Charity and Welfare: Hospitals and the Poor in Medieval Catalonia

By McCrank, Lawrence J. | The Catholic Historical Review, July 1999 | Go to article overview

Charity and Welfare: Hospitals and the Poor in Medieval Catalonia


McCrank, Lawrence J., The Catholic Historical Review


Charity and Welfare: Hospitals and the Poor in Medieval Catalonia. By James William Brodman. [The Middle Ages Series.] (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.1998. Pp. xv, 229. $39.95.)

This thoughtful and well written book about public health and hospitals, social welfare, charities, and poor people in the Middle Ages focuses on Arago-- Catalunya in northeastern Spain, primarily on Barcelona but extending south to Valencia as well, from the earliest documentation in the late tenth century through more plentiful records in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Although ostensibly attempting a broad, comparative sweep in the style of New Social History rather than old-style institutional histories in local and regional studies, the institutions still dominate rather than poor people who remain largely veiled behind their poverty with the usual anonymity. But donors emerge, and so too the occasional spokesman for the poor Thinking about so cial problems and responses, and charity as both a Christian social action and secular duty, are all addressed as Brodman explains how organized social welfare evolved in medieval Catalunya. Organizational means to aid the poor are delineated with local and regional variance, and in this book the human side of medieval welfare takes precedence over finances. In this way the study advances well beyond institutional histories or merely a synthesis of prior work. It is a welcome contribution.

A decade in the making, this book builds upon the author's previous contributions in numerous articles and a book deriving from a dissertation undertaken at the University of Virginia with Charles J. Bishko. This treated another form of charity during the era of the Reconquista, namely, the ransoming of Christian captives from Muslim strongholds by the Redemptorists. Both rely on explorations in the Catalan archives and continued mining of parchments in the Archivo de la Corona de Aragon, but in this recent book such primary sources are not clearly delineated. The extensive notes (55 pages for 143 pages of text) indicate a greater reliance on published documents and a thorough integration of the secondary literature. The bibliography cites nearly 300 works, integrating documentary editions with secondary sources. Few relevant narrative sources survive from their earlier periods; later one has such commentators as Fransec Eiximenis to complement foundation charters, donations, and the like. A modest but adequate index is provided, plus one appendix listing nearly eighty welfare institutions in chronological order of their establishment (9951495), locality, their type or clientele, and the name of the founder. They range from general hospitals, alms houses, and shelters associated with cathedral chapters and orders dedicated to charity, to specialty relief agencies catering to women and children, orphans, the urban poor, travelers, lepers, the elderly, the insane, and some specializing in care for Jews and minorities.

Brodman lays out his book in the preface more than just in the table of contents. Chapters progress rationally from a general consideration of poverty, with distinctions between voluntary and involuntary poverty, and in the latter between classes of paupers, kinds of charity, and the growth from individual intentions and gratuitous acts to organized social welfare targeted at recognized groups of needy people. Chapters 2-3 define the basic modes of assistance and the "basic caritative infrastructure" that developed, including the detail of establishments which were in their origins often tentative in nature and transitory. …

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