Poor Relief in Reformation England, Germany, and the Netherlands

by Heather R. Darsie**

Attempts at providing poor relief increased in the late 16th century. Some of the more overt changes happened in Elizabethan England, and in the Netherlands and Germany. This is in part due to religious changes.  In this essay, trends in charitable giving and social changes in poor relief due to the Reformation in England, Germany, and the Netherlands are explored.

Poverty worsened in 16th century England and overall, Western Europe, because of the population doubling, the rise and fall of the cloth trade, and the Reformation. Specifically concerning England, the compounding issues of not enough work and the loss of Catholic social relief put pressure on English society’s growing poor population. Despite the shuttering of Catholic establishments during the English Reformation, “The teachings of the Catholic church and the first generation of English Protestant thinkers did not differ significantly with respect to the definition of poverty or the requirement that those able to give alms to the poor should do so, as a spiritual obligation.” The biggest change, it seems, was the gap left by the shuttered religious institutions which provided poor relief.

Poor relief in the sixteenth century finds its roots in Catholic tradition.


Elizabeth I by John Bettes the Younger, c. 1585-1590. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Marjorie K. McIntosh in her article, “Poverty, Charity, and Coercion in Elizabethan England” puts forth her argument that the treatment of the poor and defining of who deserved charity diverged by the late 16th century in England, during the Elizabethan period. In the last decade of the 16th century, England experienced continuing cycles of crop failure, which compounded the problems society was already experiencing due to rapid population growth and a dearth of solid social structures. Those deserving of charitable aid became narrowed to individuals of sound moral character and who were unable, as opposed to perceived as unwilling, to work. McIntosh points out that, “a system of poor relief was evolving that blended voluntary assistance with compulsory taxes,” and that this system, “featured strategies to force good behavior on the poor and to keep the pool for those who qualified as small as possible.” Typically, McIntosh postulates, “help from wealthier people…must have accounted for the great majority of relief provided throughout this period…” While this could be argued as a form of altruistic narcissism, it seems that this sort of giving was more religiously based.

A subtle theme in McInstosh’s journal article circles around the special roles of women in Elizabethan poor relief. McIntosh claims that, “help commonly included women as givers as well as receivers, for assistance often took the form of food or clothing.” A woman facing a difficult situation would go to one of her friends as a discreet source of financial help. McIntosh states that during the late Elizabethan period, “…women’s roles as providers pf charity changed across this period. Women commonly gave private assistance, whether through individual gifts or endowments.” Women were active in charitable assistance, but not in an overt way. They provide things like food and clothing to their less fortunate friends, but not necessarily money.

In response to the growing need of poor relief in Elizabethan society, McIntosh observes in her research that,

“Parliament and the Crown seem to have had limited impact on the poor during the sixteenth century. Local leaders ignored the statutes of the 1530s [related to poor relief]. Parliament did relatively little to address the issues with which villages and towns were grappling until the formation of the Elizabethan Poor Laws of 1598 and 1601, which were merely national extensions of patterns that originated within the local communities.”

Essentially, McIntosh is arguing that, despite the growing need for poor relief due to the population boom and fluctuating wool trade, there was not a lot of attention paid to providing for the poor on a national level until the issue reached critical mass. This could relate to the change in religion toward full-blown Protestantism by the end of the sixteenth century, but this is not strongly argued by McIntosh.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Sermon of St. John, c. 1566, via Wikimedia Commons.

Ilana Krausman Ben-Amos’ monograph, The Culture of Giving: Informal Support and Gift-Exchange in Early Modern England, she considers the role of other social structures in contributing to poor relief such as guilds, the function of inheritances, and public feast-days. Like McIntosh, Ben-Amos considers the function of private gift-giving in providing societal aid, arguing that it continued into the early seventeenth century. However, Ben-Amos points out that researching this topic is difficult because, “systems of offering remain intangible and their record is fragmented or sparse.” Ben-Amos looks at how close social structures, which she describes as “porous,” began within the family and extended outward, such as parents feeling that parental support of children were, “unconditional duties and biblical commands.” Overall, Ben-Amos looks at support that developed and continued outside of the state government with her arguments concerning local (family, neighbor, patron) giving, and relief from social communities such as the parish church or guild houses. A large portion of Ben-Amos’ research focuses on the seventeenth century, as opposed to the sixteenth century, of interest for this historiography.

