You’re walking along the street when a beggar approaches you and asks for money. You size up his facial expressions, body language and clothing. Should you give him money? Or buy him a sandwich? If you give him money, will he use it to buy alcohol?
The panhandler, says Kate Crassons, is making a claim of poverty and a claim on your conscience. He is obligating you to make a response: to judge or to suspend judgment, to help or not to help.
Your mixed feelings—skepticism, anxiety, a desire to help—would be familiar to anyone living in England half a millennium ago, says Crassons, an associate professor of English whose first book, The Claims of Poverty: Literature, Culture and Ideology in Late Medieval England, was published last year by the University of Notre Dame Press.
Claims examines the conflicting attitudes toward poverty that emerged in the wake of the Bubonic Plague in the mid-1300s. The epidemic killed half of England’s peasantry, but the resulting labor shortage allowed survivors to charge more for their services and in some cases to obtain abandoned property. This relative prosperity alarmed the aristocracy, says Crassons.
“The high demand for labor allowed workers to move if the lord wouldn’t pay what they wanted. The elite sought to keep peasants in their place. They passed laws capping wages at pre-plague levels and prohibiting peasants from severing fidelity bonds with lords. They said the laws were necessary because able-bodied people were refusing to work.
Educated friars soliciting alms
“The elite thus projected onto the peasants an image of laziness that was false for the most part. This continues to exist—think of the dismissal of modern welfare recipients as shirkers.”
As poverty was acquiring a stigma, it was being claimed as a badge by friars who said they were inspired by Jesus and St. Francis of Asisi.
“These religious orders of men exploded across Europe after the plague,” says Crassons. “Unlike monks, who were self-sufficient and lived in seclusion, the friars begged and lived in cities. They rose in popularity. But people began to object when they noticed the friars had books and robes and were educated. The secular clergy became angry with the friars for performing pastoral duties and taking their income. They accused the friars of being lazy and falsely claiming poverty.
“So you have a real backlash against poverty from two spheres.”
The palpable presence of Matthew 25
Crassons spends much of Claims examining medieval manuscripts—books, poems, sermons, plays. These include the spiritual autobiography of Margery Kempe, who reported visions of Jesus, and the records of the biblically themed theatrical productions that labor guilds performed on wagons in cities.
Literary analysis, she says, is uniquely qualified to shed light on poverty.
“Literary texts, with their focus on representation and interpretation, help us understand why poverty is so important historically.
“Poverty was more palpable in the culture of the Middle Ages. The desire for salvation, the nearness of death, and the question of how to respond to the poor carried much more ethical weight then. Think of Matthew 25—if you see Jesus in the guise of the poor and deny him, you’re doomed to hell. But if you give to a false beggar, you commit an injustice by perpetuating a fraud.
“Times have changed but we are not yet so sophisticated that we can say we have overcome poverty and are enlightened.”
Photo by Douglas Benedict