03.05.20, Farmer, Surviving Poverty in Medieval Paris

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Jussi Hanska

The Medieval Review baj9928.0305.020


Farmer, Sharon. Surviving Poverty in Medieval Paris: Gender, Ideology, and Daily Lives of the Poor. Series: Conjunctions of Religion and Power in the Medieval Past. Ithica, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002. Pp. xvi, 198. ISBN: 0-8014-3836-5.

Reviewed by:
Jussi Hanska
University of Tampere

Sharon Farmer's book, it needs to be stated immediately, is a very interesting new contribution to the social history of poverty in the Middle Ages. What it tries to do is to analyse medieval poverty as a gendered experience. That in itself is an interesting new angle for the history of poverty so far dominated by the general books by Michel Mollat and Bronislaw Geremek. In addition to showing that there were not just the poor, but several categories of the poor, Farmer also produces masses of information that should be interesting even for those scholars who are not particularly enthusiastic about the gender approach. Even though the feminists of colour, as she states in her prologue, motivate Sharon Farmer's study, it is not an ideological statement but a sound piece of scholarship.

Indeed, one of the strengths of Farmer's book is that it is based on a good command of wide variety of sources. Not only has she used the traditional sources of the history of medieval poverty such as the wills and records of public charity, but she has also used the gold mines of innovative social history, that is, sermon literature and the acts of canonisation processes. The latter, especially the inquisitio in partibus of Saint Louis' process, are the most important source of Farmer's book. This is a novelty in medieval scholarship. Sermon literature has been successfully employed by the social historians for some time now -- suffice it to mention the works of David d'Avray -- but the acts of canonisation processes have been so far rather neglected. They have been mostly studied as sources for the cult of saints in classical monographs such as André Vauchez's La sainteté en occident aux derniers siècles du moyen âge or Ronald Finucane's Miracles and Pilgrims.

This is most surprising considering what a gold mine for the history of everyday life the canonisation processes are. Farmer herself states that "the Miracles of Saint Louis provide us with a photograph, so to speak, of poor people in Paris and St.-Denis at the end of the thirteenth century" (165). Ready availability of such photographs, some of them, such as the processes of Nicola da Tolentino or Saint Bridget of Sweden, even in print makes it even more incomprehensible why there are nomuch more books like Sharon Farmer's. Perhaps reading this one will inspire further use of these wonderful source materials.

Farmer's book is cleverly built around one biblical quotation, namely Genesis 3:16-19 where God imposes punishments for Adam and Eve before expelling them from the Paradise. Adam's curse was to make his living with hard work and Eve's curse was to bring forth children with great pain and be subjugated to her husband. Sharon Farmer claims, quite correctly, that this particular passage had an enormous impact on the Christian thinking of men and women. Men were suitable for productive labour and women for reproductive. Men were identified with soul and immateriality whereas women were identified with body and physicality.

Having presented this basic idea Farmer goes on to analyse Adam's curse, that is the poor men and their means of subsistence and survival in two chapters (Adam's curse and Men in need). Then she does the same with the women in chapters three (Eve's curse) and four (Women in need). Trying to give a short résumé of the substance of Farmer's book is difficult task and will not do justice for it. Nevertheless, I try to present some of her most interesting conclusions.

Firstly, Farmer claims that the above-mentioned division of men identified with soul and women identified with body and physicality was not as all embracing as the historians have wanted to believe. She states that the persons of upper social groups, men and women equally, were generally considered to be less likely to fall to the sins of flesh and better able to control themselves. The poor people, men and women equally, were seen as sexually suspicious and incapable of controlling themselves. Hence it was the duty of the upper strata of society to control the behaviour of their servants and workers.

The bourgeois Parisian charity was mostly interested in young boys who could be educated in bourgeois professions and elder women, especially widows. Men in the working age were considered suspicious if they were not able to support themselves with bodily labour. Beggars were often suspected of different tricks and false disabilities. Men were supposed to sustain themselves and their families with bodily work and therefore their begging was seen unacceptable. It was difficult to tell who were the deserving poor and who the impostors.

