The Poor in the Middle Ages: An Essay in Social History
“The poet Gray was wrong,” the late Peter Fleming once remarked, “anyone who has had much conversation with the poor will know that their annals are neither short nor simple.” But Gray was right about the thinness of the record that they leave behind when they are gone, and that record becomes scantier as one moves back in time. The subjects of Professor Mollat’s excellent book, The Poor in the Middle Ages, died so long ago that we can now perceive only their collective face, not the individual ones, and we see them, perforce, rather as others saw them than as they saw themselves. His book is in consequence in many ways as much a history of charity (and the lack of it) as of poverty. It is also, it must be said, substantially a collective work, synthesizing the varied findings of contributors to the Sorbonne seminar over which he presided for many years. Sometimes the differing preoccupations of these contributors show through the synthesis, but the book is not any the less interesting for that.
Professor Mollat’s study covers more than a millennium, from the age of Constantine to the eve of the Reformation, and the nature and range of the sources on which his investigations are based naturally alter a good deal over the centuries. In the earlier part of the period the kind of evidence on which quantitative assessments can be based is almost totally lacking: for this reason, attitudes toward the poor and poverty dominate the earlier chapters of the book. The Christianization of the late Roman Empire added a religious dimension to what society saw as its obligation to the poor, and the Sermon on the Mount and the writings of the Fathers were critical influences on the early medieval attitude. “Let us feed and clothe Christ,” said Gregory of Nyssa: “It is mockery to honor God in sumptuous churches while reviling him in the poor,” wrote John Chrysostom.
Thus the Christian leaders sounded the clarion call to charity, and it was natural that it was to the Christian church, now newly incorporated into the structure of government, that the late Roman authorities looked to organize the institutional side of the response to it. In late imperial and in Merovingian Gaul the bishops carried a major responsibility for poor relief, and were expected to put aside a portion of their revenues for it. Afterward, as city life dwindled and as poverty became more and more a rural phenomenon in the West, it was the Benedictine abbeys that took over the lead: by the tenth century in most monasteries there was a specific official in charge of this side of conventual activity, the almoner, who disposed in charity of a tithe of his house’s property. Some paupers received regular support: at the great feasts of the Church crowds of the poor received gifts of food and clothing, and the monks washed the feet of those who came to the abbey gate.
For all the spiritual injunctions, and for all the institutional and liturgical development of monastic relief work, there however remained—as Professor Mollat stresses—an ambivalence in the early medieval approach to charitable giving. “God could have made all men rich, but he wanted poor men in this world so that the rich might have an opportunity to redeem their sins,” wrote Hincmar of Rheims. Preoccupation with the spiritual benefit that almsgiving brings to the giver spelled a danger of debasing charity into a means of squeezing through the needle’s eye, whereby the rich could purchase their ticket to salvation. This tension between the altruistic ends and the self-regarding motives of medieval charity becomes a recurrent theme throughout Professor Mollat’s book: some readers may wonder with me whether it is not more than just a medieval historian’s problem, but rather a perpetual dilemma in the psychology of human generosity.
From the later Middle Ages more ample evidence has survived and we are able to learn more about what poverty meant to the poor as well as about the means and motives of charity. Fiscal records, which list not only tax-paying households but also the number of households that were too poor to pay, now enable the historian to make calculations about the proportion of the population living at or below the precarious margin of subsistence. Rough as these calculations are, they indicate percentages that are uncomfortably high, especially in some of the larger cities. By the thirteenth century there had been a large increase in population, an upsurge in urban commerce and industry, and considerable emigration from the countryside into the towns, and the problem of the working poor—a principally urban phenomenon—comes into sharper focus. The indigents whom earlier the great Benedictine abbeys had sought to relieve were largely rural poor, people whom war or seigneurial oppression had driven off their plots or whom disease or age had left too weak to wrest a living from the land: the growing cities of the high Middle Ages faced a different problem, of poor who were housed and able-bodied and whose labor was vital to production but who could not earn enough to make a decently secure life for themselves and their families, people who were dependent rather than displaced.
