Among the many contributions of the Order of St. John to Malta was the provision of excellent medical services to the local population, particularly through the Knights’ hospital in Valletta, known as the Sacra Infermeria. Opened in the 1570s, it would go on to become one of the foremost hospitals of the period in Europe, taking in male patients of every class, and irrespective of their nationality or faith. After all, despite their later military successes, the Knights of St. John had originated as a hospitaller organisation, whose main purpose was the care of the sick and wounded, and the relief of the poor.
Typical of a Renaissance hospital, the Sacra Infermeria also received babies born out of wedlock and unwanted infants. Apart from the prevalence of venereal disease in Hospitaller Malta, which was at least partly caused by the high number of prostitutes operating in the harbour area, another inevitable result of this activity was a large number of illegitimate children, who, often considered an inconvenience, tended to be abandoned to the care of the state or church authorities, although there is no doubt that poverty, and the resulting inability to raise such children, surely also often played a part in this decision.
The custom of opening institutional foundling homes and orphanages in Europe seems to go back to medieval times and was inspired by religious values. In 1198, for example, Pope Innocent III decreed the establishment of church-sponsored foundling homes in Rome, to counter the common occurrence of unwanted infants being thrown into the river Tiber. Such institutions had become more common by the late 14th century, often administered by civic governments, confraternities, and guilds.
While many abandoned children were illegitimate, poor economic conditions also led to the abandonment of legitimate children by parents who were unable to provide for them, especially single mothers - often servants, slaves, or prostitutes - who lacked the financial resources to raise a child on their own. In some cases, parents might even have decided that giving up a child would ensure a better future for their older siblings. Thus, leaving them at a foundling hospital that could offer the infants shelter and education would be seen as an ideal option: Florence’s famous Ospedale degli Innocenti took in no less than 375,000 children between the 15th and 20th centuries.
Care of Foundlings in Malta
In Malta, formal provisions to care for unwanted babies and foundlings were introduced during the late Medieva