The 15th and 16th centuries were a time of great turmoil for Europe. The various religious wars, the 30 years war, and the fluctuation in the economy were just some examples. There was also a rise in population, which led to overpopulation and unemployment, which in turn led to poverty. There were a great number of poor people in Europe in the 15th through 17th centuries. There were varied attitudes and reactions towards those in poverty.
The attitudes towards the poor included people feeling it was their duty and responsibility to help them, some people felt anger or resentment towards the poor for being “lazy”, and some had a religious incentive to help those in poverty. Some people’s responses were to help the poor to the best of their abilities, others to criticize and deprecate the poor, and some to help and support the poor with the hope of religious reward. Many townspeople felt that it was their responsibility as a citizen to care for the poor in their town.
For example, a town council in France felt responsible for the “poor begging creatures” and “poor children” in the town, and they respond by renting out a barn at the city’s cost to house and care for the poor. (Doc 2) This shows how the towns felt that it was their duty to care for their poor. Also, Juan Luis Vives, a humanist, felt that the poor, in their deprived situations of begging, stealing, and wandering, are driven to that by necessity of self care.
He feels that there is a duty to help the poor, however many people do not act on that duty because they are overwhelmed by the immense number, they uncertain where to put their money, or they just don’t perform the duties commanded of them. (Doc 3) This shows the feeling of responsibility to help the poor that the people had, and also the responses they had to this feeling. Another account of a town council’s meeting says that those poor who are simply unable to find work are deserving of assistance from the city, but those who are idle are harmful to society and should not be considered as poor.
This city responded to the poor by giving them work on sites in the city in exchange for food, until they are able to find their own job. (Doc 5) This further demonstrates how the city felt a responsibility for their poor, and reacted to best help the lowly. This document shows some bias because it also says that the city decides whether or not to expel the poor or idle from the town based on how the support of the people would profit. The town is concerned about “the people…who will fight” and not solely the well being of the poor in their town.
Another example is the painting Beggars Receiving Alms at the Door of a House by Rembrandt. This painting depicts an older man at his doorway placing some coins into the hands of a beggar with his family. (Doc 9) This shows how the citizens of the town felt their duty to gratify the needs of the poor, and responded by giving charity to the beggars. Some people, especially the upper classes, were angry and begrudged the poor because they felt they were indolent and lazy, and in return they criticized and condemned the poor.
William Turner, and English doctor, said that beggars came to the door, and when he offered to heal them instead of giving alms, they refused. He claims they would rather “be sick and live with ease and idleness” than be healthy and earn an honest living. He accused the poor of taking advantage of their position to live easily and idly. (Doc 9) This shows how some criticized the poor, and thought they were lazy. This document shows bias however, as Turner is a doctor, and of a higher class, and he knows nothing about the way the poor live.
The poor tried to keep some pride, and he assumed that they refused his medical help because they wanted to keep their idle and easy living status. Also, the upper class would feel resentment towards those who live easily with inactivity as opposed to others like him who have to work very hard. Another example is Cardinal Richelieu, who feels that the poor are “good for nothing vagabonds” who beg instead of working. (Doc 8) He responds to the poor by establishing rules and regulations which keep them confined, and require that those who are able were put to work on public projects.
This further conveys how some people felt that the poor were lazy, doing nothing to contribute to society, and the response was to criticize them and put them to work for the city. Jean Maillefer, a wealthy merchant, wrote in a letter to his children that the poor “who have grown accustomed to this life can’t leave it”, and they have no worries or cares in the world, as they have an easy life because they do not work for a living. (Doc 11) This shows how some people, especially the upper class, resented the poor for being sedentary and criticized them for living as such.
This document also shows bias. Maillefer is a wealthy merchant, and similar to Turner (Doc 9), he would have no idea what it was like for a poor person, and he would also resent those who didn’t work as hard as he did but still had what he thought was a good life. Other felt inclined religiously to help those who can’t help themselves, and they gave to those in need with the hope of a religious reward. For example, an unnamed French Catholic priest tells that those who donate to the poor while in good health will receive wealth in the afterlife. Doc 1) This shows how people donated to the poor not only out of the goodness of their heart, but also out of the selfish hope that they would receive gratification from God after they died. Another example is Charles V, who stated in Document 4 that idleness is the beginning of all evils, but those who are deserving poor should receive help in the form of food and sustenance “to the glory of God and according to his will. ” This further demonstrated the religious impetus that people had to give to the poor.
Finally, Vincent de Paul, a Catholic priest, said that everyone should help the poor in every possible way, both with temporal and spiritual needs. He also hinted that the way to sainthood was through generosity and charity to the poor. (Doc 10) This again shows how people felt towards the poor, and how they donated in the hopes of receiving religious compensation, in this case in the form of sainthood. This document contains bias however, because de Paul was using the fantasy of becoming a saint to bribe people into joining the order, that he founded, and giving alms to the poor.
The people living in poverty in the 15th through 17th centuries were the subject of various different attitudes and responses. Some felt responsibility for them, other resentment, and some were helping them for their own personal reasons and aspirations. The attitude of the person towards the poor was largely factored by their class and social status; the higher classes were most often the ones that felt bitterness to the “lazy” poor. Each era and society throughout history have, and will, experience poor people, and each will react in their own different way.