- Cultures of Charity: Women, Politics, and the Reform of Poor Relief in Renaissance Italy by Nicholas Terpstra
Nicholas Terpstra’s latest monograph continues and develops his long-term interest in the intersections between civic religion, charity, and politics in Renaissance Italy, particularly in the city of Bologna. Terpstra here offers “a story of the rise and fall of an imaginative experiment in social welfare” (283) that occurred in Bologna in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He presents a detailed, perceptive, and profoundly empathetic analysis of the changing landscape of poor relief in the second city of the Papal State.
Terpstra situates his analysis within the more recent historiography of charity in early modern Europe—particularly the work of Brian Pullan, Mary Elizabeth Perry, and Philip Gavitt—that overturned the much older, confessionalized picture of modernizing, effective Protestants and backward-looking, inefficient Catholics. He argues that in sixteenth-century Bologna—a vibrant, dynamic city—a creative class of men and women developed innovative responses to the problems of poor relief. Chief among these interventions was the establishment of several new charitable institutions that focused on mitigating the problems of lifecycle poverty. Such a focus, Terpstra points out, inevitably meant that gender became a central issue in early modern poor relief because lifecycle poverty affected women far more than men. Europe’s homosocial, patriarchal culture cast females as dependents (socially, economically, sexually) and this dependence made them more vulnerable to poverty than males, who could earn more and who required less in terms of sociocultural protection.
Terpstra breaks with the current historiography, however, to argue against any sense of a linear, directional narrative driving the Europe-wide changes in charity during the sixteenth century. He prefers instead to describe the process as an “economics and politics of makeshift” (10, borrowing from Olwen Hufton) that oscillated between the preservation of traditional forms of poor relief and the introduction of novelties; that was haphazard, messy, and incomplete; and that was deeply embedded in the particular sociopolitical and economic context of (in this case) the city of Bologna.
The principal category of analysis that Terpstra deploys throughout the book to demonstrate the makeshift and oscillating nature of reforms is the distinction between “practical charity” and “patronal charity.” These represent, he suggests, [End Page 749] not opposed values but rather the two, very different and distinctive, cultures of charity to which the book’s title alludes. Terpstra demonstrates how these two cultures coexisted and interacted, not only chronologically but also within institutions and even individuals. Practical charity aligned with Tridentine values of austerity and morality but also with the older, medieval concept of misericordia (a sense of embracing compassion encompassing a community) and its exponents focused on helping the poor to help themselves through mutual assistance and self-reliance. Patronal charity aligned instead with an emerging Baroque culture of devotional consumption but also with the medieval value of caritas (charity to friends, family, and clients) and focused on grand, often excessive, acts of welfare by individuals. Behind these two cultures of charity, Terpstra argues, lay two competing ideas about the shape and nature of society: practical charity worked along horizontal lines and strengthened a notion of community as a civic whole, patronal charity worked on pre-existing personal relationships and so reinforced vertical ties in society.
The tension between these two cultures underlay the innovations of the sixteenth century and shaped their outcomes. Through several chapters that examine the process conceptually rather than chronologically, Terpstra examines how new, innovative institutions emerged in sixteenth-century Bologna under the impetus of ideas about practical charity and communal, republican notions of government and society. Principal among these institutions was the Opera Pia dei Poveri Mendicanti’s poorhouse that attempted to provide a solution to lifecycle poverty, which receives the lion’s share of the analysis and discussion. But Terpstra also discusses other new centers of poor relief: the establishment of three separate homes for women (one for wives with abusive husbands, one for...