Saturday, October 10, 2015

Shadows In A Timeless Myth Presents The Charitable Works of Ladies In Medieval Times

In the days preceding the poor law—that is, before the dissolution of the monasteries—charity to the poor was regarded in much the same light as hospitality among equals. Just as it was an unwritten law that strangers on all occasions must be entertained, so it was an accepted rule of life for the wealthy to support their poor neighbours with doles in money and in kind. The monasteries were the great dispensers of alms; but every nobleman’s or gentleman’s house had also a number of poor who looked to it for support. The feudal system was in a great measure responsible for this feeling of dependence. Nobody under that system stood alone. The poor were bound to the soil, and their lives were inextricably woven—not always for their good—into the lives of those above them. With the dispensation of doles and the care of the poor the ladies in the households of the nobility were much concerned. It was the business of the mistress to see that the sick were cared for, the needy visited, and that the aged had their wants supplied. Charity was less far-reaching, and had no pretence at organization; it was a part of domestic life, not an outside business to be taken up and laid down at will. What is now done by means of paid officials was then all accomplished by the donors themselves. The charity which now passes through numerous channels before it reaches the recipient went then by a comparatively direct route.

Great families sometimes marked the Church festivals by special almsgiving, and would celebrate marriage anniversaries in the same way. This was the custom in the family of Lord William Howard at Naworth Castle. The giving away of money at other times seems to have been rather spasmodic. The steward of the Howard family frequently records: “To my Lady to give away 20/-.” Besides what was dispensed in that way, there were lists of doles to the poor, such as sixpence to a poor woman; sixpence to a poor leper boy; “To the poor at Armathwate 6d.” (which shows how much more sixpence was worth then); “To the pore at Carlyle 1/6.” There was giving at funerals too; the steward records, “Bestowed in bread and beer at the buriall of the plumber 5/-,” among the extraordinary payments; where we also find items for shoemending recorded, such as, “Mending a pair of shoes 4d.” It was customary for a person who had any property at all to leave a sum of money to be given to the poor on the day of his or her burial. Thus Mrs. Susannah Eyre, a widow of substantial means who lived in the seventeenth century, left twopence a piece for the poor who should attend her funeral, besides a bequest of goods and chattels to be distributed among the poor of specified districts.

Great ladies usually recognized their duties among the poor, not only by giving doles, but by founding almshouses. There were, probably, not many who actually maintained a number of poor within their own walls like Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond. This celebrated lady used to maintain twelve poor people under her roof when she retired to her manor of Woking, where Dr. John Fisher acted as her confessor and almoner.

Nearly every lady of distinction did something of a permanent nature for the relief of the poor. The famous Bess of Hardwick, in the midst of her building of palaces, did not forget to erect and liberally endow an almshouse for the poor at Derby. The Countess of Pembroke not only built an almshouse, but procured a patent by which it was turned into a corporation. Various are the charities bequeathed by noble ladies in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries for the relief of the poor. Lady Gresham in 1560 left tenements in the city, the rents of which were to be used for the poor, partly in money and partly in coals. Mrs. Frances Clark left £200 to the Skinners’ Company to pay £10 a year for the poor of St. Thomas’s, Southwark. Dame Isabell Gray, of Ogle Castle, Northumberland, left a sum of money for the poor, to be given at the day of her burial. Instances might be multiplied, such as the bequest of Lady Middleton in 1645, of Viscountess Conway in 1637, of Lady Mico in 1670, of Mrs. Ridley in 1716. Money that is now given to societies was then left to individuals.

The care of the poor from the days of Dorcas downwards has always been deemed women’s special work, but it has been largely controlled by the church. In olden times a great lady would choose for her almoner a monk, or at least a priest. The Church has endeavoured to maintain its authority in this respect down to the present day. A large portion of the ancient endowments and funds for the relief of the poor is in its hands. Great ladies and women in all ranks still frequently allow their charities to be filtered through the medium of the Church. The visiting of the poor is carried on under ecclesiastical guidance. The Church in modern times has striven to become the fountain and head of all benevolence, and, as a great organized institution, discourages outside efforts. Women in country districts dispense most of their charity under the direction of the priest, except where there happens to be a great lady who chooses to assert her independence, and is powerful enough to act alone.

