Medieval poverty relief

Naomasa298

Forum Staff
Apr 2010
33,697
T'Republic of Yorkshire
#1
I'm interested in knowing more about how medieval society cared for its poor. In England, I understand that the Church and monasteries took on this role but how was this carried out? Was it simply the giving of food and shelter to the destitute? Or was it more institutionalised, with rules and regulations? I'm assuming, for example, that one could not simply go to a church and ask for money, especially if one came from outside the parish.

I'm also curious as to how this compares with any poverty relief systems in East Asia. As far as I know, there wasn't a formalised system in Japanese society, for example, but I would need to look into that further.
 

larkin

Ad Honorem
Sep 2009
3,698
#2
During the Medieval period, famine was an almost annual event. In you were not connected to the land, to a manor lord or to a monastery, you were not connected and that was it.

At the beginning of the medieval period and the rise of the organized agriculture of the feudal system, there was a population explosion. The larger population became increasingly reliant on crop success. A cycle of crop failures lead to a succession of famines that were not really relieved until the end of the Black Death.

Even if you were tied to feudal lands or to church properties, you were not immune to crop failures and obligations of the land.

Life expectancy was between 28 and 35 and many children died. As far as I know, there was no care for the poor at all.

Medieval history has for the most part, ignored the peasant population and the poor in favor of royal intrigues, church beneficences and the bloody wars fought in their interest.

Overlooked by most history books was that the occurrence of cannibalism. It was common during this period. Consider the story of Hansel and Gretel. Although first written down by the Brothers Grimm in the early 19th century, it is thought to be drawn from legend during the time of the great famine of 1315-1321. Where two lost children end up in the old witch's oven. It is not far-fetched to imagine that similar events actually happened.
 

Attachments

pugsville

Ad Honorem
Oct 2010
9,074
#3
lower agricultural yields and less diverse range of crops, less transpiration of surplus food, all makes it more fragile life. Medieval warfare also generally involved food requisition and devastating of lands.
 
#4
This book might help a bit. It doesn't deal specifically with what you are looking for but it does describe the peasant life of the times and this includes aid to the poor.

From what I remember the church dealt mainly with charity causes and feeding the poor, with instructions given from the town mayor or local lord to make building/supplies/etc available for handout.

[ame="http://www.amazon.com/The-Dancing-Plague-Strange-Extraordinary/dp/1402219431"]The Dancing Plague: The Strange, True Story of an Extraordinary Illness: John Waller: 9781402219436: Amazon.com: Books@@AMEPARAM@@http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/41Sga7tCWuL.@@AMEPARAM@@41Sga7tCWuL[/ame]
 
Mar 2014
8,881
Canterbury
#5
As far as I know, there was no care for the poor at all
There was, but it wasn't conducted by the state. The state's role back then was a thousandfold smaller than it is today, and it didn't have the central-local government links to make anything resembling a welfare state a possibility.

Instead, alms were given out by the Church to disabled parishioners and those who couldn't work through no fault of their own, , often at the direction of local lords or aldermen. In generous times orphans and widows with no family were also financially looked after, in less-generous times no-one was.

As the medieval era wore on, the Church - specifically, monasteries - and then officials and nobles would sponsor poor youths who showed intelligence, training them in literacy and useful skills on condition that they worked for them.
 
#6
So at what point did the 'deserving' poor and 'the Devil's poor' kick in? After the 12th C. and as a response to the Waldensian controversy would be my guess (an it is just a guess).

But dividing the needy into those you like and those you do not would certainly lighten the load wouldn't it.
 

Sindane

Ad Honorem
Aug 2013
4,686
Europe
#8
The churches in England had what was called a "Dole Cuboard" . "Dole" is a word still in use in England today for state benefits
 

Black Dog

Ad Honorem
Mar 2008
9,990
Damned England
#9
Several points: the largest the English medieval population got was during the 11th century: around about 6 million. Not anywhere near our current vastly over populated figure. Given fairly high mortality rates even before the Black Death and pretty endemic violence, the strict and extended nature of the medieval family (at all levels of society), then it's plain that the "poor" deemed worthy of charity were not as commonplace as most people think. The family was not just a tight unit but also a very large one: there was no concept of the modern nuclear family, and even people at a relatively modest level knew who their relatives were to the nth degree. Mutual help was a feature of medieval society amongst those from the same social strata, at least. However, some wealthier people did help out the poorer as an act of charity: this was a patriarchal society (NOT in the nonsense feminist sense), where there was somesome responsibility from the wealthy to the poor. And like endowing churches or stained glass windows, giving to the poor (usually in kind, rather than money: most medieval peasants were not living in a moneyed economy) was seen as positive points with God.

Possibly the most common permanent poor were widows from lower down in society. Chances were, if you were too ill to work then the condition would be unlikely to stabilise and you'd deteriorate in the absence of effective medicine.

Yes, the Church was the main agent of aid, but rarely gave financial aid. However, this varied from monastic order to monastic order. Benedictines were generally charitable but otherwise cloistered, although they were the nearest thing to a doctor. All monasteries had infirmaries. The Cistercians were much harsher by definition, almost, because they tended to set up in remote areas. By far the most useful were the Augustinians, who had an ethos of going out into the community, and some of this included helping people in need. The mendicant orders, such as the Franciscans, also believed in charity, but also that one should emulate Christ by being poor, therefore had a rather fatalistic view of poverty.

In the (relatively few) towns, the Guilds were a major source of help for their members. Guilds were not just proto Trade Unions, they also arranged (or enforced) apprenticeships, trading standards, rates of pay and opposition to any unfair practices.

Contrary to popular opinion, true (national) famines were rare in England, but did occur locally, and, in fact, it was a series of failed harvests on marginal land (upland, or land with a heavy soil that needs cultivating well and is more troublesome) that left the population wide open when the Plague struck. One is far less able to deal with it if one is malnourished. However, considering that the Black Death in England claimed around 1/3 of the population, it only took around 120-150 years to reach its pre-plague levels (around 3.5 million: the population had been dropping for quite some time).

The poor only became a crisis when (a) enclosure and (b) subsequent rural unemployment and poverty made it so. As ever- and as now- the poor are blamed for being poor when it was the rich who did that to them. Even by 1918, a farm labourer only earned 1/3 of what a town labourer could earn.
 

Menshevik

Ad Honorem
Dec 2012
9,240
here
#10
There was, but it wasn't conducted by the state. The state's role back then was a thousandfold smaller than it is today, and it didn't have the central-local government links to make anything resembling a welfare state a possibility.

Instead, alms were given out by the Church to disabled parishioners and those who couldn't work through no fault of their own, , often at the direction of local lords or aldermen. In generous times orphans and widows with no family were also financially looked after, in less-generous times no-one was.

As the medieval era wore on, the Church - specifically, monasteries - and then officials and nobles would sponsor poor youths who showed intelligence, training them in literacy and useful skills on condition that they worked for them.
I like Domnall's answer. From everything I've read, being poor or destitute in medieval Europe, was to be in dire straits. You were pretty much on your own. Begging, stealing, or perhaps offering one's self, might be your only options. I'm also under the impression that a lot of medieval society was never too far from being destitute or poor. For instance, a successful and skilled tradesman, carpenter, blacksmith, tanner, could injure himself, thus be unable to work. No safety net that I know of, from riches to rags, almost overnight, I would think. This would extend to his family. A very precarious situation for medieval folks, very crude and scary.
 

Similar History Discussions