The poor in the 17th century in France (I)

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

Author: Santiago Azcárate, C.M. · Year of first publication: 2008 · Source: Third Asian Vincentian Institute (Mother House, Paris, September-December 2006).
Estimated Reading Time:


All throughout this time of formation, you are developing a program that is centred on what is Vincentian and on what refers to the Founders, their historical context, spirituality and the nature of their works. You will probably notice that all this complex reality you are studying revolves around one central idea that has two poles: Jesus Christ and the poor. The life and virtues of Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac, prayer and mission, vocation and formation, spirituality and service, foundations and presence always have Christ as the guiding focus and the poor as the centre of attention.

Because of this, it is important not only to study the Vincentian Christ, the Evangelizer and Servant of the Poor, but also to know the reality of the poor. Because the Founders did not refer to the poor in general, presenting a theoretical and “pious” spirituality. The Founders related with the concrete poor, situated themselves close to their reality, allowed themselves to be affected by it and committed themselves to remedying their misery through evangelization and service.

In the setting of the French society of the 17th century whose characteristics you have been studying, you will have observed that the poor were a universal and painful reality. We would not under­stand the France of that time if we do not know the situation of the poor. And we would not understand Vincentian spirituality if we do not know the reaction of the Founders to this reality. The poor were precisely those who caught the attention of Saint Vincent and Saint Louise. The poor were those who provoked their committed response. And the poor were those who left a particular mark in their relation with Christ.

Let us try, therefore, during this time of formation, to take a close look at the reality of the poor in 17th century France in order to understand better the life and work of our Founders and thus assume their message today in a more dynamic way.

1. Who are the poor?

LeNainPaysansIt is good to begin by identifying the poor. Let us note that there are human situations that make themselves known and that manifest, themselves in any time and place. The circumstances and manifestations of those situations may vary but we all know them. That is what happens with the poor. At all times and in all places they inevitably appear. While it is true that their physiognomy, classification and characteristics change, we recognize repeated conditions of precariousness and need. The phrase of the Gospel itself, “the poor you will always have with you” (Mt. 26:11) which reminds us of this universal and perennial reality can, at the same time, provoke in us either a reaction of indifference because we will always have them or a reaction of commitment because in them we can love and serve God.

Given the universality of the phenomenon of poverty and the different reactions they provoke in society and in persons, it is im­portant to define the meaning of the word and concretize the reality to which it refers at a given moment in history. The poor in Europe today do not live the same situation as in Africa. Neither does poverty in present day France have the same characteristics as in 17th century France. If we want then to understand the response of Saint Vincent to the reality of poverty which he experienced, we will have to begin by identifying the profile of the poor at that time. If we want to make our own Saint Vincent’s teaching regarding the poor, we will have to distinguish what is proper for his time for the purpose of being able to understand that which is still valid for us today. It is then necessary to undertake the study of the poor during the time of our Founders: to know who they were, how they lived, what they thought, what they believed, what relations did they have with the Church, how they were considered socially, how the Church saw them, what means were there to help them.

We are used to studying history from the perspective of great events, from the point of view of kings and the result of battles, from the evolution of the economy and the signing of important treaties. However, as soon as we enter into the study of history in depth and especially the society of the Ancient Regime, we note a crucial event on the social level that imposes itself: the omnipresence of misery and death, the universal extent of poverty and hunger. This was the reality that truly affected majority of the population. The poor were the hidden protagonists of all that took place.

In that 17th century, known through classical historians as “the Great Century” of France, what is certain is that the majority of the population of the country was made up of the poor, of persons with­out means who, having nothing but their capacity to work, found themselves continuously subjected to the ups and downs of social events. It was indeed a diverse world for the poor at that time, with different types and categories. Above all, it was about the sick and the elderly. Frequently the sick were even young people who, due to having begun work at an early age coupled with poor diet, suffered from premature aging. There were also a great number of widows in the list of poor people. But, underneath this diversity, there was a common element which made them all equal: their situation of need, their world of lack, their social insignificance. From there we find the importance of knowing how the meaning of the word “poor” was understood in 17th century France. From this knowledge, we will be able to understand the mentality of Saint Vincent and his evangelical spirituality.

In this context we have to recognize from the very start that the word “poor” in the 17th century does not have only an economic significance. In a broad sense, the “poor” are those who suffer, who are disgraced, who are afflicted. In a strict sense, the “poor” are those who find themselves living continually in scarcity, in need, in misery or on the verge of it. The noted Dictionnaire universal of Furetiere, published in 1690, cites as the first meaning of the word “poor:” “one who does not possess the things necessary to sustain life….” Hence, according to this definition very close to the time of Saint Vincent, the poor are not only those who lack everything but also those who are daily exposed to falling below the minimum required to survive physically.

