I rejected, several times, the idea of writing about a foundling baby left at a monastery doorstep. It seemed too risky a subject in these cynical, scandal-worn days, and, in historical and period books, it’s just a tiresome trope. But I really wanted to explore the idea of a modern, 21st-century foundling, and see how it would play out at my Hard Cider monastery.
True foundlings are exceedingly rare these days, even with the advent of new, heated, super-modern “hatches” designed to anonymously accept unwanted or unplanned-for children. Inconvenient babies—those who make it to full term—are likely to be kept by their mothers without stigma, or entered into adoption agreements. But perversely, infants are still found discarded in dumpsters and rivers and trashcans, usually with tragic consequences, the motives or mindset of their parents unknown. And as pointed out in my Christmas story, such babies are not likely, amid the widening Church pedophilia scandal, to be left at a religious institution.
Ironic, when you consider that in medieval times, taking in foundlings and discarded children was a main function, even mission, of many monasteries and convents. Some parents simply went right to the monastery, and donated the child outright—not foundlings but ‘oblates,’ loosely translated as ‘offerings.’ This more genteel form of abandonment was meant to ensure the child would be raised to serve the Church and God, and indeed, in some strict orders, the child was obliged to become a monk and remain at the monastery the rest of his life. And this is, in a way, what happened to my character Brother Odo, who was not exactly offered to the church (he had been one of those harshly discarded babies left to die), but raised to take his place among the monks, whether he desired to or not.
According to John Boswell’s excellent book on abandoned children in the Middle Ages, The Kindness of Strangers, (Pantheon Books, 1988) discarded babies were a big issue in the Dark Ages, and even in earlier antiquity: You can blame famine, disease, wars, or even less dramatic issues such as shame, guilt, or poverty. Likely, many of us have orphans and foundlings occupying the furthest reaches of our family trees, because so many did manage to survive into adulthood. In the beginning, it seems that babies were simply “exposed” or left in random places, perhaps at a well or side of the road. But things took a kinder turn in later centuries, when it occurred to desperate folks to leave their babies at hospitals and churches and convents, where they might reasonably have a chance to be cared for. Eventually institutions grew up, starting in Italy and spreading through Europe, designed specifically to take in homeless babies. You may have seen, in some old films, the “foundling wheel,” a kind of cylinder with an opening where a child was safely placed, and then turned, so that the cylinder opened on the cloister side. Sometimes there were little doors, windows…sometimes the visitor’s bell out front was simply rung, and the baby left on the top step. All this forms the tradition behind my modern story.
So my story is really a little parable of what could happen, what would probably happen, in real world today, were a child to be left at a monastery of good and decent men with a reverence for life; a tale of trust and simple human kindness. Some readers have already voted, with one-star reviews, which I see as more of a vote against a genre (or Church) they find distasteful. Fair enough; bad reviews build character. Thankfully, though, there seems an audience for this story, based on my sales, and that’s all I really want to do, is build my community of readers.
Note: Some new readers have asked if I have a mailing list, and some have even sent emails unbidden. I confess that I don’t, as I have an aversion to pestering people with promotional email, which I don’t think gets read much anyway. But you are welcome to write with questions or comments, but no snark please, I'll just trash it. I do update this blog and site on a weekly basis, so be sure to check back again soon for news and other feaures.