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The Poor in the Middle Ages: An Essay in Social History

by Michel Mollat, translated by Arthur Goldhammer
Yale University Press, 336 pp., $30.00

“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…

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