Furthermore, the charity was not restricted to the lower social standings, but also those who were members of upper strata of the society, but who could not for some reason live according to their standing were legitimate receivers of charity. In fact, the working poor and disabled could not hope for equal amounts of charity than people who in the first place had a bourgeois background. The Parisian charity towards the poor was mostly channelled through hospitals, but they offered at most twelve hundred places, which were not much compared, to the number of the beggars, which was roughly twenty thousand. In addition to the charity channelled through different religious and other institutions, the bourgeois donors gave alms in different informal occasions in the streets, at the gates of the monasteries or during the funeral processions.

If one assumes that the help given by the hospitals and alms were not enough to sustain the poor of Paris one is left with the question how did they survive? Sharon Farmer answers that most of them were supported, not by the official charity of the elite classes, but by the networks of families and friends and by the support and solidarity of other working poor. Whereas the better off people gave alms and donated money to hospitals and religious institutions, the non-elite individuals provided more sustained care, such as housing and daily assistance.

Farmer starts the chapters on poor women discussing the idea of women's tendency towards lust and of reproduction as their duty. She claims, quite correctly, that women were supposed to be either virgins, wives or widows. All these groups were under male control or otherwise harmless. Virgins were controlled by their fathers; married women by their husbands and widows were in most cases too old to be sexually dangerous. Younger widows generally remarried or retired into monasteries. The monastic vow was essentially a spiritual marriage, and hence the nuns were to be controlled by their new husband Christ who was represented by the male clerical hierarchy.

The exception to this harmony was the unmarried young women who did not live with their families. They were considered to be threat to the social order or even an abnormal phenomenon. Therefore clerical writers generally failed recognise women's productive labour. Women were not supposed to work for living, but they were to be supported by their husbands. Therefore the clerical attitudes towards the female beggars were less harsh than towards the malw beggars. If they did not have a husband to support them, or if he was for one reason or another incapable of doing so, they were considered to be deserving poor. However, since female persons were sexually suspicious by nature, they were expected to perform manual work as penance. Thus women's work was seen, not as productive, but as penitential labour. In reality, as Farmer argues, many poor families could not live on the wages of husband alone, but were dependent on the money wives brought in. When wife, for some reason or other, lost her ability to work, it was fatal for the economy of the whole family, and therefore she was forced to seek additional income from begging. This part of Farmer's book is particularly well based on the sources and her conclusions are very plausible.

Farmer argues that the elite charities for the poor women were either too few or too restrictive (tight rules of the religious houses for the poor women). Therefore the women needed to have other forms of support when need arouse. Just as the poor men, they could rely on their families and relatives, but there were also gender-specific sources of support. Women had established in their neighbourhood networks of friendship and solidarity that helped the unlucky individuals to survive the hard times. To round off this short synopsis of Sharon Farmer's book I would like to quote a short passage that in my opinion crystallises the most important contribution of her book to the history of poverty: "Indeed, the evidence for both poor men and poor women indicates that poor people were active agents in the survival of their fellows. Poor people were not, as the histories of medieval charity might lead us to believe, mere passive recipients of assistance from the wealthy and powerful" (164).

Every book includes some mistakes and a good number of issues reviewer would have done differently or cannot agree with. This one is no exception, though it needs to be stated that errors are few and far between and they are insignificant compared to the virtues of the book. Suffice it to present one example. One might argue that Farmer follows too closely the traditional view (Mollat, Geremek) that the involuntary poor were considered suspicious, inferior, and even dangerous people who were not to be trusted. Many sources include passages that allow different interpretation, for example mendicant Friars in their sermons took very positive attitude towards the involuntary poor claiming that poverty was just a purgatory on this world that purified the poor of their minor sins and allowed them the access to heaven. Such positive views of the involuntary poor were common especially during the economically prosperous first three quarters of the thirteenth century.

However, as stated in the beginning of this review, Sharon Farmer's book is a solid piece of excellent scholarship and its virtues outshine its minor vices. It is a gold mine of information for anyone interested in the thirteenth-century social history or history of women in general.

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Author Biography

Jussi Hanska

University of Tampere