- Poverty and Prosperity in the Middle Ages and Renaissance by Cynthia Kosso and Anne Scott, eds
This collection of essays is the product of a conference, and it retains some of the disparate topicality and methodological approaches of a conference, to its advantage, but also to its disadvantage. It is not as focused a collection as the title would at first suggest, particularly with regard to ‘prosperity’. Most of the contributed essays address a context or construct of ‘poverty’, a particular group of ‘the poor’, or aspects of charitable interaction (particularly almsgiving/welfare) from the prosperous to the poor. Mostly these are very interesting papers which certainly contribute to a discussion of their own particular subjects, and to a wider discourse about historical poverty. But little of an overall case is built throughout the volume, and the relative lack of discussion of ‘prosperity’ is a bit of a pachyderm between the pages. The absence of a conclusion contributes to this overall sense. The essays in this volume have been grouped under four headings: ‘Poverty and Morality’, ‘Charity and Almsgiving’, ‘Spirituality and Institutional Organizations’, and ‘Monetary and Literary Economies and Greed’.
Several papers address the issue of poverty in the medieval world. Jonathon Robinson, in quite a technical and specialist essay, addresses the construction of poverty and the ownership and use of property by the Franciscan Order. Phillipp R. Schofield examines in some detail the idea of both regional and temporal shifts in relative poverty and definitions of the poor in England c. 1300, highlighting a significant number of rural poor existing beyond documented tax assessments. Mark R. Cohen provides a fascinating study of the Jewish community in medieval Cairo, drawing connections between that [End Page 250] context in both the Talmudic/pre-Islamic world and the later English Old Poor Law administration. Here, structural differences and commonalities in constructions of poverty across and between the Abrahamic religions provide a broad picture.
Poverty is also addressed in early modern contexts. Roy Neil Graves looks at Shakespeare’s sonnets and sees an ‘economic preoccupation’ (p. 43) on the part of the Bard, fearful of the prospect of poverty. Jayson S. Galler unpicks the Book of Concord (1580) to argue for a developing Protestant logic of material poverty as bad, involuntary material poverty as worse, and he suggests that Protestants reinterpreted the Gospels to see inner poverty as the only good sort of poverty. A similar thrust about Protestant re-conceptualization of poverty is what Heather Martel aims for in the volume’s concluding chapter, arguing that there was a Protestant ‘dehumanisation of the poor in the Americas’ (p. 321) grounded in resistance against dependence on native peoples and polities.
Ron Cooley offers quite a different picture in his chapter, one of the few directly engaged with the notion of ‘prosperity’ which is considered through the lens of acquisitiveness as something that could, for Protestants, be interpreted as a good if honourably gained and used for good purposes. It nicely correlates with the last-mentioned two chapters, and is humorously, humbly, and effectively anti-anti-Weber (sic). The other chapter to engage most directly with prosperity is Sally Livingston’s ‘Economy of the Turnip’, which examines a medieval folk tale concerned with avarice. Readers beware: the moral of the tale is delivered with a scholar in a bag, tricked into it by greed for knowledge!
Christian D. Knudsen’s chapter on ‘Promiscuous Monks and Naughty Nuns’ examines a group of professed poor, with three key findings relating to accusations of misconduct: monks were accused more often than nuns, accusations concerned domestic politics, and there is a tentative correlation between household claims of poverty and the likelihood of an accusation being made. J. Eugene Clay details a Russian Old Believer movement that was popular among some of the Russian peasantry.
Alicia McKensie’s examination of Merovingian kingly charity and ‘Christian governance’ is an interesting opening to the volume...