The bell that saved abandoned babies in the Middle Ages

A foundling wheel outside a French hospital in Mâcon, France.

A foundling wheel outside a French hospital in Mâcon, France.

(COMMENTARY) In 1198, Pope Innocent III promulgated an unusual decree for all churches in Italy: each was mandated to install a small, wooden architectural feature. These “foundling wheels” have been saving hundreds of thousands of lives ever since.

Foundling wheels were roughly two feet tall and were located on a church’s street-facing wall. From the outside, they looked like rectangular windows, however they were actually rotating cylinders, just large enough to fit a newborn baby.

Foundling wheels were created to protect at-risk babies, while preserving the anonymity of their mothers. Many towns and villages in twelfth century Italy faced economic hardship, making it difficult for families to provide for their children. Thus began the harrowing trend of impoverished parents abandoning babies in city centers or disposing them into the river Teverne.

Within his first year of papacy, Pope Innocent III became aware the local needs and used untapped church resources to offer a far better alternative.

After a probable great deal of contemplation and typically under the veil of nighttime, mothers would place their babies into the cubby and pull a string, ringing a bell on the other side of the wall. This bell, which operated at all hours, would alert, or wake, the nurse on the opposite side.

The nurse was either a nun who lived in the foundling room of the church or an older volunteer woman from the town or village. Oftentimes in urban areas, there was more than one nurse, and they split waking and sleeping hours. Upon hearing the bell, she would crank the wheel, rotating the baby towards her, and in the process, adopt the “foundling.”

Many of the babies given to the churches via foundling wheels had diseases or disabilities. Because of this, babies unfortunately and frequently died in the care of the church. Further, numerous nuns and volunteer nurses also contracted these diseases and died as a result of caring for the infants. However, healthy babies and those who could be nursed back to health, were baptized a few weeks after their arrival.

Here the nurses, volunteers, and priests were able to have a bit of fun. Occasionally, mothers would drop the babies off with a written card, noting the baby’s name. But, more often than not, there were no forms of identification, and it was the nuns, volunteers, and priests’ job to assign one. Common baptismal last-names for foundlings were D’Angelo (of the angels), Del Rio (referencing that the baby was saved from being thrown in the river), Fortuna (lucky), Trovato (foundling), Trovatello (little foundling), Esposito (exposed), Tulipano (tulip), Urbino (blind), Enorme (very big), Milingiana (the size of an eggplant), or the name of the saint whose Feast Day it was.

Another heartwarming historical anecdote about the foundlings was that the mothers could covertly stay in contact with their children. When the mothers dropped the babies off, they would, as previously mentioned, sometimes attach notes assigning the baby a local wet nurse: themselves. This way, mothers could visit and nurse their own children, with the church alleviating the financial burden of the baby’s other needs.

Foundling wheels are interesting historical artifacts, but what it their modern relevance? Well, they still exist today, though they go by new names. They’re called Babyklappe (baby flaps) in Germany, Akachan Posto (baby post boxes) in Japan, Okno życia (windows of life) in Poland, Angels Cradles in Canada, Holes in The Wall in South Africa, and Bayi Menetas, or baby hatches, in Malaysia and the U.S.

Modern foundling wheels, or baby hatches, fill the same needs as they did in the Middle Ages, though modern technology has made them safer and more efficient. Malaysian baby hatches have a sensor located beneath the small bed which turns on a warm light and softly plays classical music for the baby, while he or she awaits the nurse. Swiss baby hatches have the same sensors, but these trigger a warm heating pad to comfort the baby. Aside from these minor enhancements, the concept has remained unchanged.

One major difference between the foundling wheels of the past and contemporary baby hatches is ownership. Initially, foundling wheels were owned, financed, and run entirely by churches. Today, many baby hatches are attached to government or private hospitals. Others are government sponsored or non-profit stand alone facilities. Though baby hatches are installed, supported, and managed by a mix of both public and private institutions, there are several parties who oppose them on principle.

The article ‘Why Baby Hatches Are a Bad Idea’ published by Australian news site argues, “baby hatches compromise the human rights of the child to know their family. These rights, enshrined in UN Convention On The Rights Of The Child, are recognized in open adoption practices that include some ongoing contact between parents and children. A child placed in a baby hatch is forever denied information about their family of origin with ongoing and traumatic effects for them.”

This argument is also used by the national president of the Australian association of social workers in The Herald Sun’s article “Baby Hatches: The Safest Solution for Abandoned Newborns,” the authors of the article “Should we Maintain Baby Hatches in Our Society” published by BMC MedicalEthics, and the 1989 UN Convention On The Rights Of The Child (Article 7).

This argument, if the topic weren’t so sobering, would almost feel laughable. Because the alternative to baby hatches, particularly in impoverished communities, is disposing the baby, it should be clear that using a baby hatch is more humane. Between the options of being killed or living with an unknown genealogy, you would think anyone who valued the human rights of a child would unhesitatingly choose the latter.

Senator Helen Polley, of the Australian Labor Party, is a strong advocate for baby hatches, and has a similar complaint about the opposition’s argument.The Herald Sun article reads, “Senator Polley dismisses the notion baby hatches should be rejected because they have been abused by a few in other countries…‘And yes, it is preferable for a child to know its parents,’ she says. ‘But isn’t it more preferable for a child’s life to be saved?’”

An article from The Economist labeled, “Thinking Inside the Box,” addresses a controversy surrounding baby hatches in Germany specifically. The country has introduced over two-hundred Babyklappes since 2000, and several of these drop-off locations have conjoined facilities where mothers can give birth anonymously. This, however, breeches the German constitution, which criminalizes abandoning babies and children. To solve the controversy, Germany would need to amend its legislation to permit exceptions when babies were dropped off in designated locations.

One Malaysia-based non-profit foundation called OrphanCare provides a thoughtful and collaborative solution to the crisis of abandoned young ones. They sponsor three different baby hatch locations in Malaysia, and are adamant on finding homes, not institutions, to raise the dropped-off babies. Their website expresses their willingness to work alongside public and private actors in order to succeed: “We collaborate with government and non-governmental organizations (NGO), businesses and civil society to find optimal solutions to help children, young people and families.”

Baby Hatches are not the ultimate solution to lowering infanticide rates. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, the two factors most strongly connected to high infanticide rates are poverty and overpopulation. This means that if governments, non-profits, and churches wish to lower infanticide rates, they should devote the bulk of their resources to solving these issues. However, baby hatches make for an inarguably effective last resort option. OrphanCare’s work is bettering Malaysia because they keep a fully functioning baby hatch while they work alongside other existing institutions to chip away at the greater problem to make sure no children get lost along the way.

The history of foundling wheels is more than endearing. It is instructive. This 821 year-old practice should remind the modern church that it can and should be of practical assistance to its community. Not every church has access to every resource needed to solve the problem, but many individual church members could provide homes for the little ones while larger GSEs and NGOs work to reform legislation.