Friday, 19 September 2014


One of the most exciting things about archival trips is that you don't know exactly what you'll find. Often there are wonderful surprises which take your research off in surprising directions.  I have been hunting out examples of slavery, but in doing so, came across a large number of cases of adoption - it's a really fascinating topic, as it tells you so much about family structures, inheritance practices, emotional ties and so on.

keen to adopt a kitten....

There's certainly a connection to slavery.  The majority of slaves in medieval Dubrovnik were female, and it's perhaps not surprising that some became pregnant by their masters.  I've found a few adoption cases which suggest that these masters were often keen to adopt their illegitimate offspring (who were technically slaves if the father chose not to act), sometimes because their marriage had not produced any other children, sometimes out of a sense of conscience: the latter is suggested in a contract of July 1397, which obligated the other sons and daughters of the father (described as legitimos natales - born in wedlock) to treat the adopted son as a true brother (Diversa Cancellariae 33, fol 85v).

But this was not the only reason to adopt a child.  Several widows adopted children. Sometimes they were motivated by a need for companionship and a carer - in one case a boy was adopted on condition that he feed and clothe his adoptive mother during her lifetime.  Sometimes, the motivation was inheritance-related: a widow with only a daughter, keen to keep the inheritance within the family, adopted a boy on condition that he marry her daughter (I'm unclear how this is not incestuous - Diversa Cancellariae  33, fol. 130v, 1398)

But some adoptions were still more cynical.  There are several which read pretty much like slavery contracts - the adopted child is obligated to serve his new father and mother in all their wishes, and if he fails to do so, he forfeits his right to be called their child (and to inherit their property) (eg. Diversa Cancellarie 31, fol. 124v, 25th October 1394).

But it's not all bleak, cynical and self-serving.  On 28th January 1392, one Budo Basetich signed a contract entrusting his daughter Marina to be adopted by Millasius Obroevich  (Diversa Cancellarie 31, fol. 4v).  The adoptive father pledged to bring up the girl morally, to clothe and feed her, and in due course to find an appropriate husband for her and to pay her dowry.  I can't think of a cynical motivation for this (though I don't know why the birth father placed her for adoption -  although there is no record of a payment, perhaps poverty was a factor) - having a girl in the fourteenth century was a financial liability.  Is it too soppy to think that Millasius may have quite simply wanted a child to love?

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