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12.03.02, Brodman, Charity and Religion in Medieval Europe

The Medieval Review

12.03.02, Brodman, Charity and Religion in Medieval Europe

Studies of medieval religious life have paid surprisingly little attention to the charitable revolution of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. This may be due to the fact that scholars have tended to cast the motives underlying medieval charity in social and economic terms rather than religious. James William Brodman's broad survey of medieval religious charity focuses on religious institutions that had charity as a central objective. He argues that a caritative movement that was distinctly religious in nature swept through Europe during the high and later Middle Ages.

Brodman has devoted much of his career to studying the practice of charity in medieval Spain, and his most recent book is broader in scope, surveying religious charity in medieval Europe writ large. In the first chapter he examines the medieval ideology of charity, which he believes inspired women and men to assist the sick and needy. While medieval ideas about charity drew on scriptural and patristic foundations, Brodman suggests that twelfth and thirteenth-century theologians, canonists, preachers, and hagiographers popularized the notion that the practice of charity was the highest form of religious life. It is certainly possible that some people made charitable bequests because they were inspired by the example of a local charitable saint or because of a sermon that they heard. But was ideology necessarily the impetus for charitable practice, as Brodman assumes? Might not giving practices have played a role in shaping a compassionate religious and social ethos rather than the other way around? And what social and religious forces led to the popularization of a charitable ideology in the first place? Along these lines, it might have been fruitful to consider contemporaneous developments in Christian spirituality, including the rise of affective piety and devotion to Christ's humanity, which Sarah McNamer has linked with "the invention of compassion." [1]

Subsequent chapters examine how the ideology of charity was given institutional expression, whether in the form of hospitals or leprosaria, or in groups devoted to charity, such as the hospitaller and military orders (the Hospitallers of Saint John, Teutonic Order, Trinitarians, Mercedarians, Order of the Holy Spirit, and Antonines, to name some of the most significant), lay confraternities, and penitential groups such as the beguines and Humiliati. The recipients of charitable organizations included a wide range of vulnerable people: the poor, sick, pilgrims, orphans, widows, captives, and prostitutes. Although some charitable associations adopted a monastic- like organizational structure, Brodman shows that they were decentralized and varied in form. Moreover, the medieval charitable movement "formed a vast jumble of institutions of varied size, resources, personnel, and governance" (283).

One of the principal reasons for this lack of cohesiveness, according to Brodman, was the church's inability to integrate the charitable movement into the traditional ecclesiastical structure. There were attempts by some regional church councils, for instance, to impose religious discipline on hospitals, requiring those who served in hospitals to observe the Augustinian Rule, or having the local bishop conduct regular inspections of his diocese's hospitals. According to Brodman, however, larger ecumenical councils like the Fourth Lateran Council did not seek to regularize Europe's hospitals (and other charitable institutions) because they were "between two worlds," the religious and the secular, and thus had a mixed identity. Brodman argues that the church's failure to integrate charitable institutions into the ecclesiastical structure was largely due to the fact that the charitable movement "straddled the clerical-laic divide. Its very nature defied efforts to organize it hierarchically or to impose the religious life upon all of its practitioners" (284). Moreover, much of the initiative for the charitable movement came from members of the religiously inspired laity, the lay women and men who gave alms and made bequests to charitable causes, and in some cases became lay sisters and brothers in their local hospital. Many of the women and men canonized during this period were made saints because of their charitable work, including founding a hospital or working in one. And among these charitable saints, a significant number were laypeople.

While in some ways this book is quite ambitious in scope, Brodman defines religion and charity somewhat narrowly. Despite including a discussion of a wide variety of charitable organizations (from bridge brotherhoods to lay confraternities), the author's orientation is very much the central institutional church. He almost sounds a note of disappointment by the lack of general conciliar legislation dealing with charity, as if he is dissatisfied with charitable organizations that can be regarded as merely local, autonomous, or semi-religious. He is too quick to dismiss the role of the friars in the charitable movement, making the questionable claim that "in the main, charity was never more than a peripheral concern of the mendicant friars" (270). Elsewhere, while acknowledging that some friars argued that almsgiving was one of the best remedies for sin, he contends that mendicant preachers' praise of the potentially salvific suffering of involuntary poverty might have served to discourage charitable giving. It is more likely, however, that such sermons lent new prestige to the poor and convinced listeners of the spiritual benefits of providing assistance to them. There also remains a need to study the impact that these kinds of sermons may have had on non-institutional forms of charity. Informal almsgiving and familial and neighborly support systems, while more difficult to trace, were vital, as Sharon Farmer has shown, for the survival of many of medieval Europe's most needy people. [2] What role did religious ideology and motivations play in these non- institutional forms of charity? And were institutional and non- institutional forms of charity really all that distinct?

Despite some shortcomings, this book calls attention to an essential and often overlooked aspect of medieval religious movements. One of the book's strengths is that it highlights the strong religious dimensions of the caritative movement while also stressing that the impetus for the movement came largely from lay men and women. The author wisely rejects the cynical claims of some historians that medieval charity was merely ceremonial, or never more than a self- serving, calculated display of the giver's power and status. As Brodman shows, the high Middle Ages represented a turning point in the way that women and men thought about and acted toward their poor and needy neighbors.



1. Sarah McNamer, Affective Meditation and the Invention of Medieval Compassion (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010).

2. Sharon Farmer, Surviving Poverty in Medieval Paris: Gender, Ideology, and the Daily Lives of the Poor (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002).