Reactions reflect contemporary sensitivity to the growing scale of their problem. Rulers like Saint Louis of France showed deep concern: we find him reorganizing his royal almonry, renovating hospitals, and founding the Maison des Filles-Dieu in Paris. Louis’s inspiration clearly owed much to the preaching and example of the friars, especially of that unique apostle of the poor and of Holy Poverty, Saint Francis. The friars also exercised a powerful influence on the civic confraternities that made the maintenance of hospitals and the organization of distributions to the poor their business, among which the most famous was perhaps that of Or San Michele in Florence. More money was channeled toward hospitals (whose clients, in this age and for long afterward, were almost exclusively the poor), and the benefactions of clergy, wealthy townsmen, and aristocrats multiplied their number. Benefactions and bequests likewise supported the operation at parish level of “poor tables,” usually managed by laymen under the supervision of the parish clergy. Assistance might be in kind or money, and lists were kept of those regularly entitled; sometimes these organizations concerned themselves also with seeing to the burial of the poor, and to the care of that saddest of all the products of indigence, the children of the destitute.
A question that much preoccupies Professor Mollat is how far the notable response to the problem of poverty in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries is to be explained not simply by reaction to changed circumstances, but also by a more sensitive approach that had earlier roots. The religious movements of the immediately preceding period did much, he believes, to engender a better appreciation of the predicament of the poor, and a more profound sense of identity with them as fellow human beings, not mere objects of charity. The hermits who counted among their number so many of the greatest spiritual leaders of the eleventh and twelfth centuries could not woo the poor with gifts, because they had, by their renunciation of the world, brought themselves down to the level of indigence of the very poorest, and their ascetic manner of life proclaimed vividly to the world the identity of poverty with purity. Their example pointed the way forward to the resolve of Saint Francis, “naked to follow the naked Christ,” and his prayer that his order “should have no other patrimony but begging.”
The impact of the new Franciscan mode of ascetic charity in the early thirteenth century was immeasurably powerful; yet there were dangers, from charity’s point of view, in the exaltation of voluntary poverty. Taken to extremes, this could positively deflect attention from the situation of those whose poverty was not self-imposed, but the very opposite. Too often, moreover, the friars could find no message of comfort for the involuntary poor, beyond stressing the virtue of Christian resignation; unless it was, by their millenarian vision and their invectives against the rich, to encourage or to seem to encourage revolution. Nevertheless, there is no denying the enormous influence of the hermits, and still more of the friars, in encouraging benefactions with explicitly charitable purposes and promoting the organization of relief. And sometimes we catch a glimpse of novel and significant perceptions, for instance in Taddeo Dini’s presentation of the poor as creatures “whose grievances are heard by God and who deserve justice and a decent wage”: perhaps most notably in Saint Thomas Aquinas’s recognition of a spiritual imperative to combat destitution—because physical exigence is so imperious as to disturb a man’s whole individual equilibrium, thereby endangering not only his physical survival but his religious development too.
Thus for Professor Mollat there seems to have been a kind of moment of vision, in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries: and the trouble seems to have been that, as is so often the case with visions, it proved to be evanescent and incomplete. Much was achieved, but in the end it was not enough. The reason, he implies, was that the men of the Middle Ages failed to see with sufficient clarity; the flashes of insight of such men as Dini and Saint Thomas were too individual to inspire a new dynamism in approaches to the social problem of poverty. They were not sufficient to shake the torpor of the traditional, hierarchical social philosophy, which assumed that because there were serfs and indigents, God must have willed it to be so. Men continued to concern themselves too much with the spiritual value of almsgiving for the rich, and the spiritual value of patient endurance of hardship for the poor.
The repeated experience of popular revolts taught an ominous lesson about the need “to reduce beggars and vagabonds to obedience,” and served as a reminder that one should distinguish sharply between the deserving and undeserving poor. At the end of the Middle Ages, with the slackening of spiritual fervor among the professional religious, the responsibility for poor relief was progressively falling more and more into the hands of lay people and lay authorities, whose attitudes were more civic and less charitable than those of their clerical predecessors. The sound administrative sense of these new lay managers of charity told them that the ideal of the social rehabilitation of the poor must be balanced against the need to police vagabondage and to curb the criminal tendencies that flourish naturally in the indigent fringes of society.
Professor Mollat’s book thus ends on a downbeat, not to say a gloomy, note. But this is largely, I think, because it is the efforts and aspirations of what I have called his “moment of vision” that really touch his own, personal sympathies. The humanist age, with its “desanctified” approach, cannot stir in him quite the same response as does that of Saint Francis and Saint Louis, with its generous spiritual impulses. He is of course much too good a historian to overlook the signs of new promise in the fifteenth century: the multiplication of private bequests for poor relief; the growing concern in hospitals with genuine therapy; Saint Bernardino’s perception that the monti di pietà (the early ancestors of pawnbroking shops) could do more in the way of anticipating economic disaster by offering loans at a low rate of interest than could endless efforts to relieve destitution after disaster had struck.
