Society at the time of Saint Vincent de Paul (V)

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoAt the time of Vincent de PaulLeave a Comment

Author: José María Ibáñez, C.M. · Year of first publication: 2008 · Source: Third Asian Vincentian Institute (Mother House, Paris, September-December 2006).
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Attitudes and behaviour towards poor people

The mental and social attitudes towards poor people on the part of those living in 17th century society at times forgot and at other times perceived the paradoxical reconciliation of the scandal of the experience of misery (real poverty) and the spiritual esteem of poverty (the virtue introduced in Christian life).

Unfortunately, in their attitudes and behaviour, individuals in society at the time of Vincent de Paul often dissociated poverty—as a spiritual notion and psychological reality — from its socio-economic context. From this arose the contradiction in this society between the proclamation of the “eminent dignity of poor persons” and the decision by royal decree of “confinement of poor persons.” Such a contradiction was rooted in the fact of having substituted the Gospel criteria of service of poor persons with the labor bargaining of the era, oriented towards creating a national economy.1 The other basis was the existence of moral and religious criteria of a repressive and moralistic nature2 developed to “regulate” and “govern” the life of poor persons who were on the margins of all social and religious rule. These criteria and attitudes explain the fact that certain works and charitable activities with a Gospel flavour to benefit poor persons were transformed into repressive operations, having a policy of control that led to the “con­finement of poor persons” at the General Hospital. This confinement was decreed by a royal edict on April 27, 1656.

This edict set up and regulated the temporal and spiritual or­ganization of the hospital. The execution of this edict was carried out with zeal by a company of archers. One can understand perfectly that this process was not at all appreciated by Vincent de Paul who judged it to be not only impossible, but inhumane.3

In reality, the General Hospital was an inhumane place because it was closed and separated. This separation signified that poor people were considered to be asocial elements. As such, they were confined like other asocial beings: prostitutes, those with mental illnesses, prodigal children. All those who lived in contradiction to good order, or who were involved in “criminal activities” or shameful ones, created a danger for the general system and were part of this marginalized population that had to be locked away. Poor people belonged to this world. They were locked away in order to be punished, corrected, prepared for reintegration into society, obliging them to work and satisfy the norms of the Church.4

This legislation which affected vagabonds and beggars as well as poor people, reducing them to misery through unemployment and food shortages, had a repressive characteristic. Could the life of idleness or depravity that vagabonds and beggars led justify this repression? The legislative texts as well as the supporters of confinement forgot to analyze the causes of pauperism. In forgetting this, society was prevented from distinguishing the differences. The consequence of this lack of analysis was serious: the condemnation all together and without distinction of the peasant, the worker, the artisan impoverished by socio-economic crises, as well as the beggar and vagabond who made a career out of begging and stealing. The centralized State with absolute power ignored or seemed to ignore the need to respond to the socio­economic effects by addressing the causes and not by moralistic and oppressive measures. It was not a question of preserving the clear consciences of the parliamentarians and bourgeois, but of creating a solution to the economic situation of the people at the lowest level of society. The abstraction of the culture and moral rigor of the classical era had an influence and made a significant impact in the royal decision of confinement of poor people.

This desire to enclose poor people was sustained by the motives to do it and by a movement of ideas. At the same time, however, the application of this rigorous legislation by royal decree was met by opposition and resistance by a segment of public opinion.5 Among them, in a very sensitive and concrete way, were simple people with very clear and evangelical spirits. Vincent de Paul was one of them. “The poor people who do not know where to go or what to do, who are already suffering and who become more numerous each day, they are my burden and my sorrow.”6 For having listened to the cry of these poor persons, for having understood that their cause was God’s cause, for having committed and risked his life and consecrated it to the very end to the service of these unfortunate ones, roaming in misery, these poor persons were grateful to him and made him a great human being and Christian saint. But others will speak to you about all of that.


  1. Richelieu summed up perfectly this theory in a note written in 1625, entitled Pauvres enfermes• “Since many vagabonds and idle people, instead of working to earn a living, given the fact that they are able to work, and that it is their duty, are given to asking and begging, taking the bread that is due the needy and sick poor people, this inconveniences the citizens and deprives the public of the service they could receive from their work, we desire that in all the cities of the kingdom there be established a statute and a rule for poor persons, such that not only those in the cities, but also those in surrounding areas be confined and fed, and that the able-bodied be employed in public works”: D.L.M. Avenel, Op. cit., t.II, pp. 180-181.
  2. Cf. Memoires o’es pauvres qu’on appelle enfermes, 1612in L. Cimbert-F. Danjou, Archives curieuses de l’histoire depuis Louis XI jusqu’a Luo/s XVIII (Paris, 1837), 27 vol., t. XV, p. 243-244; Memo/re concernant les Pauvres qu’on arpelle enfermes, 1618: Ibid., p. 251­252; Edit du roy portant etablissement de l’Hopital general, 27 avrll 1656, in Code de l’Hopital General de Paris (Paris, 1876), pp. 261-274.
  3. Cf. L Robineau, Remarques sur les actions et paroles du feu monsieur Vincent man. pp. 151-153. These manuscript pages were published in Jose-Maria Ibanez, Vincent de Paul et les pauvres de son temps (Salamanque, 1977), pp. 359-360; cf. also Jose-Maria Ibanez, Vincent de Paul, realisme et incarnation (Salamanque, 1982), p. 232, note 32.
  4. Cf. A. Codeau, Discours sur l’etablissement de l´Hôpital Cenéral (Paris, 1657), pp. 45-46, 49.
  5. Cf. Ibid., pp. 27-77.
  6. Letter of Vincent de Paul to Father Almeras, October 8, 1649, in P Collet, La vie de faint Vincent de Pau/(Nancy, 1748), 2 vol., t.1, p. 479. Cf. L. Abelly, La vie du venerable serviteur de Dieu Vincent de Paul (Paris, 1664), t. III, p. 120.

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