Charity and Poor Relief: The Early Modern Period

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Brian Pullan

In the teachings of the Christian churches, charity was a religious emotion, a divine fire that destroyed the love of self to make room for the love of God and neighbors. Closely related to charity or caritas was mercy or misericordia. According to the vision of the Last Judgment in chapter 25 of the Gospel of St. Matthew, salvation depended absolutely on willingness to be merciful to the poor, as if each one were Christ himself. A good Christian would strive at once to imitate Christ and to find him in deprived and afflicted people and in wanderers, pilgrims, galley slaves, and the inmates of jails.

"I must be a suitor unto you in our good Master Christ's cause," wrote the bishop of London to the king's secretary in 1552. "I beseech you be good to him. The matter is, Sir, alas, he hath lain too long abroad (as you do know) without lodging, in the streets of London, both hungry, naked, and cold. Now, thanks be to Almighty God, the citizens are willing to refresh him, and to give him both meat, drink, clothing and firing."

Whereas charity could flourish between equals, mercy denoted transactions between the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor, even the living and the dead. "Charity and mercy are distinct virtues," pronounced the Jesuit Jerome Drexel (1581–1638), for many years a preacher at the court of the elector of Bavaria. "Friendship and charity are given or received by equals, but mercy excels in that it looks to and supports a lesser person. Charity embraces human beings for their goodness, mercy for their wretchedness, for merciful people are like God to those whom they assist."

In practice mercy and charity were seldom so clearly distinguished from each other, and associations devoted to mercy and to charity were equally concerned with the relief of the poor. Six works of mercy were commended in the Gospel, but the tradition of the Catholic Church had added a seventh, the burial of the dead. To balance those works of "corporal" mercy, which were performed toward the body, Catholic catechisms listed an equal number of others done for the benefit of the soul. The seven works of "spiritual" mercy included offering prayers and masses for souls suffering in purgatory; teaching Christian doctrine to children and ignorant adults; rescuing public sinners, including common prostitutes, whose way of life exposed them to damnation; and converting unbelievers, among them Jews and Muslims.

Through its links with corporal and spiritual mercy, charity became associated with poor relief, education, and campaigns for moral improvement. But legal definitions of charity, as in Tudor England, also included public-spirited attempts to better the lives of communities by providing or maintaining amenities. Indeed the preamble to an English statute of 1597, which remained in force until 1888 and established an official list of proper charitable uses, referred not only to various forms of poor relief but also to "repair of bridges, ports, havens, causeways, churches, sea banks and highways."

Poor relief, however, was not inspired solely by the religious motives of charity and mercy, and some relief was financed by rates and taxes rather than by voluntary contributions. Worldly, practical, and humane reasons lay behind attempts to relieve poverty. Conspicuous among them was the fear of public disorder. Riots erupted if the poor were made desperate by shortages of bread or if the government of a state or city failed in its fundamental duty of guaranteeing supplies of food and frustrating the maneuvers of speculators who attempted to amass quantities of grain and profit from soaring prices. Another prominent reason was the fear of disease, especially the notorious plague that might invade a community if vagrants were allowed to wander freely from infected to healthy areas. Third was the desire to protect the economy against heavy losses of population through epidemic or famine, since few governments doubted that a large population containing a high proportion of skilled workers made for a strong and prosperous state. Last was the need to tide the labor force over spells of slack trade or seasonal unemployment. Most of the poor laws passed from the sixteenth century onward contained provisions for setting the able-bodied poor to work. These measures were influenced by religious disapproval of idleness (which was regarded as sinful as well as antisocial), and perhaps even more by the desire of merchant capitalists to secure cheap, disciplined labor to perform simple tasks, such as spinning wool, winding silk, beating hemp, or rasping dyewood, as in the London Bridewell established in the 1550s or the Amsterdam workhouse opened in the 1590s.

Some people devoted their leisure to charitable activities not, perhaps, from purely religious motives but because they saw them as a path to prestige and the control of patronage. Since acts of charity were highly esteemed, positions on the boards of management of hospitals or other concerns conferred status and bore witness to a person's probity. Sometimes, as in early modern Venice and eighteenth-century Turin, these positions compensated certain social groups (in Venice the citizens, in Turin the court aristocracy and the merchants) for their exclusion from power in the state. Other times, as in sixteenth-century Bologna, control over charities consolidated the power and authority of the senatorial families who dominated the city.

