What’s a “Foundling Wheel?”

Foundling Wheel | Judith Land | Adoption Detective

The practice of using foundling wheels to dispose of unwanted children was commonly used in medieval Europe. Moral, legal, and social discourse over the use, function, and appropriateness of foundling wheels, baby hatches, and designated safe havens used to prevent infanticide is an unresolved centuries old debate that has yet to be resolved.


Child abandonment is one of the most painful dramas imaginable; regardless of the century a story takes place. Leaving a baby on the doorstep is a centuries old social problem that puts an infant’s life at risk and in most countries is a punishable offense. The plight of outcast newborns during the Middle Ages was a social and moral issue; many of the same questions and answers remain equally relevant today. The problem of unwanted newborns has been documented in Italy since Roman times when babies abandoned next to a column in a forum were either taken home by strangers to serve as slaves or left to die. Pope Innocent III was shocked by the large number of dead babies floating in the Tiber River, the main watercourse of the city of Rome. In response to this societal catastrophe, he institutionalized the “foundling wheel” in the 12th century as a solution for dealing with the large number of foundlings—infants abandoned by their parents and left to die or be discovered and cared for by others.

Foundling wheels were set in the exterior walls of medieval churches, convents, and hospitals to allow an abandoned baby to be left anonymously and safely without fear of punishment. Infants were carefully placed in a revolving crib through a circular opening and rotated into the building. The practice of using foundling wheels to dispose of unwanted children gained in popularity and became a common practice in medieval Europe. In Italy, foundlings were given names such as Esposito (exposed), Proietti (throw away), and Innocenti (innocent) and individuals with these names can often trace their family pedigree to a foundling past.

The problem of what to do with abandoned children raises as many concerns today as it did in the past and the foundling wheels of today function much the same as those in medieval times. Multilingual posters in modern Rome read—“Don’t abandon your baby! Leave it with us.” The practice of placing unwanted infants in a modern foundling wheel, heated baby hatch, stork cradle, stainless steel baby box, maternity ward, or designated safe haven is a practice that is still used today in many European countries and the United States and the practice is gaining in popularity throughout the world to combat child infanticide—a practice that is as painfully traumatic as it ever was.

Judith Land


adozione | Verabschiedung | adopción | adopsi | vedtagelse | adoptare | 采纳 | 양자

Adoption Detective

About Judith Land

Judith Land lives in Colorado and Arizona with husband and coauthor Martin Land. Judith is a former nurse, retail shop owner, college instructor and avid outdoor person. Her book "Adoption Detective: Memoir of an Adopted Child" is a true story detailing the journey of Judith Romano, foster child and adoptee, as she discovers fragments of her background, and then sets out to solve the mystery as an adult. She has reached readers in 192 countries. "Mothers and fathers everywhere in the world need to understand that children are forever and always." --Judith Land
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4 Responses to What’s a “Foundling Wheel?”

  1. My father was an abandoned baby in 1918 in NYC and brought to Bellevue Hospital given a name and given a birthday. Searching now through DNA for his family. Have had some success. Unfortunately he died in 1983 so he is not here for the final results.

    • Judith Land says:

      You have a very interesting story. I recently discovered the identity of my maternal grandparents, several aunts, uncles and cousins I never knew existed. I have enjoyed reading about where they came from, studying their social, cultural and family traditions, and comparing similarities in our personal likes and dislikes. DNA can tell us many things. I hope your inquiry will help you learn more about your background and personal identity. DNA can identify paternity and our relationships with others already on record. Even when our direct ancestors can’t be located, it can connect us to unknown branches of the family tree and identitify the lands our ancestors called home. DNA has even been used to discover the identity of ancient remains and modern ancestors of famous kings of England, as was the case recently with Richard III when his remains were discovered under a parking lot in Leicester. DNA can be highly valuable for learning about family medical history when that information is not readily available. Judith

  2. eagoodlife says:

    Reblogged this on The Life Of Von and commented:
    Foundlings and the Foundling Wheel. Great history of foundlings in Kate Addy’s book which is quite a few years old now but fascinating and very tragic. Some of us were the lucky ones!! We did at least survive, so very many did not.

    • Judith Land says:

      Eagoodlife, This is good reference material. The numbers of abandoned children in the world are quite shocking. According to Adie, poverty, shame, inheritance and indifference have remained the primary causes for child abandonment over the centuries. Nobody’s Child provides a sweeping view of the world’s dealings with foundlings dating back to the 14th century, with their revolving wheels, upon which the mother could anonymously place her baby and with one turn deliver it safely into the building. Mortality rates were appalling. 90 per cent didn’t make it through their first year in Florence, Italy, due to poor hygiene, overcrowding, illness, and the complete absence of cuddling, affection, and warm human contact. Adie adamantly rejected the popular notion that the abandoned child is to blame for the parents actions. Judith

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