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‘Charity and the City: Medieval to Early Modern’

April 13, 2011

Event report – by Elma Brenner

This workshop for postgraduate students and early career researchers was held at Hughes Hall, University of Cambridge, in September 2010. It was one of a series of workshops on aspects of voluntary action organised by the New Researchers Committee of the Voluntary Action History Society and financially supported by the Economic History Society.

The imperative for Christians to practise charity in order to ensure their future salvation stimulated the development of hospitals, medicine and public welfare initiatives in medieval and early modern Europe. The workhop aimed to address change and continuity in institutions, practices and ideas associated with urban charity between the medieval and the early modern periods. Six papers were presented by researchers from the UK, France, Germany and Portugal in sessions chaired by Jane Stevens Crawshaw (Oxford Brookes University), William MacLehose (Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at UCL) and David Adams (Cambridge). The workshop was introduced by Sarah Squire (President of Hughes Hall), and John Henderson (Birkbeck, University of London) led a roundtable discussion at the end of the day.

A particular focus was on hospitals in their broader urban context. Papers by Elena Taddia (independent scholar, Paris) and Lisbeth Rodrigues (University of Minho, Portugal) highlighted the important economic role of hospitals, as both recipients and distributors of funds in the city. Taddia discussed the two major hospitals in the early modern Republic of Genoa, the Pammatone hospital and the Albergo dei Poveri, both of which were financed by wealthy Genoese citizens. Unusually, the hospital of Nossa Senhora do Pópulo in early modern Portugal, Rodrigues’s case study, preceded the town that later sprang up around it. The hospital created job opportunities and stimulated commercial life in the area. Both papers also illustrated how medical, religious and welfare functions were combined in early modern (and medieval) hospitals. In Genoa, charitable initiatives stimulated medical developments: the Pammatone hospital had its own pharmacy and medical school. Nossa Senhora do Pópulo had a specialised medical function as the first thermal hospital in the world, but also sheltered pilgrims and provided outdoor relief to the poor.

Laura Crombie (University of Glasgow) discussed a hospital established in late medieval Ghent by a local guild of crossbowmen. She highlighted the important role of women in the care of the sick: by the mid-15th century, the hospital was being run by guild sisters. Her paper also highlighted the fact that it is often very difficult to find evidence about medical treatment in medieval hospitals. The Ghent hospital’s inventories list many liturgical objects, but only mention a few items that were used for medical purposes.

Gustavs Strenga (Queen Mary, University of London, and Albert- Ludwigs Universität Freiburg) examined the link between charity and commemoration in the late medieval towns of Riga and Reval (Tallinn), the present-day capitals of Latvia and Estonia respectively. Wealthy benefactors viewed the commemorative prayers of the poor on their behalf as highly effective towards ensuring their future salvation, and the poor thus played an important role in the ‘economy of charity’. However, as Laura Crombie also showed, it is very difficult to identify ‘the poor’ in the Middle Ages. Nonetheless, in Riga and Reval, as elsewhere in Europe, benefactors clearly distinguished between those they considered deserving or undeserving of assistance.

Essay by health reformer John Bellers.

Essay by Quaker health reformer John Bellers, 1714. Wellcome Library

The ideas and attitudes that shaped urban charity were addressed by Steve Ridge (Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine at UCL) and Lars Kjaer (Cambridge). Ridge discussed the philosophical ideas of the Quaker John Bellers (1654–1725), who proposed that healthcare should be viewed as a branch of politics and that there should be a centrally administered system of hospitals for the poor. He thus argued that the Commonwealth should take full responsibility for the care of the poor – a very different model from the earlier religious model of charity. Kjaer examined the practice of almsgiving at aristocratic feasts in central medieval England. He revealed that luxury and charity were closely connected. In order to compensate morally for the excessiveness of their feasts, aristocrats abstained from consuming all the food provided, conserving some to be distributed to the poor. This created a connection between the wealthy and the poor, since both groups consumed the same food. The paper drew attention to the importance of food in medieval charity: giving food to the hungry was a Biblical work of mercy, and much charity involved gifts of food.

In the roundtable discussion, John Henderson commented on the themes that had emerged during the day. He noted that many more sources survive for the early modern period than the medieval period, which inevitably influences our picture of the differences between them. In addition, we have few sources about informal charity in the family and the local community, which must have been widespread. The papers had underlined the moral dimension of charity: hospitals were religious institutions, where great emphasis was placed on healing the soul as well as the body. The economic importance of hospitals, and the role of women in charity, had also been demonstrated. The final discussion considered whether or not, given the medieval understanding of charity as a Christian duty and the emergence of notions of state responsibility for the poor in the early modern period, urban charity can truly be considered to have been ‘voluntary’.

Dr Elma Brenner is a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow associated to the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge.

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