 children; or his 20 grandchildren (myself among them) or his 4 great-granchildren. You don't know my family, but they're pretty fantastic; I can attest my own life would have been least among these losses.

Putting the personal and the political aside, I can recommend Sacrificed for Honor by David I. Kertzer enthusiastically. In fact, I was thrilled to discover that Kertzer's website includes a long list of other articles he's authored on similar topics, and I've added them to my reading list to gain additional context on the childhood, maturation, and adulthood of foundlings like my great-great-grandmother. I don't have to agree with his politics to know that his scholarship has provided context to the murkiest line in my family. With a brick wall this thick, context might be all I have. Anna's parents are described as ignoti on her marriage certificate, and merely as the autori di suoi giorni on the record that describes her discovery behind the midwife's door. I'm thinking about testing my grandfather's mtDNA on the off chance that a match provides some more information, but that's uncertain and even would benefit from the context provided here. The book, though scholarly, is an easy and engaging read, suitable for anyone with genealogical research interests in Italy, and particularly for those of us with brick walls of this nature, and I recommend it highly.

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