This paper aims to begin to fill an unfortunate gap in the literature on social welfare in Europe by focusing upon English and Dutch almshouses between the later Middle Ages and the nineteenth century, adopting a comparative perspective. Historians of European social welfare have repeatedly emphasised the unique nature of the English poor law system by the seventeenth century, with its statutory provision and implementation of poor relief financed from taxation, in contrast to the reliance upon private and voluntary donations in the Dutch Republic. Despite this fundamental contrast, an almshouse in England was unlikely to differ fundamentally from an almshouse in the Dutch Republic with regard to its essential characteristics, which suggests that the charitable landscape in both countries had more in common than accepted orthodoxy suggests. The fact that these institutions endured in both countries shows an abiding concern to provide succour to the impotent, elderly (and usually local) poor—across the divide created by both humanist social theory and the Reformation—even as attitudes towards the idle and the dissolute hardened. The similarities between almshouses in the two countries are described, as are a smaller number of contrasts, and possible explanations for both are offered. The analysis presented here is a preliminary one, but is intended to encourage further work on these neglected institutions from a pan-European perspective.


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pp. 1049-1073
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