Charity and Poor Relief

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CHARITY AND POOR RELIEF. The practice of charity (caritas) was fundamentally transformed in early modern Europe. What had been largely a voluntary good work open to all and available to anyone in need became to a much greater extent institutional, regulatory, and coercive. The poor were examined, identified, categorized, assisted, and regulated. In some places this process was limited to the members of one's own community, one's neighbors, or one's coreligionists. In other places it was limited to certain kinds of poor persons, the orphaned, the sick, or the elderly. In all places it sought greater efficiency in the administration of its resources and greater accuracy in the selection of its recipients. Poor relief materialized as a result.

By the late fifteenth century poverty had become a more visible and insistent presence in people's lives. The causes were complex. Social and economic change had rendered larger segments of the population vulnerable to poverty. The capitalization of agriculture reduced many peasants to dependency: freeholders became tenants; tenants became laborers. The industrialization of manufacturing had a similar impact on craftspeople: masters and journeymen lost control of production processes; they were reduced to wage labor under the direction of merchant entrepreneurs. Though the economy of the period was expanding, wages never managed to keep pace with prices. A larger proportion of the population lived on the margin, unable consistently to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves or their dependents. They were vulnerable to natural and human disasters. Crop failure or market inelasticity might drive them into poverty and onto the road. No less important than the material changes were cultural changes. As the poor washed over the land and flowed into cities in increasing numbers, attitudes toward themtoward their plight and its causesseem to have changed, too. Contemporaries perceived that the poor, in their search for sustenance, were less humble and deferential. They seemed increasingly importunate, aggressive, and violent, a threat to personal safety and public order. Moreover, their need was not always genuine. As a result, the poor became not only more visible and insistent but also more ambiguous and dangerous. Their numbers and attitude posed a challenge to the voluntary, pious character and the existing, haphazard structure of charity. Quite apart from the individual handout, an array of institutions, offering a variety of alms or assistance, had come into being by the end of the fifteenth century. The wealthy created pious foundations for the support of the poor. Guilds established confraternities to assist needy members. Monastic orders occasionally fed and housed the hungry and homeless within their walls. Churches and cathedrals maintained tables from which food and money were distributed on Sundays. Towns assumed control of hospitals and founded other institutions to meet a variety of needs. Orphanages and sanitariums, foundling homes and pawnshops sprang up. Every town and city offered a variety of such institutions and services, a bazaarlike array of charities that competed for resources and shared responsibilities. The poor could pick and choose, shopping for charity within the same community. Yet as the numbers of poor people increased toward the end of the fifteenth century, they were increasingly turned away. Existing resources were not adequate to feed, clothe, or shelter all those in need. Cutbacks were required. What is more, the impious face of poverty, captured in the image of the sturdy beggar, who begged not out of need but for less legitimate reasons, seemed unworthy of assistance under the circumstances. Some form of discrimination became essential.

Distinguishing the deserving from the undeserving poor was not new in early modern Europe. Canon lawyers and Scholastic theologians had argued the fundamental difference between those who should and those who should not receive assistance since the twelfth century. Early modern authorities, whether intellectual or political, took up these distinctions among the forms and degrees of poverty and made them the basis of administering poor relief. Those whose inability to support themselves might be considered innocent and permanentthe disabled, the elderly, the parentlesswere the most easily recognized and least controversial. All agreed that widows, orphans, and cripples should receive assistance, as should the shamefaced poor, those whose poverty was legitimate but whose honor kept them from seeking aid. Those whose need was a matter of circumstancethe unemployed or the underemployedwere no less deserving but more complex because their situation might change and because they were fundamentally able. Most of the poor fell into this group, and the form and duration of their care was subject to vigorous debate and dramatic change.

The problem from the late fifteenth century onward was how to relieve the deserving and exclude the undeserving. Those whose poverty was feigned or voluntarythe sturdy poorposed a threat to communities and their charities. Their relief was no longer affordable, given the greater numbers of people in need. What was more, their relief was no longer tolerable, given the illegitimacy of their need and the impiety of their manner. Changes in the structure and function of poor relief in the early modern period can be seen as an effort to address these issues: What was affordable? What was tolerable?