McIntosh also looks into the ideal that contributing to poor relief by the wealthy provided a, “spiritual reward, not only through the gift itself but through the ongoing prayers of the beneficiaries, just as strong a feature of Protestant almshouses as of Catholic hospitals.” This trend is observed by Nigel Goose and Henk Looijesteijn in their journal article, “Almshouses in England and the Dutch Republic circa 1350-1800: A Comparative Perspective.” Goose and Looijesteijn in part look at trends in almshouses and poor relief in the sixteenth century Dutch Republic, and compare it with similar institutions in England.

Goose and Looijesteijn argue that, ““Welfare regimes in early modern Europe conformed to no simple pattern along denominational lines…” This is in contrast to the research of other historians, as will be discussed infra. The efforts of Protestant-leaning nations such as the Dutch Republic (future Netherlands) follow a similar pattern to that of England, whereas the southern Catholic countries follow a different distinct pattern of response to poor relief in the sixteenth century.

Specifically concerning Dutch poor relief in the sixteenth century when compared to English and the type of welfare provided, “Historians of European social welfare have repeatedly emphasized the unique nature of the English poor law system by the seventeenth century, with its statutory provision and implementation of poor relief financed from taxation.” To that end, Goose and Looijesteijn assert that, “The situation in the Dutch Republic was very different indeed, with private and voluntary donations providing the financial basis of the welfare system, which… was organized on a local, rather than a provincial or national, level.” However, this is effectively the same argument which McIntosh makes about the administration of poor relief in England: despite the issue eventually requiring legal standards, most of the relief was doled out by local parishes. Ben-Amos echoes this too, going a step further and pointing out that guild houses and other social institutions provided some degree of poor relief.

A great deal of Goose’s and Looijesteijn’s article follows the implementation and purpose of almshouses in the Netherlands. Both McIntosh, and Goose and Looijesteijn argue preferences by Dutch and English society to assist the worthy poor, “In the Netherlands… most inhabitants of almshouses seem to have come from the respectable middle and lower middle classes, for whom a place in an almshouse meant an honourable way of avoiding the combination of elderly physical decline and dishonourable public poverty.”  This is identical to the trend in, “ England [where]…most almshouse showed a similar preference for the ‘respectable poor.’” Despite the similarity in who was deemed worthy for poor relief, there was at least one large difference. The major difference in poor relief did not lie in the type of buildings created or used, how relief was administered, or why it was administered, but to which gender.

For example, Goose and Looijesteijn argue, “In the Dutch Republic…an overwhelming majority of the almshouses identified to date were reserved for women: either women who had never married, or women who had been widowed and for a variety of reasons did not, or could not, live with their offspring.” Conversely, “In late medieval to early modern England, the balance was weighted towards men.” This could be due to the original purpose for an almshouse in England, or, as Goose and Looijesteijn postulate, that women were perceived at being better prepared to care for themselves for a longer period of time. In England, almshouses were established for clergy members as early as the twelfth century, slowly converting to almshouses for widows of clergy members after the onslaught of the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century.Out of this historiography, it seems that Goose and Looijesteijn are the only ones to tackle issues of gendered poor relief, other than McIntosh’s assertion about women commonly and discreetly supplying other women in their communities with poor relief in the form of gifts.

Where McIntosh, and Goose and Looijesteijn differ greatly in their findings is who is actually providing the relief in England and why. Converse to McIntosh’s argument that it was mostly churches and local parishes, Goose and Looijesteijn argue that during the 15th and 16th centuries, guilds established almshouses for members of their guilds and widows of the guild members. This seems to support Ben-Amos’ arguments concerning charitable activities in England. Additionally, in England, “charity may have become increasingly channeled through public institutions such as the livery companies, hospitals and the civil parish after the introduction of compulsory rating for the relief of the poor in 1572.” Goose and Looijesteijn’s methodological choice to look at charitable activities amongst local institutions outside of the church produces a different result than McIntosh: the issue of poor relief was responded to earlier in England than the turn of the seventeenth century. The concept of individuals providing poor relief, as argued by McIntosh and Ben-Amos, is somewhat disregarded by Goose and Looijesteijn despite Ben-Amos’ finding that such forms of charitable giving were pervasive even into the late seventeenth century.

