In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Poverty and Poor Relief

  • Introduction
  • Classic Frameworks

Renaissance and Reformation Poverty and Poor Relief
Wladyslaw Roczniak
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0302


Poverty and the social status associated with it have often been defined by medieval and Renaissance observers objectively as a lack of independence, social as well as economic. A lack of resources combined with an inability to procure them based on social status or health issues created in its victim a state of subservience and dependence on the good will (or lack thereof) of others within the society or community. Of course such interdependence is markedly present in all societal functions for all economic classes; however, in terms of the poor and poverty, it became the most prominent, identifying, and defining element. To the medieval and early modern mind, however, the concepts of poverty simply did not stop at societal and economic definitions, nor could they; the cultural and especially religious dimension was of primary importance in setting up an explanation and a definition of poverty and its functions. The identity of the “poor” as a class that shared a space in the aesthetics of society emerged with the Christianization of the Roman Empire. To the Christian medieval mind the poor formed part and parcel of the established community of Christ; their presence, following the sayings of Jesus, was everlasting, and their purpose enshrined as a means for those with economic means to ensure for themselves the way to heaven by sharing what they had with those who didn’t. Yet the forces of the economic and spiritual alterations of the Renaissance and of the Reformation irrevocably altered this conception for some. Beginning in the 16th century new confessional trends in a variety of European locales saw the poor progressively lose their religious status as spiritual intercessors and begin to be viewed by many from a more socioeconomic prism. This reinvention of their functions and roles unleashed new methodologies and new institutional initiatives which, over the course of three centuries, overwrote many of the defining notions held regarding Poverty and the Poor. It is here, in the interaction of the religious and socioeconomic spheres, that the modern interest in Renaissance and Reformation concepts of charity, the poor, and poor relief in Europe lies.

Classic Frameworks

It is no wonder then that since the late-18th-century birth of economic discourse economists and historians have taken it upon themselves to describe and explain poverty, the poor, and society’s interactions with the poor as a way to illustrate their own societies’ changing and developing attitudes. Regarding economic-centered meta-questions about the systemic causes of poverty, two works besides Karl Marx frame the present discussion. Braudel 1992 is Fernand Braudel’s revised edition of a 1979 all-encompassing classic explanation of capitalism’s creation of wealth and poverty in a changing economic setting, while Wallerstein 2010 is a similarly updated edition of a seminal 1974 exegesis on shifting economic centers and their exploitation of the periphery. Set against them is Weber 2009, originally published in 1905, a perhaps now somewhat outdated account of religion influencing society. Once again, although these offerings are only peripherally relevant to the present discussion in detail, they have formed a background against which most modern discussions are generated.

  • Braudel, Fernand. Civilization and Capitalism, 15th–18th Century. 3 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

    A magisterial, densely descriptive account, originally published in 1979 (New York: Harper & Row), of how extensive networks of international capitalistic exchange in the early modern period affected wealth creation and distribution. Gives answers to questions regarding the economic rise of particular regions or states and the impoverishment of others.

  • Wallerstein, Immanuel. The Modern World System. 4 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.

    Begun and originally published in 1974 (New York: Academic Press), shows the economic interconnectedness of the early modern world in terms of the economic center and its exploitation of the periphery as the reasons for both wealth and poverty generation.

  • Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism: With Other Writings on the Rise of the West. 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    An analysis of novel Protestant socioreligious ideologies as the driving forces engendering capitalism in some areas of Europe, while their lack retarded economic progress in others, thus creating centers of relative wealth and poverty. Although its findings about the “Protestant work ethic” have been economically and sociologically challenged and perhaps overthrown, its concept of religious primacy in motivation of social action is still being discussed.

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