Poverty and Charity

views updated

Poverty and Charity

During the Renaissance, cities and towns tried many methods to deal with the widespread problem of poverty. Urban centers, which tended to attract many poor people, usually provided better care for the poor than rural areas. However, even in larger cities, public authorities did not take a direct part in poor relief until the later Renaissance.

Extent of Poverty. Between 50 and 70 percent of the people in Europe's largest cities were poor in some sense. A very small proportion of the population depended on poor relief at all times. These people, known as the helpless poor, included invalids, the young, the aged, and the mentally ill. Their numbers grew during times of famine as refugees from the countryside came to the cities and towns in search of food or alms—charity given freely to the poor.

Just above the helpless poor on the social scale was a large group of people who relied on poorly paid seasonal or irregular work. This group, known as the miserabili or "have-nothings," included people such as laborers, porters, journeymen*, and out-of-work servants. They made up about 20 percent of the urban population. In normal times they could scrape by, but they had no savings. Sudden increases in the price of bread or downturns in the economy could make them dependent upon charity.

A third group of poor people included craft workers, shopkeepers, and minor officials. Society thought of them as respectable in normal times, but an illness, personal loss, or public disaster such as an epidemic could put them at risk of poverty. These people would not beg openly like other groups of poor people, but they would not turn down charitable gifts if offered.

Types of Poverty. Renaissance Europe recognized a hierarchy* of poverty, based on the circumstances that had brought an individual to poverty. The shamefaced poor were nobles or influential citizens who had fallen on hard times and could no longer maintain a lifestyle fitting their class. Although more likely to lose their honor than to starve, the shamefaced poor enjoyed the best treatment from charitable organizations.

The "poor of Christ" included widows and orphans who patiently accepted their misfortune. In the eyes of those who dispensed charity, the poor of Christ best represented Christ's suffering on earth, and a gift to them would gain the donor God's favor. A related group that appeared in Catholic countries was those who voluntarily gave up worldly goods. Begging religious orders such as the Franciscans fell into this category. Protestants frowned on such orders and the religious poor because they believed that people earned entrance into heaven solely through faith, not through actions such as charitable actions.

The laboring poor, those who worked but had no assets to fall back on in hard times, made up the largest body of poor people. Below the laboring poor fell the outcast poor. These included vagrants, idlers, false cripples, prostitutes, and others who received charity through deception. By the 1500s, most people regarded the outcast poor as habitual sinners who had little hope for salvation.

Types of Poor Relief. A great deal of poor relief was personal. Almsgivers donated money to beggars, neighbors supported one another, and landlords and farmers gave grain to the local poor. Shopkeepers often extended credit to those who could not pay for goods at the time of purchase. Cities developed some formal structures to deal with the poor, such as religious organizations, hospitals, and banks. Wealthy individuals often ran these organizations as a way to provide patronage* or improve their social standing.

In Catholic cities, organized groups of religious brotherhoods called confraternities provided many services for the poor. These were groups of laypeople* who believed that they could earn God's favor by performing good works. They banded together to perform charitable works such as giving alms, caring for the sick, visiting prisoners, and taking in strangers. Many towns and cities relied on confraternities to provide these types of public services. Some groups provided burials or offered Masses (religious services) for the souls of the dead. Confraternities directed much of their effort toward their own members and their families, but over time more of them provided help to outsiders as well.

As their name suggests, hospitals provided hospitality rather than medical care. They took in orphans and abandoned children, sheltered people traveling to religious sites, and cared for widows and the aged. Medical attention became a concern of hospitals because the poor often became sick and because sickness often led to poverty. People who could afford medical care usually received it in their homes. Early hospitals were small, but some cities later established large hospitals, often to deal with outbreaks of plague*. These hospitals served as places to hold and observe visitors or goods suspected of infection before allowing them to enter the city.

Some towns tried to provide small, low-interest loans to the poor. They might license a Jewish pawnbroker for this service. After 1460, people turned to cut-rate Christian pawnshops, which operated as non-profit banks that charged a very low interest rate. These became popular in Italy, but similar banks arose in Spain, the Low Countries*, and France. The pawnshops also served as disaster banks from which local people could borrow in times of emergency.

Reform of Poor Relief. In the early 1500s, many towns and some nations tried to coordinate their systems of poor relief. They made efforts to restrict begging, conduct a census of the local poor, and provide training and work for the unemployed. Protestant cities that had sold off Catholic institutions, such as monasteries, often used the assets from the sale for poor relief and education. In some Catholic cities, officials used poor relief as a way to collect information on local residents. For example, officials in the French town of Ypres visited the poor and assembled records about their financial condition, health, and habits.

Some cities passed laws to raise money for the poor when voluntary charity proved insufficient. Many of these cities adopted the practice of rating, or examining each citizen's relative wealth to determine how much he should contribute to poor relief. City leaders then pressed the citizens to contribute more if they were not being generous enough. Over time, public authorities became even more directly involved in providing poor relief. For example, in Venice the Board of Health took charge of preventing begging, vagrancy, and prostitution.

(See alsoHospitals and Asylums; Orphans and Foundlings; Social Status. )

* journeyman

person who has completed an apprenticeship and is certified to work at a particular trade or craft

* hierarchy

organization of a group into higher and lower levels

see color plate 10, vol. 3

Brotherhoods of the Poor

Most confraternities that performed charitable works were made up of people from the upper and middle classes. However, some cities had confraternities of approved beggars. The more skillful and attractive beggars, often the blind and the lame, would collect alms on the street. Elected officers of the confraternity then distributed the money evenly among the members. Some groups had rules that barred certain people from membership, while others included everyone who lived in a town or church district. The Spanish town of Zamora boasted 150 confraternities, about one for every 14 households.

* patronage

support or financial sponsorship

* laypeople

those who are not members of the clergy

* plague

highly contagious and often fatal disease that wiped out much of Europe's population in the mid-1300s and reappeared periodically over the next three centuries; also known as the Black Death

* Low Countries

region bordering on the North Sea, made up of present-day Netherlands and Belgium

see color plate 11, vol. 2