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Catholics and the Poor in Early Modern Europe

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 February 2009


A quiet revolution has occurred of late in the history of poor people and poor relief in early modern Europe. Shapeless, decentralized and infinite, like the story of most everyday things, it has depended for progress on the laborious accumulation of local examples, garnered from patchy, weedy and erratically surviving evidence; and for vitality on cerebration which outstrips research, on hypo-theses which demand to be tested in a hundred detailed trials. Time was when sociologists and students of social legislation encouraged historians to believe that with the Reformation there developed fundamental differences in the ways in which the old and the new faiths treated their poor–variances which sprang essentially from the abandonment in the wake of Luther of the ancient belief that ‘good works’ (almsgiving included) offered to those who performed them a direct means of securing salvation. To compress is often to parody. But it can perhaps be said that the coming of Protestantism, in all its forms, was believed to have emancipated poor-relief from the control of a too-indulgent Church, which encouraged the almsgiver to think only of the benefit to his own immortal soul. In so doing the Church had allegedly destroyed all incentive to contrive a rational philanthropy—to build systems which would benefit the receiver of alms, which would serve the common weal, which would in general be directed at procuring good order and reducing physical want and suffering. Hence the Church was credited with a very low capacity for organization and even accused of breeding the very poor whom it relieved, by depriving them of all incentive to find employment and attain self-support.

Research Article
Copyright © Royal Historical Society 1976

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* Professor Pullan was unable through illness to read his paper.

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