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1 4 Historical Attitudes, Policies, and Practices Introduction Attitudes and practices regarding the early modern poor varied significantly , depending on individual temperament, confession, institutional situation, the relationship one had to the suppliant (i.e., kinship relationship or stranger), and whether or not it was a crisis period, such as after a harvest failure. One’s responses to the poor might also depend on whether one had experienced need in the past, or was anxious about the possibility of needing assistance in the future. Over half the European population were vulnerable to poverty in the case of a crisis, and some 15 percent, the so-called conjunctual poor, fell into poverty (a relative term) at least once in their lives.1 Between 1480 and 1700,official policies, which of course had important effects on public opinion, did gradually move toward a more secular and rationalized approach to the poor. Still, every age is characterized by residual as well as nascent and dominant values. On the one hand, the idea that a sharp distinction obtained between the“legitimate” poor deserving of assistance and the“illegitimate” beggar who needed to be disciplined can already be found in medieval texts. On the other hand, the idea that one must give generously to the poor without inquiring too assiduously about their perceived legitimacy showed remarkable tenacity, surfacing, for example, in Elizabethan homilies written after the harvest failures of the 1590s. European poor relief progressed in an incremental and cumulative manner, with many older charitable practices being retained or reconfigured. Despite the sweeping pronouncements of poor laws passed in the 1520s, there was significant continuity with the past well after the measures were instituted, and there remained considerable opportunity for lay individuals either to dispense charity individually or through collectives such as confraternities . Theater, which was quite capable of articulating marginal positions 1 historical at t it ude s , p ol ic ie s, and practi ces 1 5 and reversing hierarchies, could explore the residual and variable nature of attitudes to the poor, making a beggar as important as a king if only in the fleeting passing of the enacted scene. The relative, fluctuating, and variously defined nature of poverty2 meant that witnessing a beggar or impoverished person onstage could easily elicit a“There but for the grace of God” response, or its contrary: the demonizing “othering” of figures too potentially close to one’s own state for comfort. Biblical, Patristic, and Medieval Views With the advent of print in the late fifteenth century, biblical, patristic , and medieval attitudes toward poverty became more available to sixteenth-century readers than they had been earlier and are therefore especially worth reviewing in our attempt to understand early modern attitudes. Between Jesus’ utterances and the representation of a socialist community in the Acts of the Apostles, the New Testament provides clear if disturbing pronouncements on wealth and poverty—views that have hardly described official church policy since then. In the Gospel of Matthew , according to Lee Palmer Wandel, the pronouncements of Jesus changed the relationship between private property and faith by overturning the Ten Commandments’ protection of private property (“Thou shalt not steal”) with a doctrine not so much of redistributing wealth but of abandoning it altogether.3 It was left to the first Christian church described in the Acts of the Apostles to provide a paradigm for communal ownership—a paradigm to which humanists such as Erasmus and More would call attention. The first hermits of the eastern Mediterranean, like their successors in the extraordinary revival of hermitism between about 1095 and 1150, radically committed to a property-less existence.4 Just as the communitarianism of the Acts of the Apostles can be seen as a corrective to Jesus’ apparent abolition of private property, Benedict’s monastic order can be viewed as moderating radicals such as Simeon Stylites (390–459) by retaining and safeguarding property under the idea of common ownership. Because they wrote significant treatises on the topic that were edited and published in the sixteenth century, the teachings on wealth and poverty of the Greek Fathers are particularly important for their residual 16 chap ter 1 effect in the age of Ruzante and Shakespeare. Clement of Alexandria, St. John Chrysostom, Saint Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Nazianzen passionately advocated for the poor, simultaneously mounting a ferocious attack on the greed and selfishness of the rich. As Michel Mollat has remarked, it was not accidental that these figures mostly lived in cities, such as Constantinople...


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