The Unwanted Child: The Fate of Orphans, Foundlings, and Juvenile Criminals in Early Modern Germany

Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2009



Roland H. Bainton Book Prize in History for 2010);

Gerald Strauss Book Prize for 2010 (Honorable Mention);


The baby abandoned on the doorstep is a phenomenon that has virtually disappeared from our experience, but in the early modern world, unwanted children were a very real problem for parents, government officials, and society. The Unwanted Child skillfully recreates sixteenth-century Nuremberg to explore what befell abandoned, neglected, abused, or delinquent children in this critical period.

Joel F. Harrington tackles this question by focusing on the stories of five individuals. In vivid and poignant detail, he recounts the experiences of an unmarried mother-to-be, a roaming mercenary who drifts in and out of his children’s lives, a civic leader handling the government’s response to problems arising from unwanted children, a homeless teenager turned prolific thief, and orphaned twins who enter state care at the age of nine. Braiding together these compelling portraits, Harrington uncovers and analyzes the key elements that link them, including the impact of war and the vital importance of informal networks among women. From the harrowing to the inspiring, The Unwanted Child paints a gripping picture of life on the streets five centuries ago.







“Only the best kind of historian can write compellingly about the past without slipping into anachronism. In his superb analysis of unwanted children in early modern Germany, Joel Harrington assembles some truly remarkable characters—the hapless, the heroic, the deeply cherished, and the never-loved. In telling their stories, he makes a distant time seem immediate and, with great subtlety, prompts readers to consider the fates of the helpless and uncherished today.”
Joyce Chaplin, Harvard University

Joel Harrington’s wonderful new study of Nuremberg takes the story of unwanted children beyond the walls of the city’s chief charitable institution designed to receive them to the families and larger society that helped determine their fates. The author deconstructs the problem of ‘child abandonment,’ for example, by highlighting the various conditions that made life in the early modern city so precarious, especially for infants and children. Based on a wide variety of archival sources, the book uses the concept of the ‘circulation of children’ to explore the many ways—both informal and formal—that family networks and institutions tried to care for unwanted children, in many cases without success. Harrington skillfully uses the biographer’s and micro-historian’s tools to explore five examples of the kinds of people who figured prominently in dramas that surrounded unwanted children. He moves well beyond his local case study using his findings to address such topics as infanticide, out-of wedlock pregnancy, youth delinquency, and orphanhood in cross-national European perspective. All sorts of poor children and their families—from abandoned infants to teenage street children to absconding fathers and unwed mothers—come alive in the pages of The Unwanted Child.”
Katherine A. Lynch, Carnegie Mellon University

“Beautifully conceived and analytically rich…This multifaceted, well-focused, and cogently written study is a must-read for everyone interested in the history of poverty and social welfare, particularly as it affects minors.  Future research will have to contend with the utterly compelling case it makes for the significance of social agency among the urban poor—a change of historiographical perspective and an overall finding of the greatest relevance beyond Nuremberg and the Holy Roman Empire.”
Helmut Puff, Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth

“Harrington’s pathbreaking study combines the best features of the microhistorical and macrohistorical perspectives both to uncover the individual experiences of the people who interacted in child circulation and to identify the larger forces that affected the choices they made.  Maintaining a focus on individual circumstance and agency, The Unwanted Child rewards readers with a fascinating look at the choices available to early modern parents, children, and administrators struggling to survive in a troubled age.” 
–Jason Coy, Journal of Modern History


“The hardest thing about this subject is getting into the lives of individual children, and Harrington has done so in masterful fashion…He brings the archival records and modern scholarship together in a masterful and original synthesis, particularly in the two chapters on single mothers and on street children.  It is a vivid, readable, and compelling work that is both highly informative for specialists and yet very approachable for students and also for those outside the field.” 
Nicholas Terpstra, Renaissance Quarterly

"Harrington breaks new ground with this work on children in early modern Nuremberg. . . . [This work] mounts a rich, successful challenge to top-down historical approaches to the subject."


“By any standards this is an impressive   The chapters are an elegant blend of individual stories and comparisons between the central protagonist(s) and similarly situated persons and groups…its well-wrought contextual approach to the history of an early modern welfare institution is likely to stand as a model for the German lands and other parts of Europe for some time to come.” 
—Margaret R. Hunt, Central European History


The Unwanted Child is thoroughly researched and the book engages the reader like a good novel.  Harrington’s skillful and sensitive approach to the vast source material allows him to present an exceptional book and a series of fascinating observations.” 
Pernille Arenfeldt, Sixteenth Century Journal

"Master Frantz was not an introspective diarist, but Harrington brings out with great interpretative acuity his vision of the moral values with whose enforcement he was charged.  He provides a richly detailed and utterly absorbing account of a world of violence, pain and suffering into which it would be difficult for the modern reader to enter through less sympathetic accounts."
-- Richard J Evans, Times Literary Supplement


“Harrington’s overriding achievement is to provide a view of early modern history that contributes to its so-called specifics, rather than to its potential for yet another unifying and therefore simplifying theory.  This pivotal characteristic makes the book essential for students as well as for researchers.”
Claudia Jarzebowski, Journal of Social History