In other instances, as in Amsterdam, the task of running an orphanage, hospital, or house of correction served as an apprenticeship for members of the political elite before they entered the senate. A statue or bust in the hall of a hospital or a commemorative tablet in a church reciting a benefactor's good deeds conferred a kind of immortality in almost any country. The practice of benevolence was described in the English Gentleman's Magazine in August 1732 as "the most lasting, valuable and exquisite Pleasure."


Poor relief schemes generally included harsh measures intended to correct the rebellious poor who refused to work, seemingly in contradiction to conventional notions of Christian charity, though they could be represented as a form of tough love. In the early eighteenth century Lodovico Antonio Muratori (1672–1750), a scholar, parish priest, and archivist to the duke of Modena, argued in a controversial treatise that punitive measures should be regarded as acts of charity toward the body politic if not toward the individual. "If we show little indulgence towards defective members," he wrote, "this becomes charity towards the whole body." To deny alms to a wastrel could be an act of charity, since such a refusal might spur him or her into leading a better life.

Between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries societies waged a war on begging and vagrancy rather than a war on poverty. In its broadest sense poverty was the condition of being compelled to labor in order to live and having no savings or independent income in reserve if prevented from working. It was accepted as part of the natural or providential order, in which the rich and the poor were complementary, each supporting the other. The benevolent almsgiver needed the prayers of the poor in return for his or her acts of charity. Sometimes poverty was seen as a vital spur to industry on the assumption that, unless driven by the fear of starvation, most people would not choose to work. Charity was a conservative force designed to palliate poverty but not to uproot it by a radical redistribution of wealth. It was intended to preserve the existing social order, and people often showed a special tenderness to distressed gentlefolk and respectable people who had fallen on hard times and were ashamed to beg.

Most early modern societies, however, tried to promote one kind of change by transforming the idle poor into the industrious poor and by equipping solitary and unprotected young people to take their proper places in society and the family. This involved apprenticing orphaned boys and abandoned children to useful trades and placing girls in domestic service and eventually providing them with dowries that would enable them to marry respectable husbands.

At least from the twelfth century ecclesiastical lawyers authorized almsgivers to discriminate between the worthy and the undeserving poor both on economic and on moral grounds and to favor those who were in greater need and those who were better behaved. By the sixteenth century organized private charities and public relief schemes were clearly endeavoring to concentrate their resources on the genuinely needy. This group included not only the widows and orphans whom every ruler traditionally vowed to protect, not only the aged and feebleminded, but also working families burdened with large numbers of dependent children or plunged into destitution by the prolonged sickness or disablement of the principal wage earner. Instead of waiting for the poor to present themselves at the charity's headquarters, officers visited homes and systematically compiled censuses. About 1603 the officers of San Girolamo della Carità, a religious society devoted to poor relief that expected to cover one-third of the districts in Rome, were instructed by their society to take account of "female children of any age and males up to the twelfth year" and to exclude from relief all families with fewer than three children and parents in good health.

Concern for the respectable, hardworking poor, for victims of circumstance who patiently accepted their misfortunes, and for the young and the aged was balanced by harshness toward drunkards, gamblers, idlers, and the tricksters who bulked large in the literature of almost every European country. By the late seventeenth century parts of France and Italy exhibited an ambition to carry out what Michel Foucault has called a "great internment" of beggars, lunatics, and social undesirables in general hospitals. Here they would be separated from the public and subjected to a quasi-monastic regime based on regular work, sexual abstinence, and compulsory piety. But few if any societies actually possessed the resources to carry out such a far-reaching measure, and beggars' hospitals were often restricted to women, children, and invalids.


