chapter  4
19 Pages

Charity and poor relief in early modern Italy

WithBrian Pullan

In his excellent account of English poor relief, Paul Slack identified the three pillars of the developing system, about 1600, as the punishment of vagrancy, the provision of work and the introduction of poor rates levied by parishes employed by parliament as instruments of central government. Use of the parish as a unit of secular administration and a counterweight to an excessively centralized regime, made possible the operation of a remarkably uniform and effective system, which extended across a whole country.1 “Only in England,” writes Marjorie McIntosh, “were rates imposed in local communities of all sizes within a national system of poor relief backed by the central government.”2 Wilbur K.Jordan, in his eulogistic studies of private philanthropy in England, once attempted to displace the parish rates from their central position, and to argue that they were invoked only when the charity of individuals had failed.3 Now, however, they seem firmly restored to their throne, with usurpers and pretenders put to flight; parish rates, it appears, were grossly underestimated in Jordan’s flagship volume of 1959, and the contributions of testators greatly overvalued, their aspirations being confused with their achievements.4 Some critics, John Walter among them, have warned trenchantly against a “teleological obsession with the development of administrative schemes” and premature suppositions that charity and informal poor relief had been replaced, as early as the 1590s, by parish rates.5 Rates alone, it is conceded, could not cope with major crises. But seldom are attempts made to deny the importance, even the uniqueness, of a national system based on legally enforceable obligations as well as on moral imperatives to contribute to poor relief.