Margaret of Parma, Regent of the Low Countries (1559-1567) by Antonis Mor, via Wikimedia Commons.

Goose and Looijesteijn support their argument of an intertwined approach to poor relief in early modern England by asserting that, “…while religious injunctions inspired both clerical and secular charitable giving in England from the early Middle Ages, the relationship between the religious and the secular was far from lost as the two forms of these institutions separated in practice.”  This echoed activity in the Netherlands, where, “the first purpose-built almshouses had a religious as well as a social motive, again serving as a bedehouse to assist their founder’s passage through purgatory.” Some poor relief in both England and the Netherlands had a dual nature, to provide relief to the poor and to save the soul of the donor. As discussed further in the review of Kahl’s arguments for the development of poor relief along religious lines, poor relief as a biblical duty was inherited from the medieval period.

Turning toward the matter of religion, Goose and Looijesteijn find through their research that, “…both in theory and in practice Catholics and Protestants shared similar attitudes towards the poor, as the continued charitable activity in countries such as England and the Dutch Republic so clearly testifies.” However, it appears clear from McIntosh that the burden of poor relief in England shifted heavily to the government by the end of the sixteenth and early seventeenth century. McIntosh, and Goose and Looijestein, are in agreement that, “Rising population in the sixteenth century put pressure on employment and real wages in both countries, deepening the pool of those in need of assistance, particularly during periods of economic dislocation.” While neither article really discusses issues of economic dislocation, perhaps Goose and Looijesteijn are hinting at either seasonal workers or workers whose trade was impacted by developments in other parts of Western Europe.

In an effort to employ the able-bodied poor, “Attempts were…made to force into employment those people who were lazy and refused to work. However, when the institutions created to teach useful employment skills to the poor lost the public’s faith, they evolved into house of correction in which the idle poor were imprisoned for a designated period while forced to work.” In Elizabethan England, the workhouses were put in place to help the “worthy poor” in England, and not individuals from outside the realm.

Sigrun Kahl puts forth the idea that the emergence of three different religions during the Reformation led to the development of three distinct forms of poverty policy. Specifically, Kahl argues that, “The Reformation launched three different denominational traditions of poor relief: a Catholic one in countries like Spain, Italy, and France; a Lutheran one in countries like Denmark, Sweden, and Germany; and a Reformed Protestant one in countries like the Netherlands, England and the United States.” Thus, research concerning German forms of poor relief should more often contrast with research concerning Dutch and English poor relief.

Kahl gives a history of the early modern views on poverty and how to address them which were inherited from the medieval period. Kahl argues that part of this social or cultural inheritance, generally speaking, was that, “Poverty was associated with powerlessness, manual labor, and social problems but all this was outweighed by the glorification of the poor as an image of Christ.” Because of this religious view on the state of the poor being in a sense glorious, Kahl asserts that, “Mediation between the rich and the poor through the church was fundamental to Medieval Christianity.” Additionally, “Prayers from the poor were the most effective way of ensuring entrance to heaven in a world oriented towards the afterlife.” This is similar to Goose and Looijesteijn’s argument, supra, though theirs concerned Dutch practices instead of general Western practices.

Turning specifically to the Reformation era, Kahl points out that, “The context for poor relief reform was urban crisis and increasing poverty,” and that, “The motivation for poor relief reform was born of humanism rather than Protestantism and the work ethic was not ‘Protestant’ but a solely bourgeois phenomenon and part of an emerging capitalist set of attitudes.” In other words, poor relief was not directly religious in nature, or at least, could not be contributed to one sect of religious thought. Discussing changes in German cities specifically, Kahl states,

“One of the most immediate signs of diverging developments [between Reformist and Catholic thought] was the change in municipal edicts on begging: in Lutheran cities, the councils transformed the reactive medieval begging edicts that had negatively regulated begging into active poor relief edicts that formulated a positive responsibility of the emerging secular authorities to care for the poor.”

The main thrust of this portion of Kahl’s argument is that northern, Protestant countries saw a rise in government intervention, whereas southern, Catholic countries augmented the number of religious communities and religious persons available to care for and provide relief to the poor. The rest of Kahl’s argument is supported by research into the role of hospitals, various forms of poor relief, and how those differed along religious lines. Kahl concludes that,

“In countries under Catholic or Reformed Protestant dominance, poor relief was not secularized as early and as comprehensively as in the Lutheran countries, and private charity, families and mutual help remained important sources of support… Countries under Lutheran dominance, in contrast, secularized church property in the course of the Reformation and assigned a positive role to the state early on.”

