17.04.10, Farmer, ed., Approaches to Poverty in Medieval Europe

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Charlotte Stanford

The Medieval Review 17.04.10

Farmer, Sharon, ed. Approaches to Poverty in Medieval Europe: Complexities, Contradictions, Transformations, c. 1100–1500. International Medieval Research, 22. Turnhout: Brepols, 2015. pp. 254. ISBN: 978-2-503-55547-8 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Charlotte Stanford
Brigham Young University

This collection of nine essays combines with a thoughtful introduction that contextualizes the historiography of poverty and its relationship to charity and social order. The topics focus on "mainstream medievalism," with examples drawn from Continental Europe (primarily Italy, France, England and Spain,) and focusing on the Christian experience (with one exception). Farmer addresses this lacuna by explaining the origins of this volume in the 2011 International Medieval Congress at Leeds, where comparative discussions involving Islamic, Jewish and Christian societies did take place, but were unable to be included in this study. The resulting collection, however, is very tightly knit with topics that speak to, and reference, each other, in a cohesive way that is not always the case in a collection drawn from an academic conference.

In "Hospitals, Charity, and the Culture of Compassion in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries," Adam J. Davis argues that compassion should not be cynically dismissed as a motive for charitable deeds, and indeed was part of a "cultural shift in sensibility" within this period (41). He illustrates the compassionate devotional ideal with hagiographic exempla of saints like Elizabeth of Hungary and theological texts including the sermons of Jacques de Vitry to demonstrate how this ideal was promoted and perceived.

Janice Musson's "Impoverished Free Litigants in Thirteenth-Century Property Disputes" investigates court records on the issue of recent dispossession, or the "assize of novel disseisin," under Henry II of England. Her analysis of this material shows that the poor, far from being downtrodden and ignorant, were active and even articulate in their own defense, and that this law was a popular measure in which many expressed trust, and which allowed even those who had no money to seek redress for wrongs.

Alyssa M. Gray explores Jewish legal innovations on charity in "R. Eliezer of Metz's Twelfth-Century Exclusion from Charity of the Jewish Avaryan B'mezid ('Deliberate Transgressor')." The category of the deliberate transgressor was a creation of R. Eliezer himself, one that involved a stricter application of notions of charity within the Jewish community, as previously charity to transgressors was not prohibited. This study of R. Eliezer's interpretation of law and lore helps bring an important and hitherto infrequently studied figure to scholarly attention.

Allison Edgren, in "From Saint Francis to Salimbene di Adam: Begging in the Early Franciscan World, c. 1210-80," argues that Franciscan mendicancy formed a model of spiritual, active poverty that differed from the involuntary poverty of the actual poor. Begging was simultaneously socially humbling and spiritually ennobling, but in stressing the virtues and behaviors of chosen poverty, friars may actually have contributed to unfavorable attitudes toward the involuntary poor.

"Temptation and the Medieval Italian Inquisition," by Jill Moore, further investigates Italian mendicancy in analysis of inquisitional financial accounts from 1254 onwards, to answer how well inquisitors adhered to a friar's ideal lifestyle. While a few demonstrated rule-abiding austerity and another handful were famously greedy and corrupt, Moore concludes that most inquisitors fell somewhere in the middle, pressured to "devote the profits of their labour to the glory of the Church" rather than for personal gain (138).

Samuel K. Cohn, Jr.'s "Rich and Poor in Western Europe, c. 1375-1475: The Political Paradox of Material Well-Being" ranges across Europe in a wide comparison ranging from England to Italy, the Low Countries, and Portugal. Cohn argues that despite vast differences in governmental, social and demographic factors, a dominant pattern emerged in which rural peasants benefited both materially and politically while urban workers gained economically but lost much of their political power. These complex and various responses to poverty have not been previously appreciated, as most studies have been restricted to one specific area; Cohn's long expertise in the study of post-plague societies helps provide the background for this wider comparison.

Pol Serrahima i Balius explores essentialist versus practical attitudes toward poverty in "The Almoina of Barcelona during the Catalan Civil War (1462-72): Changes and Continuities in the Conception of Catholic Poor Relief in Late Medieval Europe." Seen through the lens of a case study on a Spanish almshouse, Serrahima's analysis differentiates between poor relief and charity, which often prioritized religious duties (such as keeping up anniversary remembrances of donors). The essentialist conceptualization of poverty that permitted such an approach gradually drew donors away to other institutions like Barcelona's newly founded Santa Creu hospital.

In "Rich Master, Poor Master: The Economic Standing of Schoolteachers in Late Medieval France," Sarah B. Lynch assesses the social and economic positions held by teachers in medieval Lyon. Archival sources such as tax records and property holdings demonstrate the variable range of financial remuneration within the teaching profession; this also suggests that education was widely available in a range of venues within this city.

Anne M. Scott's essay, "The Poor and their Power: Images of Poor Women in Medieval Literature and Art," expands the approach from historical documents to include literary and artistic depictions of poverty by examining three texts and two related images: Lady Poverty in an anonymous Franciscan treatise and in the ceiling of the Assisi lower basilica; the poor hag in Chaucer's Wyf of Bath's Tale, and the textual and illuminated examples of Glad Poverty in Lydgate's Fall of Princes. Scott argues that these women are mentor figures who embody power for those willing to embrace them.

The range of topics within this collection speaks remarkably well to each other. Especially well grounded in social history, this volume will nevertheless be of interest to scholars interested in all aspects of medieval poverty. The authors and editor are to be commended for their contributions to the discipline.

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