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Origin of baby hatches in medieval Europe

15 March 2013


From the Revd Sister Teresa CSA

Sir, - In the early seventh century, the Church of the Deaconesses, also called Theotokos of the Deaconesses, was established in Constantinople. (I have not been able to establish its exact location, but it was known to the second pastor of the Kaiserswerth Deaconess foundation. Suggestions welcomed.)

An 11th-century source speaks of the exposure of a malformed baby in "the public porch of the Deaconesses" in Constantinople. Thus the orphanage of the Deaconesses' Church must have continued into the 11th century, and it is earlier than the Roman one of 1198 (Comment, 1 March).

Anna Comnena (writing between 1118 and 1123) boasted that Alexius I had carefully organised the work of the deaconesses. He had established an Orphanotropos, a very great official to be in charge of the orphanage-plus, a sort of social-service village (Alexiad, Book 15). This may have replaced the orphanage work previously done by the deaconesses.

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