22 Oct 2018

Historical Saturday #5- The Charitable Middle Ages

Many of the Medieval novels I have read in the last few years feature mean-spirited noble characters who not only have no mind for the poor and disadvantaged in society, but are positively against doing anything to help them.
In the first chapter of Dina Sleiman's Chivalrous (Bethany House, 2015) for instance, we are told that the heroine Gwendolyn's father would not approve of her giving money to beggars and poor children because he believed that social order and status were ordained by God, like most of his contemporaries.

In A Daring Sacrifice by Jody Hedlund (Zondervan, 2016), the sister and steward of the absurdly wealthy protagonist Colin are appalled by his suggestion of giving peasants gifts for the religious festival of Michaelmas (the feast of the Archangel Michael, celebrated 29th September). 

These two examples reflect a common theme in Christian Fiction novels- that is is usually only the sweet, moral, compassionate goodies who show any regard for their fellow men or to the poor. Most of the other characters- usually cast as nobles or of high status, are indifferent at best. Very often, noble characters are cast as corrupt, greedy, selfish and shallow to contrast them with the 'good' characters of the hero/heroine who have to reform them with their good Christian morality, or foil their wickedness.

 Illustration of Woman giving money to poor
As in my other Historical Saturday posts, I intend to explore the historical reality behind this depiction.
So just what did Medieval people think about charity? It may come as a surprise to learn that they held it it such importance, and high regard, that it became a bastion of society and culture throughout
the High and Later Middle Ages (the late eleventh century onwards).
It was widely believed that charity was the duty of all professing Christians and miserliness was not only a fault, but a sin.
In The Divine Comedy, a famous Allegory written by the 13th century Italian poet Dante, misers were destined to roll heavy weights around in the fourth chamber of hell.

Charity took many forms, but one of the most important was generosity and almsgiving. It was common, in castles and great houses for leftover food to be given to the poor and beggars and the gate, and for Lords to host a meal each year for their workers. Kings, and other great Lords even had almoners, officials whose job it was to distribute alms -which usually took the form of gifts of food, money and occasionally clothing to the poor on his behalf.
Over time, it became traditional for alms to be distributed to the poor on special occasions such as the Coronation of the King or Queen, weddings, christenings, or religious festivals.
It is thought that the origins of some modern Hallow'een traditions may actually lie in the Middle Ages, when 'soul cakes'- small buns made with dried fruits and spices were given to the poor and needy who it was hoped, would pray for the souls of the dead relatives of the givers believed to be in Purgatory.

The Almshouses Hospital of St Cross, Winchester, UK
There were also almshouses, some of which survive in Europe today. These were something like the fore-runners of modern Social housing, which were created to house small numbers of poor people for free, or for a much reduced rate of rent.
Often, they were attached to a church or other religious foundation, where, once, again, residents were supposed to pray for the souls of benefactors and their families.
One surviving example is The Hospital of St Cross, located just outside the city of Winchester, in England. It was established in 1136 to support 13 men too frail to work, who came to be known as 'brothers' although they were not monks. Many of the buildings are still intact, and home to 25 'poor brothers' today.

13th Century Spanish Illustration of Hospital
Hospitals also have their origins in the Middle Ages. Originally, they were places where the sick, elderly, infirm, poor or occasionally people with Leprosy were supposed to be taken care of, or where something like hostelries where Pilgrims could stay overnight.
Ever heard of the Knights Hospitaller? The Crusading Order who existed alongside the more famous Templars. The former established many Hospitals in the Holy Land, and other areas where they established themselves.
They were also known as the Knights of St John, and give their names to a Medical charity which is still in existence today: St John's Ambulance. Do you know that the logo of the organization is in fact the Cross of the Knights Hospitaller?

Another Medieval Illustration showing alms-giving to the poor
So in reality, Sir Colin's family members and servants would probably have been more shocked by him not giving gifts to the poor to fulfill his charitable obligations as a good Lord should. They'd have been more horrified that he had not done it before - and if Gwen's father really disapproved of her giving money, he certainly would not have said so in public, for fear of being considered a miser.

The mistake I think we are making is assuming that it was Protestants or Evangelicals who invented the concept of charity after the Reformation.

The truth is that we have a lot of preconceived ideas about the pre-Reformation church. We assume that it was so corrupt and morally bankrupt that it and the nobility had almost all the money, nobody else had any, and they spent the best part of 1000 odd years just repressing the poor. The truth is not so simple, but perhaps a little more encouraging.


  1. Excellent, thoughtful, well-written post! Thank you!

    1. Thankyou, and thanks very much for visiting.


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