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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.