Medieval Paris

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Surviving Poverty in Medieval Paris: Gender, Ideology, and the Daily Lives of the Poor
A take on Surviving Poverty in Medieval Paris Gender, Ideology, and the Daily Lives of the Poor by Sharon Farmer.

Medieval Paris was a service economy thanks to its large concentration of wealth. Wealthy residents maintained large households in excess of 100 servants, while those extremely wealthy, such as the Counts of Artois and Toulouse and the Duke of Burgundy, employed servants in the several hundreds (16). Even lower, working class, non-propertied households had the possibility of maintaining their own servant or two (154). Wealthy Parisians created an appetite for grand homes, fine tableware, elaborate tapestries, luxurious clothing, and illuminated manuscripts that extended throughout Western Europe (17). This created a labor market, specifically in Paris and the surrounding areas in which immigrants from places hundreds of miles away, such as Brittany, Normandy, Picardy and Pas-de-Calais, even as far as England, came to secure work (19). In a time when most people did not venture more than twenty-five miles away from home during their entire lives, this was a huge deal. Sharon Farmer, in her book Surviving Poverty in Medieval Paris, uses the manuscripts from the Miracles of Saint Louis to explain how the Church handled urban poverty, how the Church determined gender and class roles, and groups of people came together to offer legitimate support to others.

According to the Paris tax estimate of 1292, the laboring and non-laboring poor made up half of Paris’s population, with ten percent qualifying as the begging poor (32-3). Begging was considered a way to earn your keep. In fact, at the Quinze-Vingts, a hospice for the blind, it was expected for its residents to earn their keep by begging (89). In some cases there seems to be proof that begging was possibly more lucrative than working. Many wives begged in order to supplement their husband’s laboring wages (63). Educated men imagined beggars making enough money to rise amongst the social hierarchy (63). The elite went as far as to providing charity or alms by cash charitable disbursements at funerals, with a low end of attending poor being 4,800 with upwards of 20,000 poor prepared to receive funds (33). Particularly, the act of distributing cash to the poor at a funeral seems more like an attempt to show off wealth. There definitely seems to be a “what’s in it for me” mentality when it came to charity. In another instance, Farmer writes of members of the Bourgeois directing their money to promising boys, sending a majority of their charitable donations to colleges for students, in hopes of bringing forth a new generation of men, not women, to contribute to the prosperity of Paris in Commercial or Legal professions (83). It is also noted that many contributed funds in hopes of helping their own families by way of preferential treatment (85). As far as the extent of charity, Parisians felt there was a concern for both male and female youths, and that of elderly or mature women though municipal policies and charities, though charity for men of any age is not specifically mentioned other than help with education (81).

In medieval society, the Church determined the moral standards by which a person lived. Latin Christian society took gender distinction very seriously and divided the expectations of males and females accordingly. Men were meant for productive labor and women were meant for reproductive labor, meaning domesticity (39). Clerical attitudes towards women stemmed from Genesis 2:18. The understanding that women were secondary and therefore hierarchically inferior to men (113). Not only is there a great distinction between males and females, but those of different classes. Propertied individuals for example, whether male or female, were considered to be stronger in virtue and better ability to control their sexual appetites (42). In men, there was a stronger association with the body and less with things pertaining to the soul with the male working poor than that of the elite men (47). Women were considered sexual in nature and the class difference is seen in the variance of its nature. In Humbert’s sermon literature it is shown that among the elite, women were thought to corrupt their husbands to sin (108). However, there is no mention of a propertied woman’s sexuality or sexual misbehavior. And unlike an elite woman’s love, which was considered spiritual and consensual, a lower-status woman’s love was treated as purely sexual (107). Women and their sexual influence on men seemed to be a hot topic of the time. Interestingly, women were considered negative influences on men across the board and marital status was essential to the identification of women (106,118). Jacques de Virty associated women with animals and recommended the most brutal punishments for them (116).  All three clerics agreed that single women by design threatened households in ways male servants did not (117). In fact, the only category of single women to be considered morally acceptable was that of the maid servant (115).

There are two different support groups that appear in Farmer’s book, they include women in general and relationships between masters and apprentices. Parisian women exceeded the capacity of the institutions created to meet their needs (139). This led to a predominance of networks dominated by women to help women, which presented itself well into the 20th Century (158). Parisian tax assessments confirm non-economically motivated female clustering (162). This may likely be a ramification of uncloistered semireligious women being persecuted by the church (145). Unlike most cities during the time, the concentration of women in Paris was great, to the point that Paris had five female guilds between 1261 and 1271 (95). Though the guilds were not quite the same as those provided to men, they helped to offer support. For the younger crowd, the non-elite provided better care in most cases, and Farmer notes that the generosity by modest craftsman was seen to accede that of the Bourgeois (100, 104). So when young people, more so males, left home as early as eight, sometimes to replace a non-existent, or insufficient home life, we see that such moves may have been more beneficial (75). Documentation proves that in these type cases apprentices were considered family, and especially in cases where there were no children, apprentices became heirs (97). Like a traditional family unit, corporal punishment was used as a means of reinforcing the learning process, in addition to the enforcement of morality and was expected (78, 96). Farmer notes that young females were less likely to leave home until of marriageable age, however it remains undetermined if that is due to the idea of maintaining virtue or the need for domestic help within the home (154).

Surviving Poverty in Medieval Paris punctuates how common and accepted poverty was, in some cases it seems perpetuated by the Bourgeois and the Church. Farmer’s material for the book is directly related to the Church and continuously emphasizes the Latin Church’s ability to determine and uphold social standards and acceptability in the Middle Ages. Lastly, the book shows how society came together to help those less fortunate than themselves. It seems that some things don’t change. All three of these discussions could be had today, just with different players.

Source: Farmer, Sharon A. Surviving Poverty in Medieval Paris Gender, Ideology, and the Daily Lives of the Poor. Conjunctions of Religion & Power in the Medieval past. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2002.

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