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  • The Reformation of Charity: The Secular and the Religious in Early Modern Poor Relief
  • Philip Gavitt
Thomas Max Safley , ed. The Reformation of Charity: The Secular and the Religious in Early Modern Poor Relief. Studies in Central European Histories 30. Boston and Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2003. x + 206 pp. index. illus. $130. ISBN: 0–391–04211–4.

This collection of eleven essays arose initially from several sessions at the 2002 Sixteenth Century Studies Conference in San Antonio. In these sessions, the editor specifically convened scholars to examine the recent work of Ole Peter Grell affirming that the Protestant Reformation and not civic humanism and its attendant "secular" concerns decisively shaped early modern charity, beginning a series of transformations in charitable ideology and practice that ironically led to secularization. The collection's editor has framed Grell's thesis in the larger context of Max Weber's Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, an approach that intuitively seems promising but in practice turns out to be an awkward fit, not least because Grell's argument confuses religious faith and confessional identity. Even though Grell's approach, most clearly summarized and challenged in Charles Parker's essay, may [End Page 633] seem a mere resuscitation of Weber's thesis, it is in some important ways a quite distinct line of argument.

As a result, the authors in the Safley collection have struggled valiantly along their own via crucis to discern which dragons to slay. Lee Wandel buoyantly reassures us that "The Ten Commandments are relatively straightforward" and delineates the Judeo-Christian context of property, piety, and poverty. In Reformation polemic, Protestants appropriated from Franciscans a matrix of values that associated poverty not with lack of material resources but with humility that offset the institutional sins of arrogance and status-conscious wealth.

In northern Italy, David D'Andrea finds that Treviso's charitable institutions reflected more continuity than change from the Middle Ages through the Council of Trent and beyond, although during the sixteenth century, as the local nobility became an ever more closed caste, charitable institutions exhibited a blend of religious inspiration and political patronage. This would then make the charitable institutions of Treviso not altogether different from Catholic ecclesiastical institutions in general, in which spiritual structures doubled as occupational and patronage opportunities. Often these seemingly opposite motivations coexisted peacefully; just as often the opposing demands of piety and property distracted institutions from their charitable missions.

Nicholas Eckstein's study of confraternities, hospitals, and charity in Florence challenges the distinction between secular and sacred in post-1500 poor relief as well, noting that the harsh authoritarian language of sixteenth-century documents was directed to the salvation and not the exclusion of souls. By moving outside the Weberian paradigm, Eckstein notes in particular a shift in emphasis in confraternal focus from corporate and collective beneficence to the spiritual progress of the individual member.

The authors of the next several essays report from the north side of the Alps. Philip Kintner affirms the work of previous scholars of Memmingen by noting that changes in the structure and administration of the local Spital (a truly impressive and comprehensive social institution) coincided with but were not the result of the Reformation, although the author does note that civic administrators asserted total control over lands of this institution that previously had been in ecclesiastical hands. But this process was well underway before Luther's ideas for charitable reform were known. South German Catholic cities, according to Peer Friess's chapter, in some cases since the fourteenth century, had entrusted their charitable institutions to civic rather than ecclesiastical authorities. Medical treatises and local ordinances viewed plague as a medical problem rather than as God's answer to spiritual deficiency. As recent historiography has suggested, Catholic and Protestant territories in the same geographical region showed more similarity than difference in the administration of poor relief.

Timothy Fehler's essay on Emden suggests a balanced middle ground and provides the ideal single test case, since both Lutheranism and Calvinism successively replaced Catholicism. In Emden, not only did many Catholic structures of poor relief, especially the parish, remain serviceable after the establishment of [End Page 634] Lutheranism, but confraternities retained their Catholic...


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pp. 633-635
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Archived 2009
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