Using an interpretative model associated with anthropology, research methods associated with historians, and language skills associated with scholars of English literature, Ben-Amos offers a thorough assessment of informal support from 1580 to 1740. Informal support was not always voluntary nor entirely separate from state policies, but it was distinguished from public relief based on compulsory taxation, and commercial transactions based on price. Relying on the gift-exchange model of Mauss, Ben-Amos views this type of assistance as a form of gift that created binding ties of obligation and commitment.1
Imaginatively deploying an impressive range of sources, Ben-Amos investigates the many different kinds of help offered, the discourses and practices that sustained an economy of giving, and the connections between it, the state, and the market. She incorporates all ranks of society, examining not just subsistence aid but also help that improved the quality of life. Families and kin were key mechanisms of support. Their help was augmented by the activities of parishes, guilds, and mutual aid societies—all of which continued to provide aid even after the poor law was established—as well as by charitable gifts, which surged rather than declined following the Reformation. Together, these institutions offered a diverse array of assistance, from money and lodging to education and prayers. The state also contributed by sponsoring and funding charitable enterprises like hospitals, schools, and almshouses.
This culture of giving was embedded in personal transactions that linked individuals in chains of obligation. Social relations become enmeshed in a cycle of offerings and reciprocation, and the intensely personal nature of these interactions made them vulnerable to breakdown. Informal support was cultivated and encouraged through the means of feasts, gifts, and the enhanced reputation such giving brought. Gifts were listed and evaluated in account books kept by the middling and upper ranks, who recorded them as a visible demonstration of status in the community. Gift giving was also encouraged by Christianity, as an expression of piety that bore witness to the glory of God. Ben-Amos’ analysis of sermons and catechisms reveals the modification of the more stark principles of Protestantism. Despite ongoing tension between the competing values of discrimination, constraint, and liberality, in practice, more attention was paid to the obligations of the giver than to the moral worth of the recipient, and unconditional and spontaneous gift giving was celebrated.
Giving did not decay with the advent of Protestantism, the creation of institutional relief, the expansion of a bureaucratic state, or the rise of [End Page 450] a market economy but was revitalized and transformed. The expansion of the state and the market provided new venues for, and new techniques of, gift giving. Ben-Amos notes the increased potency of the written word, not just petitions for support or tomb inscriptions testifying to generosity but also the newly emerged begging letter and appeals for help published in newspapers.
There is a great deal of thoughtful analysis, insight, and information in this book. But gift-exchange theory, for all its benefits and applicability, privileges instrumental interaction. It downplays emotions, both the compassion of the donor and the humiliation of the recipient. These factors are not the whole story but they should be a larger part of it.
1. Marcel Mauss (trans. W. D. Halls), The Gift: Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies (New York, 1990).