The Medieval Review 13.02.20

Kosso, Cynthia and Anne Scott. Poverty and Prosperity in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Arizona Studies in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, 19. Turnhout: Brepols, 2012. Pp. xxiv, 336. 80.00 EUR. ISBN: 978-2-503-53032-1. . .

Reviewed by:

Jim Brodman
University of Central Arkansas, Emeritus

One expects a measure of diversity in any collection emanating from an academic conference, but rarely does one encounter a collection that so transgresses its stated boundaries of time, space and theme. Presumably an exploration of European attitudes toward poverty and wealth in the medieval and Renaissance eras, the seventeen articles roam between the sixth and nineteenth centuries, traverse two continents, and include at least two contributions seemingly unrelated to the theme. The remaining fifteen do come at the phenomena of wealth and poverty from a variety of interesting angles. The editors, in a rather general introduction, discuss what it means to be needy or prosperous. They divide the following contributions of the Twelfth Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies Conference (February, 2006) into four sections.

Part I (Poverty and Morality) begins with Alicia McKenzie's study of how Christian ideas of charity toward the poor influenced Merovingian monarchs. The sources used, however, are ecclesiastical and royal charity is narrowly defined as transferring assets to the Church. I believe that she could have made a stronger case for the Christian acculturation of these early medieval kings had she cited exempla of direct royal assistance to the poor, as for example King Childebert's foundation of a hospital at Lyons in 543. The other three papers in this section take a very different view of poverty--as something to be avoided. Roy Neil Graves, for example, explores Shakespeare's sonnets for evidence of the bard's own angst and economic insecurity in an age where a writer's well-being and status depended upon the vagaries of patronage. Jayson S. Galler similarly explores the attitudes of near contemporary Lutheran reformers. These viewed the voluntary poverty of medieval religious practice as an undesirable form of social radicalism. The Gospel, these argue in the Book of Concord, prefers a poverty of spirit (humility) to economic deprivation. Christian D. Knudson takes up this monastic poverty, as practiced by communities of monks and nuns in late medieval England. Whatever spiritual benefit poverty might have provided the soul, he argues that within such religious communities there was a close correlation between the experience of poverty--voluntary or not--and ill- discipline. Thus, he believes that poverty promoted naughty behaviors, such as apostasy and sexual dalliance.

Part II (Charity and Almsgiving) has five papers. Phillipp R. Schofield addresses the rural poor of medieval England. In the more interesting part of this piece, he attempts, on the basis of tax assessments, to estimate the proportion of the population that was poor and presumably in need of some special assistance. His conclusion is a daunting one--some two-thirds of the rural population, but higher in the northwest, southwest and west midlands. The rest of the piece is rather speculative on the sort of assistance that might be rendered to these unfortunates by local communities and families. I have some issues with Eliza Buhrer's thesis that medieval charity focused both on the needs of the poor and the spiritual well-being of the giver before the onset of the mendicants; she suggests the Carolingian era (ninth century) as an alternative date for a more generous spirit. The problem is that she begins with a false premise, namely that most scholars somehow associate St. Francis with the birth of social responsibility. Many beg to differ. John Baldwin and Brian Tierney, for example, situated this new awareness in the twelfth century and in the contexts of the university and law courts. Kenneth Wolf has demonstrated how little charitable giving was part of the Franciscan apostolate. Further, sentiments toward the poor cited in her ninth century manuscript strike me as little different from patristic sources of the fourth century; in addition, her manuscript does not seem to separate the selfless from the selfish motivation for charity quite as much as she claims. In "Bonds of Charity," Matthew Sneider treads on well-trodden ground, essentially outlining for Renaissance and early modern Bologna the sort of confraternal charity that John Henderson (Florence), Stephen Epstein (Genoa) and Samuel Cohn (Siena) have already provided for other Italian communes. Mark Cohen's contribution essentially summarizes his 2005 Princeton University Press monograph on the poor within the Jewish community of medieval Cairo. For Jews, poverty was always a misfortune and so the community devised a system of private and public assistance directed toward those who suffered from either structural (e.g. the disabled, widows, orphans) or circumstantial poverty (the working poor, captives). My only quibble is with his narrow definition of the shame- faced poor in Christian Europe, but that is hardly central to his argument. The last piece in the section is rather odd. Here Charles W. Connell discusses how nineteenth-century English conservatives used a highly romanticized view of medieval society to preserve a dying aristocratic social structure against the onslaught of the industrial middle class. While the anti-liberal sentiment of these romantics evinced some concern for the plight of their contemporary poor, Connell concedes that no real legislative relief occurred until the workers themselves obtained the franchise.