In large towns, the whole social life being so complex, there is more scope for individuality in work. The Church is less dominant, being brought into rivalry with lay organizations. But in secular work there is a tendency for women to run in a groove. The immense gain that accrues from combination in work, the pernicious effects of indiscriminate charity, and the impossibility of dealing with a huge floating population of indigent persons except by well-organized methods, have a tendency to convert hundreds of women workers into mere automata, obeying the behests of some central authority.

The whole conception of almsgiving has changed. In the Middle Ages, and for a considerable period after, it was regarded as a soul-saving process, of much the same value as saying masses or practising mortifications. Sovereigns were frequently expected to honour the festivals of the saints by entertaining immense numbers of indigent persons, and the royal munificence was often severely taxed. That a woman should be bountiful to the poor, according to her means, was a cardinal virtue which ranked with truth and chastity.

The support of the poor has now become a social rather than a personal obligation. It has been converted from a pious duty into a State practice. The religious element, in spite of the influence of the Church, has much diminished. Charity still covers some of our sins, but not the multitude it was wont to envelop. Souls are no longer saved by a distribution of loaves and blankets, or weekly doles to the poor. The element of personal service, which was once thought essential, has also faded into comparative insignificance. Charity may be done by deputy, by a stroke of the pen. It cannot, of course, be supposed that great ladies in former times did not exercise a good deal of benevolence by indirect means; but it may be affirmed that a mediæval gentlewoman who did not perform some personal office for the relief of the poor, would have been severely censured for her neglect and impiety unless she silenced the priests by exceptionally large gifts. Now a lady may walk through life unrebuked, though she has never with her own hands performed a single act of charity.

In former days noble ladies—that is, those of a pious disposition—occupied themselves largely in making garments for the poor. Queens, princesses, and ladies of rank would toil for hours at a time, and give up a portion of each day, to the conversion of coarse cloth into suitable apparel for their humble neighbours, who counted upon this charity. Each lady, assisted possibly by her maids, provided for the wants of those who were nearest at hand. Needlework, which since the introduction of machinery has fallen to a lower level of repute, was formerly the occupation most highly esteemed among women. It was not only a duty, but a pious exercise. While some salved their consciences with elaborate embroidery for church purposes, others were contented to plod along the homely seam, to fashion smocks and cloaks for the toilers, and bed-linen and blankets for the sick.

In the present century needlework has received an impetus from the formation of gilds and societies. Nearly all the work for the poor is done in this associated manner. The workers, instead of distributing their productions personally, send them more often to some centre to be dispensed in an organized fashion. It is curious to note how, in spite of the invention of the sewing-machine, the women of the middle classes cling to the old methods. A dozen to twenty ladies will meet together at regular intervals for four or five hours to accomplish what a quarter of their number could do with machines in a tithe of the time. If working parties had no other object than the ostensible one of providing raiment for the poor, or clothing savages, they would not continue to flourish.

In olden times great ladies sat in their tapestried chambers, toiling painfully to convert the coarse cloth spun in their own households into smocks and gowns for dwellers in the windowless, smoke-begrimed hovels of the neighbouring hamlets. The great ladies of the present day, from their cosy boudoirs, issue schemes for the enrolment of women all over the country into gilds and societies for providing clothing for the poor. Instead of working singly, they co-operate. The names of H.R.H. Princess Henry of Battenberg, H.R.H. the Duchess of Teck, and Lady Wolverton will occur readily as leaders of needlework gilds.

The articles made by these gilds are sent to the clergy for distribution among their poor parishioners, to homes and hospitals, even to prisons. There are many schools for girls of the educated classes where a portion of time is set apart for needlework for the poor, the aim being twofold: to teach the girls how to work, and to cultivate the spirit of service. The old customs are being revived in a different dress. People who are afraid that the ways of our ancestors are quite forgotten and despised in the whirl of new notions, may take comfort from the thought of how much attention is given to the serious study of homely duties. Science has been introduced into the domestic arts. The same things are being done, but in better ways. This is specially true with regard to philanthropy. Almsgiving, which was once regarded as a religious duty, has now become a positive evil. Society as now constituted, far from benefiting, suffers much from any attempt to return to the old forms of benevolence. Weekly doles of bread, and the flinging of coppers to beggars in the street, help to dislocate the social machinery. In the innumerable channels which modern charity has found for itself, the aim is to secure the independence of the recipients. Formerly, almsgiving had a double object—to benefit the soul of the donor as well as contribute to the welfare of the poor. At the present day, almsgiving, or the more cautious benevolence which has taken its place, is single in purpose, and has for its sole end the well-being of the beneficiary.

Compiled from sources in the public domain.

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