Tuesday, 8 November 2011

The problem of poverty

[This is a picture of the Corsham almshouses in Wiltshire, founded by Lady Margaret Hungerford.]]

A widespread fear of the disorderly poor meant that the early-modern state was preoccupied with the question of poverty.

The largest group of people classed as paupers were the elderly. Widows and abandoned wives could account for a third or more of the recipients of poor relief. However, their best support remained their relatives. In eastern and southern Europe older people often lived in three-generational multiple family households, or moved from the household of one married child to another. But in Italy and Spain those without relatives could be abandoned. The poor relief records of Seville and Barcelona show that the poverty of a widowed mother and her daughter could turn the daughter into a prostitute and the mother into a procuress.

In northern and western Europe older people lived on their own for as long as possible. The elderly lived with their married children only among the poor. Because the elderly poor were usually classed as ‘deserving’ they were entitled to parish relief in England, and it may be that this system was in practice more generous than one that relied on family support.

Religious charities
In most western European countries wealthy and philanthropic individuals set up charitable foundations, and in Catholic countries the religious orders ran schemes of poor relief. Their  hospitals, orphans and infirmaries were largely staffed by women.

These were not hospitals in the modern sense but places where those with chronic, non-contagious diseases, poor expectant mothers, vulnerable children and adults were housed, often in very poor conditions.

In 1634 St Vincent de Paul founded the Sisters (or Daughters) of Charity.
The sisters did not live in a religious house or under a religious rule. At first they looked after the sick in their own homes but soon began working in hospitals. This was the most successful of the religious orders devoted to the care of the poor.

In all European countries almshouses existed for the elderly poor. In Protestant countries wealthy women, such as Lady Margaret Hungerford, founded schools and almshouses. She saw her work as a religious duty but it was also a means of social control.

In the Netherlands widows and married women often served as regentesses, inspecting them daily, overseeing their operations and contributing to the success of Dutch charity.

The role of the state
In both England and France the state tried to grapple with the problem of poverty, but in very different ways.

The English Poor Law of 1601 laid a statutory obligation on the parish to provide relief out of the rates for those in need. With some modifications, this remained the law until 1834.

 Louis XIV set up hôpitaux generaux for beggars, most notably La Charité in Lyon (1614) and La Salpêtrière (1656) in Paris. The poor were incarcerated in these institutions. Above is a picture of the magnificent chapel of La Salpêtrière.