Blessed are the Poor? Poverty in the 16th Cent.

In chapter 2 (“The Rise of the Disciplinary Society”) of his magisterial A Secular Age, Charles Taylor offers a fascinating discussion of the contrast between medieval and early modern attitudes toward the poor.  The gist of his claim is that whereas in the Middle Ages, “there was an aura of sanctity around poverty,” in the early modern period, they came to be viewed as a nuisance and as basically depraved and in need of strict reform.  And this got me to thinking, as I am wont to do.

For the medievals, voluntary poverty was a path to holiness, a state of sanctity, while involuntary poverty, while not itself meritorious, at the very least “offered an occasion of sanctification” for the wealthy: “One of the things which the powerful of the world did to offset their pride and their trespasses was to offer distributions to the poor….Well-off people left a provision in their wills that alms should be given to a certain number of paupers at their funeral, and these in turn should pray for their soul.”

By the years just preceding and following the Reformation, however, “there is a radical change in attitude.  A new series of poor laws is adopted, whose principle is sharply to distinguish those who are capable of work from those who genuinely have no recourse but charity.  The former are expelled or put to work, for very low pay, and often in stringent conditions.  The incapable poor are to be given relief, but again in highly controlled conditions, which often ended up involving confinement in institutions which in some ways resembled prisons.” 

If this weren’t troubling enough, “The extreme Puritan view was even harsher than this….Beggars, for Perkins, ‘are as rotten legs and arms, that drop from the body.’  There was no place for them in a well-ordered commonwealth.” (Quotes are from pp. 108-9.)


All this seems likely enough as a description of many modern American Protestant attitudes toward poverty, but haven’t we been told that the Reformers were different?  That they put concern for the poor front and center, as Martin Bucer certainly seems to in his De Regno Christi, for instance?  That even Reformation iconoclasm was a result of concern for the poor, over against the greedy medieval church that hoarded its wealth?  

These narratives are not perhaps as incongruous as they seem, and the medieval approach is not perhaps quite as godly as it seems.  After all, the Reformers did care about the plight of the poor, and that’s why they wanted to abolish poverty.  Poverty was an undesirable state–for society as a whole, to be sure, but also for the poor themselves.  Hence it had to be remedied in the most effective, permanent way possible, and that was, they were convinced, creating workers, reducing dependency.  The more responsible thinkers of the modern right care about the poor too, and they too want to abolish property, but they agree with the sixteenth century that the way to do so is to put people to work.  They would criticize the modern left as encouraging dependency and permanent poverty, as the medieval period could perhaps be criticized: “the [medieval] stance to the poor had the sense it did partly because it was taken for granted that ‘the poor ye have always with you’.  More, this made sense, because the poor, while being succoured by the fortunate, were also an occasion of salvation of these latter.  There was a complementarity here….Within this way of understanding, it was unthinkable that one try actually to abolish poverty.’”  

Surely there is something unhealthy in this attitude, which seems rather like the attitude of the benefactor culture that Jesus devastatingly critiques, a culture that laid considerable stress on “alms for the poor” to keep them just above subsistence level, comfort the consciences of the powerful, and cement the relationships of power and dependence, but had no interest in redistribution.  Jesus says, “Blessed are the hungry” but he follows it with, “for they will be satisfied”–not “so let them continue in hunger.”

Interestingly, although the modern left is accused of creating a culture of dependency, it too uses the rhetoric–indeed, far more aggressively than the right–of “abolishing poverty.”  And while this certainly seems more wholesome on the surface, there is a danger here as well.  For if the sixteenth-century drive to abolish poverty arose at least partly out of the rich’s disgust with the poor, and desire not to have them continue sullying society (as Taylor suggests it did), then could there be something similar in the liberal crusades to rid the world of poverty, crusades carried out from the comfort of our living rooms with a phone call and a credit card?  

At their best, some of the medievals understood that there could be a blessedness in poverty, that we had something to learn from the poor, that they could be agents of grace for us, and we shouldn’t simply try to pack them away and put them to work.  Jesus was not, after all, chiefly concerned with the economic advancement of the poor, but with their incorporation into the community–he wanted the rich to learn to live face-to-face with the poor.  The medieval understanding was perhaps, for all its faults, closer to that.  The modern attitude, whether in its right-wing “put them to work” or its left-wing “give them whatever they need” variants, seems dangerously removed from this.   

2 thoughts on “Blessed are the Poor? Poverty in the 16th Cent.

  1. Donny

    I'm not sure I understand why you see incorporating the poor into community is different from putting them to work. To be part of the community is to receive a calling, a task to be worked on, isn't it?


  2. Brad Littlejohn

    Yes, but it's a question of priority. Are the poor affirmed as part of the community in any case, and then supplied with suitable jobs within the community, or are they told, "You don't belong, unless you earn your way by honest labor?" The latter poses particular problems for those who aren't capable of working.Also, those with the "put them to work" mentality that I'm describing generally put them to work in the most unpleasant jobs on the margins of society, often in isolated workhouses. It was not a matter of "incorporating them into community."


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