Charity and poor relief were administered partly by the Christian churches, partly by voluntary organizations, partly by the foundations of individual philanthropists, partly by the town, village, or parish, and partly by the state. Public authorities tended to intervene drastically only in emergencies, but many cities in continental Europe established public health offices and food commissions charged with taking preventive measures against plague and famine. Both church and state claimed the right to supervise charities and inspect their accounts. The Catholic bishops insisted on performing this task after the Council of Trent empowered them to do so in the 1560s. Calvinist churches appointed deacons with a special responsibility for collecting and dispensing alms to the poor. In Catholic societies much of the work was in the hands of the lay officers of religious fraternities, hospitals, or other foundations who were subject to clerical advice and surveillance but enjoyed a certain degree of autonomy.

It is arguable whether or not the theological differences of Catholics and Protestants gave rise to distinctive approaches to the problem of poverty. Catholics insisted on the crucial role of good works, which included acts of mercy and a great many other pious deeds, in accumulating the religious merit vital to salvation. They often contended that the highest aim of all acts of mercy and charity ought to be the salvation of souls, those of the receivers as well as the givers of charity. Protestants held that good works were but the fruits and signs of salvation through the merits of Christ alone and through belief in his sacrificial death. They saw poor relief as a means to creating an orderly and God-fearing society, a truly Christian commonwealth.

Catholics and Protestants also defined the objects of charity rather differently. Catholics gave to members of religious communities who had renounced all worldly goods and made themselves poor, to pilgrims traveling to sacred places, and to souls suffering in purgatory, on whose behalf they celebrated masses. Sometimes several hundred masses were offered for the sake of a single soul, and special funds were set up to finance them. For Protestants only the involuntary living poor, who had neither chosen poverty nor descended into poverty out of dissolute behavior, could be proper objects of charity. Apparently Protestants were better able to concentrate on the needs of society rather than the needs of souls insofar as the two could be separated, for sins such as fornication and incest could be countered by improving degrading social conditions.

However, it seems certain that from the 1520s onward both Catholic and Protestant cities in western Europe attempted to adopt poor relief schemes on broadly similar lines, seeking to centralize or coordinate the dispensation of charity, to suppress or control begging, and to provide work for everyone capable of doing it. Such schemes may have originated in Lutheran Saxony, but they proved broadly acceptable to many Catholic communities in Flanders, France, Italy, and Spain. In Flanders and Spain representatives of the begging friars, the traditional champions of the poor who saw their own interests threatened by the bans on begging, vigorously opposed the poor laws, arguing that they would deprive the poor of a fundamental human right to ask for alms as they chose and to travel freely from the more barren to the more prosperous parts of a country. But the University of Paris approved the principles behind the poor law scheme of Catholic Ypres in 1531, and the misgivings of the mendicant orders were not shared by all the Catholic clergy or by Catholic magistrates.

Similarities should not be exaggerated, for Catholics continued to favor organizations of which reformed communities disapproved. To take an obvious example, brotherhoods and sisterhoods devoted to pursuing their own salvation by good works continued to flourish and multiply in Catholic societies until the mid-eighteenth century. Elsewhere they were swiftly abolished at the Reformation, and their absence cleared the way for the parishes, their traditional though not invariable rivals.

In 1523 an ordinance written by the reformer Martin Luther for the small town of Leisnig in Saxony conceded that, if voluntary charity and endowments proved unequal to the task of sustaining the local poor, the authorities would be entitled to levy a compulsory contribution from the more prosperous members of the community. However, most communities in continental Europe clung to the belief that giving to the poor ought to follow from personal choice rather than legal coercion. Only in England did the parish authorities regularly levy poor rates, which parliamentary statutes had empowered them to impose since 1572. Although only about one-third of English parishes were accustomed to using their statutory powers in 1660, the practice had by 1700 become almost universal. On the other hand, in many communities outside England the moral pressures to give were intense enough to constitute a "charitable imperative," with only slight differences between a voluntary subscription and an obligatory payment or between a religious undertaking and a civic duty.

By virtue of parliamentary legislation and its local enforcement, England developed something close to a national system of poor relief, although the practice of levying rates did not eliminate the need for private action. In continental Europe most towns and cities made their own arrangements, which depended on large institutions located in cities that often served the surrounding districts as well. Such foundations were supported by bequests, gifts, and the proceeds of collections taken on the streets or through poor boxes in churches. Occasionally the state or town government or a benevolent ruler supported a particular charity by allocating to it the proceeds of certain indirect taxes or judicial fines.

