This introductory chapter begins by considering the role of child abandonment in Western history. It argues that historians' overemphasis on laws and governmental institutions has distorted our understanding of the diverse and complex human relationships involved in the phenomena we classify under the legal categories of child abandonment and infanticide. In other words, our narrow focus on the legal aspects of the problem of unwanted children tends to obscure whatever came before the crime in question. Any explanation of broad social change predicated on such a flawed foundation is self-serving at best and grossly misleading at worst. The chapter then asks what would happen if we took the various acts that we call child abandonment and thought about them in a much broader context, such as what some historical anthropologists call the “circulation of children.” The discussion finally turns to the microhistory approach used in the subsequent chapters.
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