THE POOR IN THE MIDDLE AGES: An Essay in Social History by Michel Mollat

THE POOR IN THE MIDDLE AGES: An Essay in Social History

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A cogent, pioneering study of a subject that has never received such comprehensive treatment before. Mollat is professor of medieval history at the Sorbonne, and his use of original source material is, to use the old French tag, ""sans peur et sans reproche."" This is particularly important in the study of poverty because, as Mollat notes several times, ""the poor left no records."" One must search in all sorts of out-of-the-way comers to find out the basic facts about their lives. Mollat manages to arrive at interesting facts despite the challenges of the research: the number of poor people increased as the Middle Ages went on, and there was a greater variety of poor by the year 1500 than before. It is observed that any scholar of poverty must leap back and forth continually from the hard facts of research to philosophical interpretations of these facts that give the study meaning. Although Mollat's research is impeccable, it is in the field of interpretation where he is more controversial. Because he is armed with the statistic of increased poverty, there is a slightly negative, sardonic cast to the conclusions, particularly with regard to the religious orders and their fight to help the poor. Just because there were more poor people, according to certain censuses, does not mean that the Church's efforts to help them was a ""failure,"" as Mollat suggests it was. After all, the religious attitude is to address each individual case of suffering, even if huge masses are still untreated: Mother Teresa's work in India would also be termed a failure by Mollat's standards. Apart from the conclusions, there is a great deal of value in this book, expressed often with an aphoristic felicity of phrase. Mo! let notes, for example, that there were uprisings of the poor at ""oddly regular intervals"": the 12th, 14th, and 16th centuries. Perhaps only a French scholar could grasp the existential feeling of the pauper, ""uprooted and alone."" Even the etymologies of the word ""pauper"" are found to be revealing: in Hebrew the word means ""one who did not try to outwit the Lord."" In short, a serious, empathetic work marked by fine handling of diverse sources; only its conclusions may be regarded as tentative.

Pub Date: Nov. 19th, 1986
Publisher: Yale Univ. Press