The other night I was dozing through a television programme called ‘Inside the Medieval Mind’ in which Professor Robert Bartlett examined the extreme barbarity of English society in the fourteenth century.
All of a sudden, my attention was caught by an anecdote about Alice Chaucer (1404-75), granddaughter of Geoffrey Chaucer (of Canterbury Tales fame) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alice_de_la_Pole
Two things were interesting about her:
i) The Chaucers were one of the first recorded examples of a family able to rise out of its social class. Whilst her grandfather’s ancestors were tradesmen and wine-merchants, Alice mixed in the highest circles of society and became the Duchess of Suffolk
ii) she gave alms to the poor and was known to have provided charitable housing.
I thought I’d better check up a bit on charity in Medieval England. During Alice Chaucer’s time, apparently, it was permitted for charitable donors to entrust property, usually to the church or other public authorities, for charitable purposes. These endowments were often part of complicated arrangements involving the Crown, noble families, the church, municipal bodies, gilds and other public entities through which poverty, dependency, and other needs were attended to.
On a smaller scale, neighbourly charity also existed. There is a story about a sixteenth century minstrel from Tamworth who was helped by his neighbours after being robbed of all his savings. They urged him to brew some ale and then came together to buy it off him and drink together in an event known as a ‘help-ale.’ Apparently he raised over £5. Great idea!
Prior to the sixteenth century, ‘prostitutes, criminals, and other street people that lived only at society's fringe’ were blamed for their ‘idleness and dissolute behaviour’. Those who received charitable assistance did not represent any particular economic group or class because most people were seriously poor. Instead, charity focused on travellers and those whose distress was of a temporary and transient nature.
After that time, society started to become more organised in assisting the lives of the ‘marginalized poor’. Individuals, as well as corporate groups, increasingly began to discriminate in the disbursement of charity, justified by the notion that resources were ‘insufficient to succour all’ (ring a bell?). Therefore, ‘maidens, children, widows, relatives, and neighbours’ were preferred to ‘vagrants, prostitutes, and able-bodied idlers’. These distinctions clearly contained the kernel of a ‘social policy’.
All this sounds remarkably familiar and seems to put today’s issues into context. Big Society and the recession are just tiny recurring specs on the relentlessly unfurling banner of social history.
What is so amazing and reassuring is that the human spirit of charity pervades throughout. Even in the most barbaric times.