‘Unnatural Mothers’: The Surprising History of Abandoned Children


Discussion of Violence against Children.

When I was around four years old, I was terrified of the tale of Hansel and Gretel. How could a mother just abandon her children in the woods, even if the family had nothing to eat? Somehow that seemed even worse than the fact that a grandmotherly figure would trap those same children and try to eat them. It’s probably telling that I never thought much about the father in the story. In the Brothers Grimm version, he protests at the idea of leaving the children: yet the mother does it anyway. In any case, in a patriarchal society in which mothers are constructed as loving and caring, her abandoning the children was much more shocking.

Two decades later, I came across Elena Ferrante’s L’amore molesto (Troubling Love) when I was studying Italian. I was struck by the visceral, ambivalent, deeply felt story of the relationship between a mother and her daughter. Ferrante would go on to publish several other novels, including the famous series My Brilliant Friend, in which she continued to investigate motherhood, in all its beauty and ugliness. Again, I was equally disturbed and enthralled by these ‘unnatural’ mothers who had such complicated feelings towards their children.

In my research, I found several stories of ‘wicked’ mothers, who killed or abandoned their children. I will write more abound infanticide another time, as it is a fascinating topic in its own right. (You can read a little bit about its connection to midwives here and in artistic representations here.)  And don’t even get me started on stepmothers! For now, though, I’d like to think about early modern mothers who chose to abandon their children, as I find their ambivalence intriguing. Fairy tales such as Hansel and Gretel are a good starting point. As the story tells us, it was out of necessity that the children were abandoned: the parents could not afford to feed them.

This is an interesting clue about the socio-economic reasons behind this abandonment. Historians have long argued that in premodern times, having children out of wedlock was a cause of deep shame, that would earn women humiliation and contempt. So, if you were an unmarried woman who fell pregnant, you might want to hide the pregnancy, give birth in secret, and abandon the baby as soon as possible. Or so the story goes. This is a valid and reasonable hypothesis, and I believe it explains the situation in which many people found themselves. Yet it is not the only nor, I would argue, the most prevalent reason why children were abandoned.

Let’s go back to Hansel and Gretel, as we all know the story. Their age is never specified, but I would assume they were between four and six years old. The same goes for Little Thumbling and other similar tales: these were not babies. They were not left because the mother wanted to hide their existence. While fairy tales offer plenty of symbolical and psychological explanations (which were later developed by wonderful novelists such as Ferrante), they are also full of real-life concerns. A literal reading of fairy tales can be useful. Children were abandoned because there was not enough bread to feed them. It is not surprising that the number of foundlings increased when economic conditions were dire, when the prices increased (such as the cost of bread), and when winter was particularly long and difficult. Going back to the children’s age, although there were many infants among them, most foundlings were older babies, not newborns. This disproves the idea of secret births out of wedlock being the rule. As I have recently written, newly delivered mothers tended to have a lying-in period of at least a month, during which they did not leave the house, making the abandonment of children difficult. 

When parents decided to abandon their children, be that because of the child’s illegitimate status or the family’s poverty, where did they leave them? Again, Hansel and Gretel comes to mind, along with many other stories. Surely their parents didn’t intend for them to be found and cared for in the middle of the woods? It sounds more like they were not to be found. Children (and especially babies) left in the woods or other inhospitable places such as privies or the street were the exception: these were likely attempts at infanticide. If you needed to abandon your child and wished for someone to find and take care of them, there were many better places to choose. Archival documents attest to their being found in churches, hospitals, in front of aristocratic houses, and next to convents: places where they were likely to be quickly discovered and taken care of. Many of these children were clean, healthy, and well-dressed, often accompanied by notes stating their names and whether they had been baptised or not.

If we think of London between the 16th and 18th centuries, the population was rapidly growing. It is estimated that around one thousand abandoned children were found in the city every year. Parishes had their own networks of nurses and foster mothers who could take care of children, but often that was not enough. The foundation of the aptly named Foundling Hospital in London in 1739 (and the several others that followed it) indicates the increase in abandoned children, and how authorities sought to deal with the situation. These children are often easy to find in the archives since many were named according to the parishes where they were found and later baptised. Babies left at Temple Church, for instance, usually had ‘Temple’ as a surname. (It makes you wonder about the adorable Shirley Temple’s family origins, doesn’t it?)

Still, the problem of abandoned children persisted. If we exclude the issue of illegitimate children, there were many socio-economic reasons why people could choose to abandon their children. Extreme poverty, as in Hansel and Gretel’s case, was one of them. But premodern mothers could be unexpectedly faced with difficult circumstances. Widowhood during or right after pregnancy (or when the husband simply left) could make a woman unable to care for her child. In a time in which few legal provisions existed to help these women, what options were there? Yet, if a foundling’s mother was discovered, it was likely that she would face punishment (anything from the pillory to imprisonment). 

Historians are usually quick to say that things are a little bit more complicated than people might think. We also love to say that, actually, this isn’t something new… and then we embark on long monologues. Children were (and are) abandoned by their parents for multiple reasons, including societal pressures such as a woman’s marital state, or deeply psychological and individual reasons. Yet we might miss the forest for the trees when we focus too much on individual mothers. If Hansel and Gretel’s parents had plenty of food for everyone, would they still have left the children alone in the woods? I wonder. If modern motherhood wasn’t so all-encompassing and consuming, would women such as Elena Ferrante’s protagonists struggle so much? I wonder about that, too.

Hansel and Gretel embody many of our societal and individual fears, not least that the people we assume will take care of us might abandon us to our own luck. Yet they also suggest that systemic, socio-economic problems might be behind unimaginably difficult choices such as abandoning a child. Who knows, maybe many of these ‘unnatural mothers’ in our past were simply people who couldn’t find an alternative, who couldn’t afford to feed their children. Maybe we should be sympathetic to those who leave their children in the woods – who knows what they might be trying to save them from?


Patricia Crawford and Sara Mendelson, Women in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

Valerie Fildes (ed.), Women as Mothers in Pre-Industrial England (London: Routledge, 2013).

Ralph Houlbrooke, The English Family, 1450–1700 (London: Longman, 1984).

Share this post: