« Prev Works of Charity Next »

§ 79. Works of Charity.

Benevolence and philanthropy, which are of the very essence of the Christian religion, flourished in the later Middle Ages. In the endeavor to provoke his generation to good works, Luther asserted that "in the good old papal times everybody was merciful and kind. Then it snowed endowments and legacies and hospitals."12941294    Quoted by Uhlhorn, p. 439. Janssen, II. 325 sq., takes too seriously Luther’s complaint that more liberality had been shown and care given to the needy under the old system than under the new, using it as a proof of the influence of Protestantism. Riezler, Gesch. Baierns, as quoted by Janssen, I. 679 says, "The Christian spirit of love to one’s neighbor was particularly active In the 15th century in works of benevolence and there Is scarcely another age so fruitful In them." So also Bezold, p. 94. Institutions were established to care for the destitute and sick, colleges and bursaries were endowed and protection given to the dependent against the rapacity of unscrupulous money-lenders.

The modern notion of stamping out sickness by processes of sanitation scarcely occurred to the mediaeval municipalities. Although the population of Europe was not 1/10 of what it is to-day, disease was fearfully prevalent. No epidemics so fatal as the Black Death appeared in Europe but, even in England, the return of plagues was frequent, as in 1406,1439,1464,1477. The famine of 1438, called the Great Famine, was followed the next year by the Great Pestilence, called also the pestilence sans merci. In 1464, to follow the Chronicle of Croyland, thousands, "died like slaughtered sheep." The sweating sickness of 1485 reappeared in 1499 and 1504. In the first epidemic, 20,000 died in London and, in 1504, the mayor of the city succumbed. The disease took people suddenly and was marked by a chill, which was followed by a fiery redness of the skin and agonizing thirst that led the victims to drink immoderately. Drinking was succeeded by sweating from every pore.12951295    See C. Creighton in Social England, II. 412, 475, 561.

Provision was made for the sick and needy through the monasteries, gilds and brotherhoods as well as by individual assistance and state collections. The care of the poor was in England regarded as one of the primary functions of the Church. Archbishop Stratford,1342, ordered that a portion of the tithe should be invariably set apart for their needs. The neglect of the poor was alleged as one of the crying omissions of the alien clergy.

Doles for the poor, a common form of charity in England, were often provided for on a large scale. During the 40 days the duke of Gaunt’s body was to remain unburied, 50 marks were to be distributed daily until the 40th day, when the amount was to be increased to 500 marks. Bishop Skirland wanted 200 given away between his death and his interment. A draper of York gave by will 100 beds with furniture to as many poor folk. A cloth-maker made a doubtful charity when he left a suit of his own make to 13 poor people, with the condition that they should sit around his coffin for 8 days. There were houses, says Thorold Rogers, where doles of bread and beer were given to all wayfarers, houses where the sick were treated, clothed and fed, particularly the lepers. One of the hospitals that survives is St. Crow at Winchester for old and indigent people.12961296    Rogers: Work and Wages, p. 417. Stubbs: Const. Hist., ch. XXI. Capes: Engl. Ch. Hist. in the 14th and 15th Cent., pp. 276 sq., 366 sq. The cook Ketel, a Brother of the Common Life, whose biography Thomas à Kempis wrote, said it would be better to sell all the books of the house at Deventer and give more to the poor.

Hospitals, in the earlier part of our period, were the special concern of the knights of the Teutonic Order and continued throughout the whole of it to engage the attention of the Beguines. It became the custom also for the Beguines to go as nurses to private houses as in Cologne, Frankfurt, Treves, Ulm and other German cities, receiving pay for their services.12971297    Uhlhorn, p. 383 sq. The Beguinages in Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp andother cities of Belgium and Holland date back to this period. The 15th century also witnessed the growth of municipal hospitals, a product of the civic spirit which had developed in North-Europe. Cities like Cologne, Lübeck and Augsburg had several hospitals. The Hotel de Dieu, Paris, did not come under municipal control till 1505. In cases, admission to hospitals was made by their founders conditional on ability to say the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed and the Ave Maria, as for example to St. Anthony’s, Augsburg. In this case, the founder took care to provide for himself, requiring the inmates on entering to say 100 Pater nosters and 100 Ave Marias over his grave and every day to join in saying over it 15 of each.12981298    Uhlhorn, p. 333. For the conditions of admission to hospitals and medical treatment, Allemand, III. 192 sqq. is to be consulted. Damian of Löwen and his wife, who endowed a hospital at Cologne,1450, stipulated that "the very poorest and sickest were to be taken care of whether they belonged to Cologne or were strangers."

Rome had more than one hospital endowment. The foundation of Cardinal John Colonna at the Lateran, made 1216, still remains. In his History of the Popes (III. 51), Pastor has given a list of the hospitals and other institutions of mercy in the different states of Italy and justly laid stress upon this evidence of the power of Christianity. The English gilds, organized, in the first instance, for economic and industrial purposes, also pledged relief to their own sick and indigent members. The gild of Corpus Christi at York provided 8 beds for poor people and paid a woman by the year 14 shillings and fourpence to keep them. The gild of St. Helena at Beverley cared constantly for 3 or 4 poor folk.12991299    In 1409 was founded an asylum for lunatics in Valencia, Lecky: Hist. of Europ. Morals, II. 94 sq. There were pest-houses In Oxford and Cambridge and Continental universities often had special hospitals of their own. Writing of the 16th century, Thomas Platter speaks of such a hospital at Breslau. The town paid 16 hellers for the care of each patient. These institutions were, however, far removed from our present methods of cleanliness. Of the Breslau hospital, Platter (Monroe’s Life, p. 103 sq.) says, "We had good attention, good beds, but there were many vermin there as big as ripe hemp-seed, so that I and others preferred to be on the floor rather than in the beds."

Leprosy decreased during the last years of the Middle Ages, but hospitals for the reception of lepers are still extensively found,—the lazarettos, so called after Lazarus, who was reputed to have been afflicted with the disease. Houses for this malady had been established in England by Lanfranc, Mathilda, queen of Henry I. at St. Giles, by King Stephen at Burton, Leicestershire and by others till the reign of John. St. Hugh of Lincoln, as well as St. Francis d’Assissidistinguished themselves by their solicitude for lepers. But the disease seems to have died out in England in the 14th century and it was hard to fill the beds endowed for this class of sufferers. In 1434, it was ordered that beds be kept for 2 lepers in the great Durham leper hospital "provided they could be found in these parts." Originally the hospital had beds for 60.13001300    Geo. Pernet: Leprosy in Quart. Rev., 1903, p. 384 sqq. C. Creighton, Soc. Engl., II. 413. This Hist., Vol. V., I., pp. 395, 825, 894. For the fearful prevalence of cutaneous diseases and crime in England in the 13th century and as a cure for those who sigh for the fictitious happy conditions of mediaeval society, see Jessopp, Coming of the Friars, p. 101 sqq. Late in the 16th century there were still lepers in Germany. Thomas Platter wrote, "When we came to Munich, it was so late that we could not enter the city, but had to remain in the leperhouse."13011301    Monroe: Thos. Platter, p. 107.

Begging was one of the curses of England and Germany as it continues to be of Southern Europe to-day. It was no disgrace to ask alms. The mendicant friars by their example consecrated a nuisance with the sacred authority of religion. Pilgrims and students also had the right of way as beggars. Sebastian Brant gave a list of the different ecclesiastical beggars who went about with sacks, into which they put with indiscriminate greed apples, plums, eggs, fish, chickens, meat, butter and cheese,—sacks which had no bottom.

Der Bettler Sack wird nimmer voll;

Wie man ihn füllt, so bleibt er hohl.

In Germany, towns gave franchises to beg.13021302    Uhlhorn, pp. 483, 456. Such a license was issued in Vienna,1442. Eberlin of Günzburg went so far as to say that in Germany, 14 out of every 15 people lived a life of idleness. The habit of mendicancy, which Brant ridiculed, Geiler of Strassburg called upon the municipality to regulate or forbid altogether. In England, mendicancy was a profession recognized in law.

With the decay of the monastic endowments and the legal maintenance of wages at a low rate, the destitution and vagrancy increased. The English statutes of laborers at the close of this period,1495 and 1504, ordered beggars, not able to work, to return to their own towns where they might follow the habit of begging without hindrance.13031303    Stubbs ch. XXI.; Social Engl., II. 548-550. Cunningham, p. 478 sq.; Rogers, pp. 416-419.

At a time when in Germany, the richest country of Europe, church buildings were multiplying with great rapidity, many churches in England, on account of the low economic conditions, were actually left to go to ruin or turned into sheepcotes and stables, a transmutation to which Sir Thomas More as well as others refers. The rapacity of the nobles and abbots in turning large areas into sheep-runs deprived laborers of employment and brought social distress upon large numbers. On the other hand, parliament passed frequent statutes of apparel, as in 1463 and 1482, restricting the farmer and laborer in his expenditure on dress. The different statutes of laborers, enacted during the 15th century, had the effect of depressing and impoverishing the classes dependent upon the daily toil of their hands.13041304   See Traill: Soc. Engl., II. 388, 392-398. For the activity in churchbuilding in Germany, see Janssen, I. 180 sq.; Bezold, p. 90; Ficker, p. 65.

In spite of the strict synodal rules, repeated again and again, usury was practised by Christians as well as by Jews. All the greater Schoolmen of the 13th century had discussed the subject of usury and pronounced it sin, on the ground of Luke 6:34, and other texts. They held that charges of interest offended against the law of love to our neighbor and the law of natural fairness, for money does not increase with use but rather is reduced in weight and value. It is a species of greed which is mortal sin.13051305    Thos. Aquinas: Summa, II. 2, q. 78. It was so treated by mediaeval councils when practised by Christians and the contrary opinion was pronounced heretical by the oecumenical council of Vienne. Geiler of Strassburg expounded the official church view when he pronounced usury always wicked. It was wrong for a Christian to take back more than the original principal. And the substitution of a pig or some other gift in place of a money payment he also denounced.

The rates of the Jews were exorbitant. In Florence, they were 20% in 1430 and, in 1488, 32½%.13061306    Pastor: Gesch. d. Päpste, III. 83 sq. For Germany, see Janssen, I. 460 sqq. In Northern Europe they were much higher, from 431/3 to 80 or even 100%. Municipalities borrowed. Clerics, convents and churches mortgaged their sacred vessels. City after city in Germany and Switzerland expelled the Jews,—from Spires and Zürich,1435, to Geneva,1490, and Nürnberg, Ulm and Nördlingen,1498–1500. The careers of the great banking-houses in the second half of the fifteenth century show the extensive demand for loans by popes and prelates, as well as secular princes.

To afford relief to the needy, whose necessities forced them to borrow, a measure of real philanthropy was conceived in the last century of the Middle Ages, the montes pietatis, or charitable accumulations.13071307    Other names given to them were montes Christi, monte della carità, mare di pietà. See Holzapfel, pp. 18, 20, for funds to provide for burial, montes mortuorum, made up from contributions, and funds to which mothers contributed at the birth of children, called montes dotis. Holzapfel gives the primary authorities on the benevolent loaning funds, pp. 3-14. They were benevolent loaning funds. The idea found widespread acceptance in Italy, where the first institutions were founded at Perugia,1462, and Orvieto,1463. City councils aided such funds by contributions, as at Perugia, when it gave 3,000 gulden. But in this case, finding itself unable to furnish the full amount, it mulcted the Jews for 1,200 gulden, Pius II. giving his sanction to the constraint. In cases, bishops furnished the capital, as at Pistoja,1473, where Bishop Donato de’ Medici gave 3,000 gulden. At Lucca, a merchant, who had grown rich through commercial affiliation with the Jews, donated the princely capital of 40,000 gold gulden. At Gubbio, a law taxed all inheritances one per cent in favor of the local fund, and neglect to pay was punished with an additional tax of one per cent.

The popes showed a warm interest in the new benevolence by granting to particular funds their sanction and offering indulgences to contributors. From 1463 to 1515 we have records of 16 papal authorizations from such popes as Pius II., Sixtus IV., Innocent VIII., Alexander VI., Julius II. and Leo X. The sanction of Innocent VIII., given to the Mantua fund,1486, called upon the preachers to summon the people to support the fund, promised 10 years full indulgence to donors, and excommunicated all who opposed the project. Sixtus IV., in commending the fund for his native town of Savona,1479, pronounced its worthy object to be to aid not only the poor but also the rich who had pawned their goods. He offered a plenary indulgence on the collection of every 100 gulden. In 1490, the Savona fund had 22,000 gulden and the limit of loans was raised to 100 ducats.13081308    Holzapfel, pp. 10-12, 44, 64, 70.

The administration of these bureaus of relief was in the hands of directors, usually a mixed body of clergymen and laymen, and often appointed by municipal councils. The accounts were balanced each month. In Perugia, the rate, which was 12% in 1463, was reduced to 8% a year later. In Milan it was reduced from 10% to 5%, in 1488. Five per cent was the appointed rate fixed at Padua, Vicenza and Pisa, and 4% at Florence. The loans were made upon the basis of property put in pawn. The benevolent efficacy of these funds cannot be questioned and to them, in part, is due the reduction of interest from 40% to 4 and 10% in Italy, before the close of the 15th century.13091309    Holzapfel, p. 134. They met, however, with much opposition and were condemned as contravening the traditional law against usury.

A foremost place in advancing the movement was taken by the Franciscans and in the Franciscan Bernardino da Feltre,1439–1494, it had its chief apostle. This popular orator canvassed all the greater towns of Northern Italy,—Mantua, Florence, Parma, Padua, Milan, Lucca, Verona, Brescia. Wherever he went, he was opposed from the pulpit and by doctors of the canon law. At Florence, so warmly was the controversy conducted in the pulpits that a public discussion was ordered at which Lorenzo de’ Medici, doctors of the law, clerics and many laymen were present, with the result that the archbishop forbade opposition to the mons on pain of excommunication. The Deuteronomic injunction, 24:12 sq., ordering that, if a man borrow a coat, it should be restored before sundown and the Lord’s words, Luke 6, were quoted by the opposition. But it was replied, that the object of loaning to the poor was not to enrich the fund or individuals but to do the borrower good. Savonarola gave the institution his advocacy.13101310    Villari, I. 294 sqq.; Holzapfel, pp. 124, 135. According to Holzapfel, there were in Italy in 1896, 556 monti di pietà with 78,000,000 lire—$16,000,000—out in loans. The Fifth Lateran commended it and in this it was followed, 50 years later, by the Council of Trent.

The attempt to transplant the Italian institution in Germany was unsuccessful and was met by the establishment of banks by municipal councils, as at Frankfurt.13111311    Holzapfel, p. 102 sqq.; Janssen, I. 464, 489. In England also, it gained no foothold. So strong was the feeling against lending out money at interest that, at Chancellor Morton’s importunity, parliament proceeded against it with severe measures, and a law of Henry VII.’s reign made all lending of money at interest a criminal offence and the bargain between borrower and lender null and void.

Notable expression was also given to the practice of benevolence by the religious brotherhoods of the age. These organizations developed with amazing rapidity and are not to be confounded with the gilds which were organizations of craftsmen, intended to promote the production of good work and also to protect the master-workers in their monopoly of trade. They were connected with the Church and were, in part, under the direction of the priesthood, although from some of them, as in Lübeck, priests were distinctly excluded. Like the gilds, their organization was based upon the principle of mutual aid13121312    The constitution of the Gild of St. Mary of Lynn contained the clauses, "If any sister or brother of this gild fall into poverty, they shall have help from every other brother and sister in a penny a day." The Gild of St. Catharine, London, had a similar stipulation. Smith: Engl. Gilds, p. 185. but they emphasized the principle of unselfish sympathy for those in distress. Luther once remarked, there was no chapel and no saint without a brotherhood. In fact, nothing was so sure to make a saint popular as to name a brotherhood after him. By 1450, there was not a mendicant convent in Germany which had not at least one fraternity connected with it. Cities often had a number of these organizations. Wittenberg had 21, Lübeck 70, Frankfurt 31, Hamburg 100. Every reputable citizen in German cities belonged to one or more.13131313    Degenhard Pfaffinger, counsellor to Frederick the Wise, belonged to 35. Kolde, 437; Uhlhorn, p. 423. Luther belonged to 3 at Erfurt, the brotherhoods of St. Augustine, St. Anna and St. Catherine.

The dead, who had belonged to them, had the distinct advantage of being prayed for. Their sick were cared for in hospitals, containing beds endowed by them. Sometimes they incorporated the principle of mutual benefit or assurance societies, and losses sustained by the living they made good. At Paderborn, in case a brother lost his horse, every member contributed one or two shillings or, if he lost his house, his fellow-members contributed three shillings each or a load of lumber.

As there were gilds of apprentices as well as of master-workmen, so there were brotherhoods of the poor and humble as well as of those in comfortable circumstances. Even the lepers had fraternities, and one of these clans had fief rights to a spring at Wiesbaden. So also had the beggars and cripples at Zülpich, founded 1454. The entrance fee in the last case was 8 shillings, from which there was a reduction of one-half for widows.13141314    Uhlhorn, p. 422.

In the case of the Italian brotherhoods, it is often difficult to distinguish between a society organized for a benevolent purpose and a society for the cult of some saint. The gilds of Northern Italy, as a rule, laid emphasis upon religious duties such as attendance upon mass, confession of sins and refraining from swearing. The Roman societies had their patron saints,—the blacksmith and workers in gold, St. Eligius, the millers Paulinus of Nola, the barrel-makers St. James, the inn-keepers St. Blasius and St. Julian, the masons St. Gregory the Great, the barbers and physicians St. Cosmas and St. Damian, the painters St. Luke and the apothecaries St. Lawrence. The popes encouraged the confraternities and elevated some of them to the dignity of archfraternities, as St. Saviour in Rome, the first to win this distinction. Florence was also good soil for religious brotherhoods. At the beginning of the 16th century, there were no less than 73 within its bounds, some of them societies of children.13151315    Pastor, IV. 30-38

Society did not wait for the present age to apply the principle of Christian charity. The development of organizations and bureaus in the 15th century was not carried as far as it is to-day, and for the good reason that the same demand for it did not exist. The cities were small and it was possible to carry out the practice of individual relief with little fear of deception.

« Prev Works of Charity Next »
Please login or register to save highlights and make annotations
Corrections disabled for this book
Proofing disabled for this book
Printer-friendly version


| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |