chapter  4
45 Pages

Charity

This chapter is not intended as a general history of poverty in the Middle Ages. Volumes have already been written on the poor,1 on charity and poor relief,2 on the religious context of alms and on the causes of poverty in the medieval world.3 Instead, this chapter will focus on one specifi c group of people who may not necessarily always have been among the poor, but who if they were then formed a very special subgroup within the ranks of the poor: the physically impaired, or who for convenience’s sake we tend to call the disabled. It is important to recognise that “many poor people suff ered from disability, but not all disabled people were poor.”4 A case in point is provided by the depiction on a fi fteenth-century panel painting of a tenant farmer who, resting his amputated stump on a peg-leg and leaning on a crutch, proudly watches his farmhand feed the pigs, saying, “I am called Mair with the crutches of Riedee and have many sows and cows (Bin ich genant Mair uf der stelzen von Riedee und han fyl der sawen und kyee).”5 However, those disabled persons who were impoverished brought a specifi c meaning to the medieval concept of poverty. As Miri Rubin remarked, understandings of poverty

are constructed at the intersection of two processes: the process of economic, demographic and social change which refashions areas and forms of need on the one hand, and the cultural perceptions of need as they are translated into idioms of charity and evaluations held by diverse social groups on the other.6