Lutheran, Germanic countries quickly by comparison involved the state in changing the system of poor relief, whereas Catholic systems remained mostly the same.

Kahl, McIntosh, Ben-Amos, and Goose and Looijesteijn appear to all agree as to the development of poor relief, though all these individuals approach the subject from different angles. Another form of poor relief was that of orphanages, particularly those in Germany. Generally speaking, due to its political governmental structure, Germany went through a great deal of upheaval and instability during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, which culminated in the 30 Years War. With rulers changing and struggles over religious control, orphanages became an important part of poor relief.

Thomas Max Safley’s study on orphanages, Charity and Economy in the Orphanages of Early Modern Augsburg, shows that the orphanages located in Reformation-era Augsburg are important due to their distinction from foundling hospitals. Orphanages housed the abandoned or orphaned children of landed individuals, meaning individuals with money or resources. These children brought another burden with them to the orphanage besides needing care in that they usually had inheritance money or property which needed to be managed by the orphanage’s administrators. In order to support the needs of these orphans, the administrators of the orphanages were, “required to operate successfully in a market-driven economy.” Safely’s argument about how the orphanages functioned within the Augsburg economy is slightly strained. Safely strongly urges throughout the chapters considered for this historiography that capitalism was at play when it came to the training of the orphans, how they were raised, and the type of work they took on to support the orphanages and become successful adults. Safely’s work presents as almost more of an economic history, and the roles of Protestant and Catholic influences are not very prominent despite the time period about which the book is concerned. This could be because the Augsburg Orphanage existed for over seventy-five years, from 1572 to 1648, before becoming a bi-confessional institution. Safely contributes this in part to capitalism.

Augsburg c. 1600, via Wikimedia Commons.

Safely’s Charity and Economy in the Orphanages of Early Modern Augsburg is better supported when read with a second work of Safely’s specifically about the experience of the orphans in Augsburg, argued from a more social view. Part of Safely’s research shows that there was a decline in work for Augsburg’s weavers in the late sixteenth to early seventeenth century. When read together with McIntosh, and Goose and Looijesteijn, it appears that overall there was an economic downturn in cloth manufacture which was experienced by England, the Netherlands, and Germany. Due to economic constraints, children were placed in the orphanages because the parents could not support them financially. Sometimes this was a temporary issue, and sometimes a permanent solution. Sadly, up to forty percent of the children admitted to the Augsburg Orphanage passed away. Throughout Children of the Laboring Poor, Safely repeats portions of his argument from Charity and Economy.

Poor relief was a very real concern in Western Europe, coming keenly into focus after the Reformation swept through England, the Netherlands, and Germany. Genuine attempts were made at addressing each country’s problems. They sometimes failed woefully.

**Please note that this article stems from a something I wrote during my Master’s program. If you are interested in the proper citations (they didn’t copy over well from my Word document), please do not hesitate to contact me.

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Sources & Suggested Reading

  1. Ben-Amos, Ilana Krausman. The Culture of Giving: Informal Support and Gift-exchange in Early Modern England. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
  2. Goose, Nigel, and Henk Looijesteijn. “Almshouses in England and the Dutch Republic circa 1350-1800: A Comparative Perspective.” Journal of Social History45, no. 4 (2012): 1049-073. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41678950.
  3. Kahl, Sigrun. “The Religious Roots of Modern Poverty Policy: Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed Protestant Traditions Compared.” European Journal of Sociology / Archives Européennes De Sociologie / Europäisches Archiv Für Soziologie 46, no. 1 (2005): 91-126. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23998794.
  4. McIntosh, Marjorie K. “Poverty, Charity, and Coercion in Elizabethan England.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History35, no. 3 (2005): 457-79. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3657035.
  5. Safley, Thomas Max. Charity and Economy in the Orphanages of Early Modern Augsburg. Boston: Humanities Press, 1997. Chapters 1, 4, & 8.
  6. Safley, Thomas Max. Children of the Laboring Poor: Expectation and Experience among the Orphans in Early Modern Augsburg. Leiden: Brill, 2005.


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