To generalize is difficult, but it is reasonable to suggest that in any particular city the institutional arrangements consisted of a combination of some though not necessarily all of the following elements: religious brotherhoods and sisterhoods or voluntary societies whose concerns included poor relief, visiting and nursing the sick, or moral improvement, or all of these things; hospitals or hospices, which could be both poorhouses and places for medical care; workhouses and houses of correction; institutions for the care of rphans, lost or abandoned children, and girls thought to be in moral danger; houses for reformed prostitutes or otherwise dishonored women; public pawn banks designed to lend money freely or at nominal rates of interest against pledges to customers who could prove need; free schools intended chiefly to teach the elements of Christian doctrine; medical care provided by publicly salaried physicians, surgeons, and apothecaries and by nurses, who were often themselves poor people; and public granaries and food stores.

Some attempts were made to simplify these complicated structures. In many cities of northern Italy, France, and Spain magistrates and ecclesiastical authorities endeavored, from the mid-fifteenth century onward, to consolidate small hospitals into larger and better-supervised organizations. In the 1520s the newly Protestant towns of Germany led the way by a few years in establishing "common chests" or central almonries to control all relief paid to people who remained in their homes. Similar institutions soon followed in the Low Countries and in France.

Not all forms of organized charity were directed primarily toward city dwellers. For instance, the Monti Frumentari or grain banks of Italy lent seed corn or food for consumption to farmers and hoped to recover their loans at harvesttime. The charity workshops of eighteenth-century France benefited smallholders and agricultural laborers during the months when seasonal unemployment was most severe. Despite their name, they were to pay wages rather than dispense alms, chiefly for road building and textile work. Rural Finland, perhaps in response to the famines of the 1690s, developed a system whereby peasant households were divided into groups known as rote. Each group was charged with looking after one of the parish poor, who might either lodge with one particular household or move at intervals between one household and another in the group.

Beyond all institutional charity lay innumerable personal transactions and informal neighborly acts. They have left no documentary traces but must have been crucial to the subsistence of the poor. Survival may have depended as much on the neighborly charity of the poor toward each other as on the merciful condescension of the rich and the sometimes grudging agreement of prosperous folks to pay the poor rate levied on social superiors.

See also other articles in this section.


Cavallo, Sandra. Charity and Power in Early Modern Italy: Benefactors and TheirMotives in Turin, 1541–1789. Cambridge, U.K., 1995.

Cohen, Sherrill. The Evolution of Women's Asylums since 1500: From Refuges for Ex-Prostitutes to Shelters for Battered Women. New York, 1992.

Critchlow, Donald T., and Charles H. Parker, eds. With Us Always: A History ofPrivate Charity and Public Welfare. Lanham, Md., 1998. Includes essays on the early modern Dutch Republic, France, and Italy.

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Grell, Ole Peter, and Andrew Cunningham, eds. Health Care and Poor Relief inProtestant Europe, 1500–1700. London and New York, 1997.

Grell, Ole Peter, and Andrew Cunningham, with Jon Arrizabalaga, eds. Health Care and Poor Relief in Counter-Reformation Europe. London, 1999.

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Muratori, Lodovico Antonio. Trattato della carità cristiana e altri scritti sulla carità. Edited by Piero G. Nonis. Rome, 1961.

Pullan, Brian. Poverty and Charity: Europe, Italy, Venice, 1400–1700. Aldershot, U.K., 1994. Reprints of essays published over the last thirty years.

Riis, Thomas, ed. Aspects of Poverty in Early Modern Europe. Vol. 1. Alphen aan den Rijn, Brussels, Stuttgart, and Florence, 1981. Vol. 2. Odense, 1986. Vol. 3. Odense, 1990. Essays on poverty, charity, and poor relief in many parts of western Europe, including the Scandinavian countries.

Slack, Paul. Poverty and Policy in Tudor and Stuart England. London, 1988.

Van Leeuwen, Marco H. D. "Logic of Charity: Poor Relief in Preindustrial Europe." Journal of Interdisciplinary History 24 (Spring 1994): 589–613.

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Charity and Poor Relief: The Early Modern Period

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