This is that time in the semester when I am inevitably behind in my course content, racing towards the end of classes in early December: in one course I’m only in thirteenth century when I should be in the fourteenth; in another I’m in the eighteenth and I should be in the nineteenth. It’s either poor organization or too many tangents, likely both, but I’ll manage to wrap everything up somehow. Just the other night, as is my custom, I was watching an old movie on TCM and I stumbled upon an odd connection between the two very different eras I am trying to get out of, forestalling my mental departure for a little while longer. The film was Anthony Adverse (1936), a rather disjointed story about an abandoned boy who navigates the challenges and opportunities of the late eighteenth-century Atlantic world, and the connection was a foundling wheel.
In a film that shifts (laboriously) its locales from Italy to Cuba to Africa to Paris and somehow manages to incorporate both the trans-Atlantic slave trade and Napoleon, it was the foundling wheel that caught my attention. It is the mode of entry by which the cruel aristocratic husband of Anthony’s mother deposits him in a convent following her death in childbirth, just after he killed her lover (Anthony’s real father) in a duel. The convent is conveniently located in northern Italy, adjacent to the trading business of Anthony’s maternal grandfather and later foster father, but let’s not get bogged down in the narrative. It’s all about this nifty device, an invention of the thirteenth century resurrected in the eighteenth.
The evil Marquis Don Luis (Claude Rains) places little Anthony Adverse in the foundling wheel.
Two eras of dynamic demographic growth in Europe: in the former, Pope Innocent III, the very pinnacle of the very purposeful high medieval papacy, sought to discourage infanticide via exposure by offering parents an anonymous means by which to “donate” their unwanted children to the church, and the first “window of life” was installed in the Ospedale di Santo Spirito in Rome in 1204. In Omne Bonum, the absolutely wonderful English illuminated encyclopedia of the next century (a time of dramatic demographic decline), the entry for expositus (abandoned child) shows an tightly-swaddled infant being deposited at a city gate and a cleric lecturing the supposed parents, indicating a collaborative policy of church and state. Foundling wheels reappeared in the eighteenth century, when the beginnings of an “illegitimacy explosion” (the number of illegitimate children born in Europe increased from 3% of births in 1750 to 20% by 1850) prompted the establishment of foundling hospitals in nearly every major European city. The revolving barrel in which Anthony Adverse was placed would more likely have been part of a secular institution than the convent of the film in the later eighteenth century, but of course it’s Hollywood history. It looks right!
Piranesi print of the church and hospital of Santo Spirito, Rome from the ‘Varie vedute di Roma antica e moderna‘, Rome, 1741-8, British Museum; the Foundling Wheel at Santo Spirito, Expositus illuminations from James le Palmer’s Omne Bonum, England (London), c. 1360-c. 1375, British Library MS Royal MS 6 E VI/2; “Madonna of the Foundlings” (also very wound up!) by Domenico di Michelino c. 1446, Ospedale degli Innocenti di Firenze; The London Foundling Hospital in the 18th Century, Wellcome Collection.
Appendix: Apparently there is a limited but controversial 21st-century revival of the foundling wheel, in the guise of the much less rolling barrel- or lazy susan-ish “baby hatch” or “baby box” in several European countries–as well as Asia.