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Urban Living: Those on the Margins

Urban Living: Those on the Margins


The Poor. Medieval cities were home to a large underclass, and it has been estimated that in some late-medieval cities up to 40 percent of the population was too poor to pay taxes. Like cottagers and laborers in the countryside, such people lived a hand-to-mouth existence. If one of these people had shelter, it might be a rented, unheated room in a building where several families were housed. Such residences might be furnished with a cookpot, a thin mattress, a table, and a bench. Their clothes were threadbare wool or linen, and their shoes—when they had them—were patched. Without any savings or resources to sell, the poor were the first to suffer in famine, drought, or plague. Hungry people and beggars were common sights on medieval streets.

Welfare . Medieval people were not insensitive to the needs of the poor and made attempts to help them. Many of these efforts were administered through city churches. Prosperous urban residents often provided in their wills for bread to be distributed to the poor, for dowries to be established for deserving poor girls, and for the apprenticeship dues of poor orphans to be paid. While distinct relief institutions, such as poorhouses and orphanages, were a later development, the poor could look forward to the distribution of extra food in the afternoons and evenings from the kitchens of the more prosperous. Town councils also took a person’s wealth into consideration when assessing various civic dues, and it could eliminate payments by poor families or even contribute to them. Such charity, however, was based on an assessment of the moral and social state of the poor, who were generally classed into two categories: deserving and undeserving. The deserving poor were members of good families fallen on hard times, young widows, orphans, and preachers who lived through begging. The undeserving poor were foreigners, people with bad reputations, and people believed to be able to work. Any welfare distributed in medieval towns was given only to the deserving poor.

”Hospitals.” Only cities with populations of several thousand had hospitals, which had more diverse functions than their modern counterparts. When medieval people spoke of “hospitals,” they include leper houses, almshouses, hospices for poor travelers and pilgrims, and institutions that cared for the sick poor. These institutions were frequently located on the outskirts of town so as to minimize any threat of infection to the urban community. In some cases, if a person in a hospital was believed to have a contagious disease, he was exiled from the city. In other words, hospitals in the modern sense of the word did not exist. Instead medieval people used the word hospital to describe buildings and institutions with various functions. These medieval hospitals were administered by the Church, but they also depended for part of their income on the generosity of urban residents. Women who had taken minor religious vows (sisters) and female servants often provided much of the care of the sick; hospital brothers handled general administration and fulfilled religious functions. The residents of medieval hospitals ate and slept in common halls, wore distinctive clothes, and attended daily mass. When medical care was provided, it was minimal. Medieval doctors and surgeons rarely treated hospital patients, and the cures that were effected often stemmed from bed rest, warmth, cleanliness, and good diet.

Jewish Communities. The Jews of medieval Europe lived primarily in towns. In the ninth and tenth centuries Jewish quarters, where Jews could more easily band together for protection, existed in many communities stretching from Spain to Germany and England. These communities always lived on the sufferance of the town lord. Jews were often taxed more heavily than other urban residents and could be expelled at the lord’s whim. For example, the Jewish community of medieval Paris was large and prosperous until King Philip Augustus expelled the Jews from France in 1182. Jewish sections were also a potential source of disorder in towns and, therefore, troubling to town governments. Popular opinion

made the Jews scapegoats for many misfortunes, and during times of religious enthusiasm, such as the calling of the First Crusade in 1095, many communities faced waves of anti-Semitic violence. Within their communities the daily life of medieval Jews was similar in many ways to that of the Christian communities. Their houses were built with the same materials and designs, their clothes were made of similar cloth and patterns, and they faced many of the same difficulties, such as finding warmth, light, and supplies. In large cities such as Paris and Venice, Jews had a synagogue. Jews also faced difficulties that were not shared by their Christian neighbors. Most towns limited the professions Jews could practice, excluded them from guilds, and denied them the ability to own land. Jews began to practice money-lending and long-distance trade because they were among the few occupations open to them in much of Europe. In medieval Europe, where Christianity and community were so closely integrated, Jews always lived on the margins of society even when the Christian majority tolerated them.


Jane S. Gerber, The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience (New York: Free Press, 1992).

Lindsay Granshaw and Roy Porter, eds., The Hospital in History (London & New York: Routledge, 1989).

Michel Mollat, The Poor in the Middle Ages: An Essay in Social History, translated by Arthur Goldhammer (New Haven: Yale University press, 1989).

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