Part III (Spirituality and Institutional Organizations) begins with Rosemarie McGerr's treatment of two late medieval plays in English translation--Pilgrimage of the Soul and Everyman--in order to show how theological debates over poverty and wealth shaped vernacular literature. These literary works demonstrate contemporary concern about the dangers of wealth, the giving of alms and the spiritual value of both property and generosity. Jonathan Robinson provides a highly technical discussion of a fourteenth-century debate over whether the Franciscan Order actually owned property in some real sense or merely had use of it. While the argument has some relevance for the conflicts within the Franciscan Order, it has little to do with this collection's theme of poverty since neither party to the debate seemed to believe that the friars actually lived in any state of deprivation. The next contribution has even less relevance to the theme of poverty. Here J. Eugene Clay addresses an early modern Russian religious movement that centered around the cult figure of Danilo Filippov. An offshoot of the Old Believers' break with the Russian Orthodox Church, this Anabaptist-like movement survived into the nineteenth century. While Clay states that sects in Russia like this one provided charitable assistance to deserters and runaway serfs, he never addresses this point in the body of his article. More relevant to the themes of the collection is Ada-Maria Kuskowski's study of the coutumiers, thirteenth-century French treatises written by jurists that record court procedures and proceedings. Her interest is to discover whether there was any interest or concern for the poor. What she discovers is typical of medieval attitudes: a preference for those thought to be deserving, particularly those of fallen estate, a fear of other paupers as potential criminals, little attention to laborers. The texts reveal the power of money and how bribery corrupted judicial proceedings. Interestingly, the authors argued in favor of employing wealthy judges and lawyers because these might be more resistant to bribery and might see a just verdict and diligent representation as a form of charitable alms-giving. Nonetheless, in a world where the rich were judged by the rich but the poor also by the rich, the possibility of justice for the lowest orders was problematical at best. The point of the article seems to be that jurists at least recognized the problem.

Part IV (Monetary and Literary Economies of Greed) seems to be a catch-all category. Tiffany Beechy's study of King Alfred's translation into Anglo-Saxon of Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy has no apparent connection with the rest of this volume. Here she discusses how Anglo-Saxon translators transformed this piece to conform to the world view and values of their society. Ron Cooley in the next articles essentially argues that the now much maligned Weber Thesis is correct. By this, he avers that Stuart England abandoned "traditional" suspicions about wealth and embraced a more modern and positive attitude. As evidence, he cites a poem ("Business") by George Herbert, where the poet depicts wealth as equivocal and so could be used for good or for ill. But this is an opinion hardly different from some medieval thinking. Cooley's fallacy seems to be in an assumption that medieval thinkers condemned wealth in all of its forms. The next contribution, by Sally Livingston, indeed makes the proper point, namely that medieval moralists condemned avarice more than wealth. The hero of the medieval tale she recounts concerning the gift of a giant turnip in fact desires a restoration of his own wealth and status. His brother, further, falls not because he was wealthy but greedy. The final article, by Heather Martel, is less about wealth or want than it is about the resistance of European Protestant colonial settlers in North America to indigenous customs and food. She notes that stranded or marooned Europeans, sustained and protected by native Americans, were rarely grateful to their hosts. The reason is that these Protestants equated "going native" with a loss of both status and identity. Even native foods were taboo unless prepared in a European manner; nudity was similarly degrading. European Catholics, on the other hand, were more secure in their own identity and so were generally more amenable to interaction with native Americans.