Nevertheless, if I have a criticism of his great book it is that Professor Mollat perhaps credits the hermits and the early Franciscans with being just a whit more constructive and novel in their approach to the problem of poverty than they may have really been, and is just a whit too indulgent toward their “dropout” tendencies; and also that he is a little on the astringent side in his assessment of the charitable efforts, both before and after the age of the hermits and the mendicants, of men who were spiritually less agitated and who had no wish to be poor themselves, but who maintained a serious and honest effort to do something to relieve the miseries of their less fortunate fellow beings, and accepted it as their duty to do so.
That is why Margaret Wade Labarge’s book on women in medieval life, A Small Sound of the Trumpet, seems to me to offer an excellent foil to Professor Mollat’s powerful and magisterial study of the poor. Academically, it is of course by comparison in a minor key, but there is a golden quality of levelheadedness about it that I find very attractive. If she had wished, Miss Labarge could no doubt have written a paean of complaint, presenting medieval women and womankind as the victims corporately of male oppression and misunderstanding, and it would have sold well; but she is too wise and too honest to play the virago in that way.
The book has a narrower chronological compass than Professor Mollat’s, but it is still wide enough; the five hundred years from c.1000 to c. 1500 AD are the focus of her attention. And her subject, of course, is wide indeed, not a class but a sex, half the human population. With excellent good sense, she sees from the start the need to classify, to set female roles into appropriate social and occupational sections, to separate her treatment of the noblewoman who had always a measure of power and patronage at her disposal (especially when her husband was absent, and in her widowhood) from her treatment of the women who toiled, sharing their husbands’ labor in the field or the workshop.
She sees very clearly the limitations that contemporary mores imposed generally on women’s activities, but nevertheless, whether she is dealing with high or low, she maintains a refreshing emphasis on the positive contribution that women could make, and made: on the notable achievements and influence of great regents like Blanche of Castile on the one hand, and on the other, the managing capacities of such as Sabine le Tailor, wife and later widow of a successful London vintner, or Juliana, the Bishop of Ely’s able gardener at Little Downham in the early fourteenth century. These women, Blanche in a spectacular way, and the other two unspectacularly, showed that their sex, their experience, and their education in no way unfitted them to discharge functions that men normally discharged; and many other women could record, in their own walk of life, comparable achievement.
The same positive approach informs her treatment of women in specifically feminine callings, as nuns or in béguinages; as midwives; as witches; and her treatment of prostitution is a model of level-headed humanity. For Miss Labarge, personal experience is central to history, and her book is enlivened constantly by her character sketches, as of the indomitably domineering and intriguing Eleanor of Aquitaine (or of that eminently humane bluestocking Christine de Pizan), and by her engaging vignettes of everyday life. There are moments when all this becomes a little too cozy and chatty, perhaps, and when one begins to feel a yearning for more probing analysis. But on the whole the combination of sanity with sympathy, which is the special quality of this book, carries the reader along toward its eminently and amply justified conclusion—that the contribution of women to the civilization and the life of the Middle Ages was “neither invisible, inaudible, nor unimportant.”
David Herlihy has written—and justly—of Professor Mollat’s book that “no scholar today can match Mollat’s command of the documentation on poverty. There is no other book quite like it.” I do not think that anything quite like that will be said of Miss Labarge’s book: it is not a work of comparably deep scholarship or perception—and makes no pretension to being so. The fact that it strikes a more optimistic note is not a symptom of superficiality, however, at least in my view. The history of social tensions and confrontations and of inadequate human responses is always interwoven with a parallel history of social cooperation, and of modest success here and there for equity and altruism: and that second strand has a place in the medieval history of the poor and of poverty as well as in the medieval history of women.
No one can deny that the Middle Ages were all too ready to blame Eve more than Adam, just as no one can suggest that they ever got notably close to solving the problem of poverty. Yet I find it not wholly dispiriting that the evidence of Mollat’s survey, in spite of his moments of pessimism, does confirm, and clearly, that charity, and the sense of society’s obligation to keep the wolf from the door of the needy, were continuous threads running through the history of these Christian centuries. Just as, equally, I find it encouraging to be reminded by Miss Labarge of aspects of medieval women’s history and achievements that have nothing whatever to do with male chauvinism (and often nothing much to do with males at all). That is where her smaller sound of the trumpet really is a useful foil to Professor Mollat’s sonorous blast; in calling to mind that the Middle Ages have left us hopeful examples of human ability to make headway in spite of obstacles, as well as a great store of object lessons about the opacity of human vision and about the insufficiency of man’s humanity to man.