Idealizing the medieval era is a trap a lot of people fall into. It’s not a new trap, either. One sees it as much with romantics and pre-Raphaelites as with contemporary theologians of a particular stripe, and every shade of reminiscer in between. I probably don’t need to go into detail to remark upon all the things about the medieval period that were not so great. Come see the violence inherent in the system, etc.
Nonetheless there are some interesting features of medieval history which can shed a little light on how we relate to, say, what we now call ‘welfare.’ The typical conservative narrative is that the state should have little to no role in handling welfare because it’s a coercive tool, and that churches and communities should rather be responsible for caring for people who are struggling in some way. This project imagines a kind of voluntary commitment to a tiny local welfare regime on behalf of individual churches and communities; that is, for this to work, everyone would have to personally and freely commit to donating money to whatever organ they’d designated to caring for the destitute, and hope that it amounted to enough.
High hopes for the ‘man is irrecoverably depraved’ crowd. One question is: does that kind of regime have successful precedent? You can definitely create totally voluntary systems, there’s no question about that; the question is just: do they actually work? And further, given that the conservative mission is all about, well, conserving things from the past, we could equally ask: have the welfare regimes of the past reflected this voluntary ordering?
Here’s where medieval Europe gets interesting. For one, the Church absolutely could force you to pay taxes, and did, with gusto. Professor Thomas Pink, in his paper “Suarez and Bellarmine on the Church as Coercive Lawgiver”:
“At the heart of the canonical system, as understood by the Church, is the sacrament of baptism. Baptism, which all Christians share, conveys divine grace and gives membership of the Church. In the canonical system, understood as a system of obligatory law, in conveying Church membership, baptism also subjects the baptized to ecclesiastical jurisdiction, and brings with it obligations specifically to the Church, which the Church can then legally enforce. In particular, baptism brings with it an obligation to faith – to belief in the revelation to which the Church bears witness – which is enforced through the canon law forbidding heresy and apostasy [...]
Enforcement of the canon law on heresy, as of canon law on other matters, historically involved not just the Church, but also the Christian state. But this involvement of the state was understood by the Church of Hobbes’s time not as the state’s voluntary cooperation under its own authority, but as fulfilling an obligation on the state to enforce the Church’s authority. Christian rulers were bound by their own baptism not only to meet canonical obligations themselves, but to help enforce them on their baptized subjects.”
Voluntariness here takes on an interesting valence. In the premodern context, before the liberal enlightenment, it seems the obligations of faith were taken pretty seriously by the state. (This is, in fact, what a lot of enlightenment figures spend their time complaining about, and not without good reason in many cases. But to limit us to our investigation, this is about whether welfare regimes based on voluntary contribution have existed, are native to the Christian tradition, have been especially effective, etc.) What this means is both that participation in ecclesiastic forms of contribution (e.g. tithes) wasn’t remotely ‘voluntary’ in the sense that, in modern times, you can just bail out on church and tithing and the offering plate and get away with it.
So with this dim view of voluntary participation in matters of faithful obligation, how were the poor cared for in the medieval era? It was a long period. But Of the 12th – 14th centuries, Professor John Gilchrist writes:
“The economic revolution of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries created new problems, involving proportionately larger numbers than previously. Also, and this fact is often overlooked, the early Church’s provision for poor-relief* had been radically upset. The ancient system no longer held.[...] The papacy circumvented the problem in terms of ecclesiastical administration by encouraging the parish system, and it used the same foundation to provide poor-relief during the rest of the Middle Ages. In addition there was the charitable work of the various monastic orders and houses and of the religious guilds who tithed their income for that purpose. A useful source of income came from the restitution of ill-gotten gains, the incerta of the usurer, as well as of excessive profits made from trade. These various sources of income meant the thirteenth century had solved the problem of its poor. Nor was this type of relief regarded by the recipient as charity; instead he treated it the way that we treat state maintenance today.”
So sources of Church funding for what amounted to medieval welfare regimes were as follows: tithes; extractions from usurers (people who charged interest on loans) and those with excessive profits; and the charitable contributions of religious orders. As for the *asterisk, what do we mean by the ‘early Church provision for poor-relief’? By this we mean, surprise, a disorganized and strictly voluntary regime. “In practice the early Church as a body, and Christians individually, recognized their obligation to provide for the poor,” Gilchrist writes, and “in the primitive Church episcopal and private charity sufficed.” But with the economic innovations of the medieval period, the number of indigent poor grew, and between widening inequality, geographic distribution, and population size, private and voluntary support methods could no longer be sustained. This is a condition which, with some seven billion people on earth, we have not recovered from. The medieval church coped with those revenues listed above, which Professor Brian Tierney details:
“These revenues came from three main sources: income from the land with which the Church was endowed; the oblations or offerings of people (in theory voluntary but in practice often fixed by custom for occasions like baptisms, marriages, and funerals); and, most important, the tithe, which was a tax of 10 percent on the produce of each parishioner.”
The tithe was, Tierney confirms, “a form of compulsory ecclesiastical taxation.” You couldn’t just not tithe; the Church would get it out of you somehow, and even had specific statutes related to methods of tithing which fit it into the schema of secular taxation.* The state, too, patronized Church institutions that rendered welfare-esque projects to the public; in this way, your tax dollars absolutely supported the medieval welfare state. And as Pink notes, this wasn’t optional, it was just more circuitous than current taxation systems that support welfare regimes.
A primary source: Constitution 54 of the Twelfth General Council: Lateran IV (1215):
“Tithes must be paid before the deduction of taxes. [...] But since the Lord, as a sign of His universal dominion, formerly reserved tithes to Himself by a special title, we, wishing to protect the churches against loss and souls from danger, decree that by the prerogative of general dominion the payment of tithes precedes the payment of taxes and other dues, or at least they to whom the taxes and other dues are paid before deduction for tithes, should be compelled by ecclesiastical censure to pay the tithes to the churches to which they are rightfully due, for property passes with its obligations.”
Ecclesiastical courts were no joke during the middle ages — they even heard, prosecuted, and sentenced criminal cases (largely infanticide, interestingly enough, according to the work of R.H. Helmholz.) So the warning that property comes with obligations shouldn’t be understood to be left off at mere persuasion; the implication is that this tax is compulsory, like all other taxes one is due to pay, and should take precedent due to the origin of its institution. This will all seem like a very narrow point of order I’m sure, and it is; but the point is that to fantasize about a Christian welfare regime that was totally voluntary and very effective is to gloss over the complicated relations between the medieval state and church and to severely underestimate the degree to which the medieval church could institute coercion.