Though often associated with the Reformation, the reform of poor relief actually began earlier and was not limited to Protestant cities and states. In Italy, Spain, and some parts of France, inspired by humanist tracts and political concerns, authorities extended administrative oversight to established charitable institutions in an effort to control the disbursement of resources and improve the efficiency of services. Where Protestantism was eventually adopted, the reforms were often part of a broader effort to introduce evangelical religion. In reforming Christian worship, secular governments not only altered religious practice but also gained new jurisdiction. The relief of poverty became their responsibility as a Christian magistracy. In principle the changes were intended to be dramatic. In the earliest Protestant poor laws, such as those passed in Nuremberg (1522) and Ypres (Ieper) (1525), charitable institutions were placed under a single administrative authority, financial resources were disbursed from a "common chest," specialization of services was introduced to avoid duplication, the poor were closely examined to determine their exact need and appropriate relief, and begging was prohibited as a public nuisance. In practice, however, continuity was the rule. Sweeping reform ordinances notwithstanding, individual institutions continued to exercise extensive administrative independence. The existence of a common fund for the relief of poverty did not prevent these institutions from maintaining their own individual endowments. Omnicompetencethe provision of different kinds of relief for different kinds of poverty in a single institutioncontinued to be common. Certainly the poor were more closely examined, whether by state officials, as happened in most Protestant lands, or by institutional or ecclesiastical figures, as happened in Catholic lands, where the state's role was consultative rather than administrative. And begging continued despite prohibition or regulation. Confessional differences in poor relief have been somewhat exaggerated.

In the matter of begging, however, Protestants and Catholics parted company. Under the influence of the Reformation, all begging became suspect. Theologians rejected it as a fundamental misunderstanding of justification; no human works, including begging for or giving charity, could affect spiritual salvation. Nor did mendicancy in any way reflect the soul's relationship to God. Thus shorn of its religious signification, begging became a matter for the state to regulate. Protestant governments prohibited it. The poor were to be set to work, whether in the open air or in enclosed institutions. Made productive, they would to some extent compensate for their support and acquire the fixed habit of labor. Catholic authorities likewise opposed begging. They accepted readily the notion that the poor should be rendered self-supporting and disciplined to produce. Yet their policies remained ambiguous. Finally, for Catholics, begging remained a pious act, deeply imbedded in their religious tradition and practice. Some Catholic theologians, notably Domingo de Soto (14941560), argued that all persons, regardless of circumstance, should be allowed to beg as a devout undertaking. It could not be prohibited, but it could be controlled. Accordingly specifically defined groupsorphans or patients, for examplewere permitted to beg at specific times and in specific places. Others were required to wear a sign that they had been examined and found authentically and honorably poor. Yet different approaches should not obscure similar results: regardless of intention, neither Protestant nor Catholic authorities possessed the means or the will to eradicate begging completely.

Whether indeed they sought to eliminate begging or merely to restrict it, the point was largely the same. Poor relief might be rendered more efficient by directing charity where it would do the greatest good. This involved directing resources to those most in need and excluding all others, an end that unregulated begging prevented. Early modern poor relief ceased to be voluntary, therefore, and came to rely on principles of discrimination and exclusion. Authorities sought to discriminate according to the nature of a poor person's poverty. They examined the poor to determine the legitimacy of their need and the means to their relief, thus aiding the deserving and excluding the undeserving. Authorities also sought to discriminate according to membership in a community. Protestants restricted aid to needy residents in a government's jurisdiction or a church's parish. In either case poor relief turned on established membership in a narrowly defined secular or ecclesiastical community. All otherstransients and foreignerswere refused. At best these unfortunates might expect a free meal and escort to the border. Catholics, too, insisted on membership in a community. Receipt of aid from charitable institutions required proof of local residency, thus fixing the poor where they might be known, monitored, and supervised. Finally, authorities sought to discriminate according to the morality of a poor person's behavior. Assistance became tied to standards of comportment in Catholic and Protestant communities alike. The poor were required to submit obediently to local political authority, to conform piously to local religious practice, and to labor industriously in their own support. The immoral poorthe rebellious, the impious, and the indolentwere excluded from poor relief or subjected to social discipline. Catholic apologists claimed that, by requiring authenticity, residency, and legitimacy, Protestant restrictions drastically reduced the numbers of deserving poor. In fact, allowing once again for local and institutional variation, there was little difference in practice between the confessions. All imposed restrictions to discriminate among the poor and exclude some from relief.

