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Nathan D’Ambrosio December 16, 2006 AP European History Mister Macksoud Period 4 European Attitude towards the Poor Between the middle of the Fifteenth century and 1700, there was a wide range of views of the poor and disenfranchised in Western Europe, including the treatment and health of said poor, religious attitudes, social sympathy, or lack thereof, and punishment of the vagabonds, all of which varied from viewpoint to viewpoint. These attitudes existed at an interesting time in European economics, when the mercantile system was at its peak, and the Agricultural and Industrial Revolution had not yet changed the European landscape. Beggars and vagabond’s numbers were much higher then they are in Europe today, with roughly half of the population of the three centuries in question having just the minimum amount of food and shelter to live. Moreover, 80% of the population of Europe faced possible starvation, in an era where famine, war, and poverty were widespread. This situation was often exacerbated by the lack of social welfare, leading to the poor attempting to find other ways to be aided, which in turn created varying attitudes and ideas among the more affluent in society towards the poor. Many notable authors, clergymen, and politicians in this time period encouraged being charitable towards the poor and downtrodden, yet make the distinction between the unable to work, and the “idlers” who were merely unwilling to do so. Despite the usual lack of government social welfare, there were on occasion governments willing to aid their poor, not necessarily for the benefit of the poor however. In a 1482 meeting in Dijon, France the town council decided to rent a

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barn for the poor to stay in at night, at the town’s expense. However, the minutes of these meetings indicate that it should be for the “poor children who go shrieking at night throughout this city”, showing that the city council’s intentions may not have been as philanthropic as they seem, but merely attempting to maintain quiet at night (Doc 2). Elsewhere in France, namely Rouen, the town council took a different approach to abetting their poor: finding work for them within the city until they should find a trade for themselves to work in. Like many other people of the day, the council does not mind helping the poor who are merely unable to work, but takes a much harsher approach towards idlers, whom are repeatedly attacked by figures in all walks of life. The council itself states that “idlers should not be considered as poor,” and says they should be expelled from the city. Of course, there is bias in the council, as they consider not expelling these idlers, should it weaken the military. Yet again, military force takes precedence over the other actions of government (Doc 5). Cardinal Richelieu, the man behind the success of the French Monarchy in the 17th century, made similar statements regarding the poor and the “vagabonds and good-for-nothings”, claiming that they took away the food that the poor and sick rightfully deserved. Whilst this is indicative of contempt towards idlers within the community, it does show that Richelieu had sympathy towards the truly poor and incapacitated. This could be a political motive, however, for Richelieu, as at the time he was trying to centralize the power of the nation in the hands of the monarchy, and perhaps by seeming charitable, he would garner more support from the people. While many common people throughout Europe would be willing to help the poor, they were not always exuberant about it. In Rembrandt van Rijn’s Beggars Receiving Alms at the Door of a House, one can clearly see the wariness of the man giving the beggars money. He appears to be leaning outside of his door as little as possible, afraid to come to close to these poor people, and he also seems to have

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a hand in his pocket, as if to safeguard his money. One can also see how the poor were often undesirable in a city, based on the dress of the beggars. The mother has a baby on her back and a walking stick in hand, showing that the beggars often had to live a nomadic life, wandering from place to place. It also reveals that whilst the people of Europe would be willing to give alms to the poor, they were not necessarily willing to welcome them directly into the community. Given the amount of influence religion had over the daily lives of Europeans in this era, it is no surprise that religion often influenced attitudes towards the poor. One Catholic priest in fifteenth century France strongly encourages aiding the poor, as in the afterlife it will reward you 240-fold. The priest, however, condemns those who wait to donate money in their will saying “there is no great value in giving what one cannot hold on to.”(Doc 1). This priest’s sermon is reflective of the Biblical principle of alms-giving, so the priest is keeping to the word of the Christian God, and encouraging aiding the sick. While people may be generous for charity’s sake in aiding the poor, they still condemn the idlers. Charles V mentions how the poor and sick “should receive food and sustenance, to the glory of God, our Savior, and according to His will.” This most Catholic of Holy Roman Emperors is not necessarily being charitable for the sake of his fellow man, but merely in order to maintain accordance with God’s will (Doc 4). Some Catholic priests, however, merely tried to aid the poor in the next life, avoiding helping them in temporal matters. Vincent de Paul, a Catholic priest in mid-Seventeenth century France who ran a religious order which helped the poor, realized the nonsense in this action. He mentions that is alms-giving which “enabled bishops to become saints”, not merely evangelizing the poor (Doc 10). Some Europeans were sympathetic and in some cases even envious of the poor. Juan Luis Vives wrote a whole book entitled On Assistance to the Poor. This Spaniard, like other humanists, encouraged a life of virtuous action. He feels the poor are not necessarily bad people, but are

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merely driven to actions such as robbery and prostitution by a lack of funds. This idea was different than most of the day, who believed that the “idlers” about whom Vives is talking should be condemned. This condemnation is evident when Vives mentions that the poor “are shut out of the churches and wander over the land.” Vives also makes evident the reasons why the poor are not aided, including people being “repelled by the unworthiness of the applicants.” The humanist also indicates that many people simply do not know where it is best to donate their money. One of the more interesting ideas in this time period was that of envy of the poor. Jean Maillefer, a wealthy merchant in France, wrote a letter to his children which exudes his jealousy of the poor. He even mentions that “they have no worries,” and “have no losses to fear”, (Doc 11). These ideas seem to predate and yet be related to that of Romantic thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed material goods at corrupted man and that man was a naturally happy being, and therefore returning to his natural state would return man to his natural happiness. Not all Europeans were sympathetic, and by no stretch envious, toward the poverty stricken people of Europe. Many grew suspicious of the poor and felt that they were merely milking the system, being beggars as a substitute for honest work. William Turner, and English doctor of the sixteenth century, wrote in his New Booke on Spiritual Phhysick, that the poor “would rather be sick and live with ease and idleness than to be well and honestly earn their living with great pain and labor.”(Doc 6) There might be some bias on the part of the good doctor Turner, as he was most likely Protestant and one of the major doctrines of Protestantism is that of maintaining a good work ethic, something which Turner is here accusing the poor of lacking. Some went so far as to encourage punishment of the poor, in order to better control the vagabonds. Regulations for the poorhouse in Suffolk County, England in 1588 demonstrate this corporal punishment. The regulations mandate that each “rogue” should be whipped twelve or 6 times,

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depending on age and health, merely upon entering the house. These floggings and the subsequent punishments e.g. starvation were performed in order to bring the rogues into “reasonable obedience and submission to the master of the poorhouse. (Doc 7) Attitudes towards the treatment of the poor varied from country to country in Europe, depending on a variety of factors, including Religion. These attitudes reflected the harshness of living in those turbulent times. The varying opinions often led to different economic and social life within the nations.

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