16.02.19, Scott, ed., Experiences of Charity, 1250-1650

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Adam Davis

The Medieval Review 16.02.19

Scott, Anne M., ed. Experiences of Charity, 1250-1650. Farnham, Surrey:Ashgate, 2015. pp. xv, 305. ISBN: 9781472443380 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Adam Davis
Denison University
davisaj@denison.edu

Recent scholarship on medieval and early modern charity has shifted from a focus on the provision of charity to an examination of the survival strategies of the poor themselves. An earlier volume, also edited by Anne M. Scott, Experiences of Poverty in Late Medieval and Early Modern England and France, reflected this renewed interest in how poverty was experienced. Although this new volume, containing thirteen essays on late medieval and early modern England, France, and the Low Countries (weighted toward early modern England), returns to the subject of charity, several of the essays probe the experience of charity from the perspective of the poor and sick themselves. Other essays raise interesting questions about the nature of charity, the motivations underlying charitable activities, and the relationship between paupers, donors, and charitable administrators. Several essays challenge the ways that historians have traditionally periodized charity. Essays dealing with the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries consider whether charity in a Protestant milieu was distinctive, and more generally, how charity figured as a confessional tool during the Reformation. The essays in this volume make use of a wide variety of sources, including wills, civic records, saints' lives, sermon exempla, visual representations, and music.

By covering the period from 1250 to 1650, this volume makes it possible to compare medieval and early modern charity. Sharon Farmer's essay, "From Personal Charity to Centralised Poor Relief: The Evolution of Responses to the Poor in Paris, c. 1250-1600," affirms that by the sixteenth century, "centralized programmes of public, or partially public, poor relief" (20) had emerged in Paris, largely replacing the ad hoc system of medieval charity that had relied on individual acts of piety. Whereas medieval charity had served to encourage public begging, the later secular, public system of centralized poor relief sought to eradicate begging and to ensure that charitable resources only reached "legitimate" recipients. These arguments have been made before, but Farmer rightly calls attention to the medieval antecedents for some of the early modern developments in charitable provision. As she shows, already in the thirteenth century, some Parisian charitable institutions were overseen by secular authorities. Statutes attempting to control vagrancy in Paris date back to the fourteenth century. Although a new, far more centralized and efficient system of poor relief emerged in Paris during the sixteenth century, Farmer's essay serves as a corrective to simplistic characterizations of medieval charity as private, religious, and ad hoc.

Continuities in charitable practices across time are also brought to the fore in Nicholas Dean Brodie's essay on the history of the English parochial poor box. Like Farmer, Brodie views the sixteenth century as a turning point in the history of the poor box in England, with the Royal Injunctions of 1547 requiring that every parish church have a box for the poor. While the poor box was a fixture in English parish churches over many centuries, Brodie argues that the religious and liturgical context of these boxes varied. Yet it is not always clear how poor boxes provide evidence for the shift in the sixteenth century "from 'sacramental' to 'secular' charity in terms of charitable responsibility more than attitude," with charity coming "to be seen principally as a thing rather than a relational attitude" (235).

In studying "experiences of charity," two of the essays highlight the agency of the poor. In "From Cure to Care: Indignation, Assistance and Leprosy in the High Middle Ages," Jennifer Stemmle asks why lepers voluntarily participated in the "leprosarium movement," the large scale institutionalization of lepers. Yet rather than casting lepers as passive inmates, Stemmle instead argues that lepers were active participants in a "movement of community formation" (61). In studying narrative sources from Liège from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries that deal with lepers, she finds a shift during the twelfth century in the way that lepers are represented. The lepers in these narratives are pious, self-assertive, and in search of community, and "the felt experience and indignation of the leprosus" (55) is conveyed, not just the penitential piety of those caring for them.

Venturing into the auditory experience of charity, Dolly MacKinnon's, "Hearing the Poor: Experiencing the Sounds of Charity in Early Modern England" is one of the most innovative contributions to this volume. MacKinnon studies the musical print psalm settings that were composed for charitable institutions as an entry point into the experience of destitute children and orphans in seventeenth-century England. These children gave musical performances to raise money and express gratitude for funds that had already been given to the institutions that housed them. The psalms that were sung, a "vocal articulation of gratitude" (240), were "part of their role in the public acts of reciprocity that accompanied charitable giving" (240), demonstrating the power of music (and musical education) to reform and redeem.

Several essays take up the perennial, yet vital questions of who engaged in medieval charity, what their motives were, and to whom they directed their charity. These questions get at the heart of the meaning and nature of medieval and early modern charity. In a fascinating study of the image of charitable giving in thirteenth and early fourteenth-century sermon exempla, Spencer E. Young argues that the "expectation of future temporal abundance was presented as a legitimate motive for giving alms" (76). During a period of economic expansion, moralists and church reformers became more critical of the danger posed by avarice. However, in an effort to promote the value of almsgiving, some preachers cast almsgiving "as an alternative to commerce as a means for acquiring wealth" (77), with almsgivers promised the hundredfold reward referenced in Mt 19:29.

Contrary to the oft-repeated argument that charity became more secular in character by the sixteenth century, Neil S. Rushton underscores how significant the scale of monastic charitable activity in England continued to be in "The Forms and Functions of Monastic Poor Relief in Late Medieval and Early Sixteenth-Century England." Using the administrative records of Westminster Abbey and the Norwich Cathedral Priory as case studies, Rushton calculates that even in the early sixteenth century, on the eve of Dissolution, monasteries were spending over seven percent of their income on poor relief, showing that they continued to be deeply engaged in charitable activity.