It is this increasingly involuntary process of discrimination and exclusion that separated early modern poor relief from medieval charity. What had been an open ritual binding Christians became a compulsory function imposed on prescribed groups. Scholars have attended to this change and interpreted it variously. Since the beginning of the twentieth century and the writing of Max Weber (18641920), scholars generally have understood the establishment of poor relief as a turn from the personal and moral toward the bureaucratic and rational. His great work Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft (1922; Economy and society) is the point of departure for any discussion of this historical process and its confluence of sacred and secular impulses. Weber envisioned an absolute distinction between what he called the "postulate of brotherly love" and "the loveless realities of the economic domain." In the course of the early modern period and under the influence of Protestantism, "charity became a rationalized enterprise and its religious significance was eliminated or even transformed into the opposite significance" (Weber, p. 589). His argument has passed more or less intact into the modern historiography on early modern poor relief. Scholars following Otto Winckelmann (1914/15) located the beginning of the reorganization of poor relief in the Holy Roman Empire with the reform ordinances of 1522, presuming a clear association with the Reformation, and identified a series of common features. Regardless of locale, relief was placed in the hands of political authorities, begging was prohibited by law, financial resources were centralized, and assistance was awarded according to individual circumstances. Robert Jütte (1984) separated the reorganization of poor relief from the Reformation, seeing the abandonment of charity as a consequence of a larger social, economic, and religious crisis of the late fifteenth century and the sixteenth century. Yet that reorganization proceeded true to form regardless of time, place, or confession: relief was centralized in civic hands; finances were centralized likewise; the poor were registered; work was required. Allowing for variations of degree and depending on local circumstances, rationalization and bureaucratization ran their course. Similar patterns of developmentsimilar antitheses between traditional charity and modern rationalitywere identified in the Netherlands by Catharina Lis and Hugo Soly (1979), in France by Natalie Davis (1975) and Jean-Pierre Gutton (1971), in Spain by Linda Martz (1983), and in Italy by Brian Pullan (1971). The rationalizing trend persisted, albeit with local variations and without confessional dependencies.

Other scholars have focused attention less on the reorganization of poor relief than on its purposes. Self-sufficiencymuch less charityceased to be the goal. Rather than ameliorate poverty or demonstrate piety, poor relief rendered the lower strata of society docile and dependent by shaping their activities to the economic interests of the elite. According to this scholarship, much influenced by the theories of Karl Marx (18181883) and Michel Foucault (19261984), poverty is a consequence of the social relations of production. Capitalist enterprise requires state-sponsored support in order to police a reserve of labor and maintain its availability at the lowest possible price. Thus elites wish to preserve and control the poor for their own purposes. David Rothman (1971), Michael Ignatieff (1978), Margaret DeLacy (1986), and Sherrill Cohen (1992) have argued variously that charity, in the form of workhouses, prisons, hospitals, and orphanages, placed the poor in closely regulated regimes that attempted to promote industry, regularity, authority, and obedience in order to encourage economic dependence and social deference. Discrimination and exclusion may have served to make poor relief more efficient, but they also served the more sinister ends of making poverty permanent. Historians of culture and religion, such as Lee Palmer Wandel (1990) and Ole Peter Grell (1997), have questioned these models and their linear trajectories from past to present, arguing instead for the enduring influence of religious and humanitarian ideals in caring for the needy. Allowing for some degree of local variation in accordance with local circumstances, the development of early modern poor relief displays a common pattern of development. State or lay engagement in the provision of poor relief expanded. Resources were regularized and centralized. Functions were standardized, made more efficient, in short, rationalized. None of this had much to do with the Reformation, however. The processes began far earlier. The reasons for change and the forms that change took were determined by local circumstance. Economic efficiency and social discipline were frequently mentioned, but so, too, were Christian charity and "brotherly love." There is no reason to doubt the word of magistrates or laypeople, who claimed repeatedly that they were moved by all four. As a result scholars are coming to appreciate the variety of forms and the complexity of motives in early modern poor relief.

See also Humanists and Humanism ; Laborers ; Poverty ; Reformation, Protestant .


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Thomas Max Safley

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Charity and Poor Relief

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