On the other end of the spectrum, Philippa Maddern studies personal lay responses to the needy in "A Market for Charitable Performances? Bequests to the Poor and Their Recipients in Fifteenth-Century Norwich Wills." Lay bequests were made to a wide range of beneficiaries in fifteenth-century Norwich. In addition to making bequests to hospitals and funeral doles, bequests were made for the upkeep of the church fabric, as well as to priests and friars, and all of this was considered as benefaction for the poor. Yet as Maddern illustrates, lay testators showed a strong preference for charitable institutions as opposed to the poor who were not living in institutions. She speculates that this was in part out of testators' fear that bequests not made to a charitable institution, such as a hospital, might end up in the hands of those considered undeserving. Charitable institutions such as hospitals were also attractive to testators because these institutions performed all seven corporal works of mercy. Nonetheless, according to Maddern, these testamentary bequests represented a small percentage of hospital revenues and were largely symbolic, tending "to reinforce, rather than to remove, the relative social status of the elderly, sick and indigent" (101).

In the final essay in the volume, "Remembering the Poor: Signs of Charity in Late Medieval Images and Texts," Anne M. Scott considers the variable relationships between late medieval donors and needy recipients. How was it that the poor were both ignorable to society, often depicted in texts and images as the nameless, generic "poor," and yet also systemic or structural in the sense that the poor made it possible for others to fulfill the duty to care for the needy? Late medieval visual representations of charity often highlighted the stark contrast between rich donors and needy recipients, thereby reinforcing these social distinctions. Yet Scott also points to examples, notably the late medieval poet, Hoccleve's Regiment of Princes, that cast the relationship between donor and recipient as reciprocal, with charity serving to integrate society in an aesthetically pleasing form. Scott points to cases of "targeted compassion" (11) on the part of donors, in which the poor were identifiable as opposed to being nameless.

Four of the volume's essays compare poor relief in early modern Catholic and Protestant communities. All of the authors appear to acknowledge significant commonalities between Protestant and Catholic organizational reforms to alleviate poverty. Yet in an age of deep sectarian division, a growing confessionalization of charity also developed, a prominent theme in all four essays. Early modern Catholic charity could be quite personal, as shown in Lisa Keane Elliott's chapter, "In Pursuit of Charity: Nicolas Houel and His Maison de La Charité chrétienne in Late Sixteenth-Century Paris." A Parisian apothecary and alderman who was connected to the French royal family, Nicolas Houel established a boarding school for poor orphans where they could learn the science of apothecary. In studying Houel's illustrated treatises promoting his charitable enterprises, Elliott shows that Houel viewed education not only as a way to help the deserving poor, but as a peaceful weapon to combat the Protestant heresy and defend what he regarded as the true faith.

Turning to the way Protestantism shaped poor relief, in "Changing the Practice of Charity in Sixteenth-Century Norwich: 'the verie nedefull and urgent reformacion,'" Lesley Silvester shows that the motives underlying Protestant poor relief in a city like Norwich "appear less personal and more controlling" (146). While Silvester acknowledges continuities between poor relief reforms in Catholic and Protestant communities, she argues that Protestant poor relief was embedded in a larger program of moral discipline that involved helping the deserving poor while curbing begging and indiscriminate almsgiving. The sixteenth-century poor relief spearheaded by Norwich mayors and aldermen, notably John Aldrich, was influenced by a reforming Protestantism that was "both punitive and altruistic" (147).

As Susan Broomhall shows in "From France to England: Huguenot Charity in London," the context for poor relief was inherently different for the Huguenot community of Threadneedle Street in London. This "stranger community" had to provide for its own poor since it was not entitled to English poor relief. Broomhall makes the intriguing suggestion that perhaps because the Huguenots of London were outsiders and were feared and mistrusted by the local population, the consistory was "determined to demonstrate the exemplary behaviour of their congregation" (212), and this extended to the congregation's charity. Broomhall uses the acts of the consistory of Threadneedle from the 1560s and 1570s to shed light on how poor relief was used to shape the confessional culture and establish social control over London's Huguenots. The consistory records indicate that the implementation of relief measures did not always go smoothly, with allegations of misused funds and community members who were unwilling to contribute to relief efforts.

Broomhall has a second essay in the volume which studies poor relief in later sixteenth-century Gap, France, a city that during this period vacillated between Catholic and Huguenot dominance. She finds, somewhat surprisingly, that for brief periods, poor relief in Gap served as a "potential instrument of conciliatory coalition" (174), with Catholics and Huguenots working together to provide assistance to the poor of both faiths. During other periods, however, there was a "confessional assertion through poor relief" (190), whereby charity was used "to demarcate faith communities" (188) and win new converts.

Although the quality of the essays in this volume is somewhat uneven, some of the individual contributions are highly original, and the essays tie together quite nicely. Many of the essays highlight striking continuities between charitable practices and ideas about charity across time and space, challenging assumptions about what differentiated medieval from early modern charity, or Catholic from Protestant. Yet the volume also illustrates the extent to which a particular religious, economic, political, or familial context could shape the experience of charity.

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