Perhaps the one who can best define this reality is the Bishop of Belley, J. P. Camus (1581-1652). “What then is poverty?” he asks in one of his writings. And he gives a precise answer: “Some say it is the scarcity or lack of the things required in order to live comfortably, that is, without working. Others say it is the deprivation of things, rights and temporal actions necessary for the maintenance of human life. Consequently, we can say that the poor is one who does not have the means to survive other than his/her work or moral or corporal capacity.” In this context, the manager of Poitiers wrote to the inspec­tor general in 1684: “The craftsmen are so poor that, from the moment they do not work, they have to be placed in the hospital.”

The definitions of the poor that we have just highlighted in­dicate thus the precariousness and instability of the condition of the people of this time. During that time, one was considered poor if he/she was threatened by poverty; thus, it is interesting to find out what circumstances make the poor “poor.”

The poor then was not only that he/she who did not have the means to live at a given moment but includes all those who, since they depended solely on their work, were constantly threatened by impoverishment due to varied and frequent causes such as sickness, old age, disability, bad harvests, loss of employment, widowhood, being orphaned, etc. In a world that lacked social provision, there was a great mass who, at any moment or accident, could add to the list of needy persons. The lists made in Beauvais, Amiens, Lyon or Paris confirmed that many humble peasants, workers in the city or countryside, modest craftsmen were assisted by public or private charity. Thus, the poor were recruited from the working world; among them all none possessed any goods. The world of the poor was one of need, of absence of reserves: the world of all those condemned to live each day with the obsession of being able to obtain bread so as to survive.

The majority of the poor were integrated in society. This explains the different social attitudes regarding pauperism, depending on whether the poor referred to are marginalized or those within the society. This also explains why pauperism was perceived more as a threat which will affect many rather than as a strictly defined social group.

While it is difficult to determine exactly the threshold of poverty, still the consequences of this poverty are very clear. The most immediate consequence was that the majority of the low class were forced to beg. A large number of peasants and countryside or city workers suffered adverse circumstances many times in their lives and they ended up becoming periodic beggars or vagabonds.

The phenomenon becomes even more difficult if we take into account that France at the time of Vincent de Paul was 80% agricultu­ral; an agricultural country that could not feed the great number of its inhabitants (some 18.5 million). This explains thus the high mortality rates from 1629 to 1631 and that of 1648 to 1653 which were provoked by hunger and sickness. Those were years of considerable increase in the prices of wheat which deprived the poor of the possibility to eat. Deaths multiplied and work was scarce due to the lack of buyers for the products. The crisis became greater each time and poverty spread as a social phenomenon.

The result of all this harsh reality was a picturesque world of beggars: a world full of false pilgrims, old soldiers, chatterboxes, wandering musicians, and above all, beggars, a growing group in the French society of Saint Vincent’s time. As Fr. lbariez Burgos writes: “the difference between poverty and mendicity is one of degree, not of nature; this idea seems essential in the study of the social reality of the 17th century.”

There are two characteristics which make the poor a dependent and dominated world: illiteracy and indebtedness. The charitable souls of the Great Century denounced the existing connection between illiteracy and pauperism; and so they tried to multiply the free schools for the poor. On the other hand, indebtedness was endemic and difficult to solve, both for the workers in the countryside as well as those in the cities.

As we focus on the poor of the 17th century, we do not situate ourselves, then, before an uncommon situation of marginalization or of misery, but rather before a habitual and widespread reality. The great part of society, although with a diverse typology, formed part of this difficult world of the poor; hence, it was an inescapable reality for society and a pressing one for the Church.

2. Causes of poverty

We have noted already some of the causes of the poverty of this time. Sickness, bad harvests, uncertain employment—all these placed a good part of the population in extremely difficult situations. However, we can deepen this aspect regarding the causes of poverty and point out those which, with a more general character, affected society.

a) An economic structure of low productivity

The French economy of the 17th century was fundamentally agricultural and poorly equipped technically. This led to the inability to produce sufficient quantity of products to feed everyone. They intended to have an abundant cultivation of cereals; but wheat bread was a luxury; rye could only be eaten by well-off consumers, and the majority had to settle for a poor mixture of cereals and chestnuts or beans. Two-fifths of the land had to rest from being cultivated each year. And the poor quality of seedlings only produced mediocre harvests.

Malnourished, the cattle were small; they easily tired and performed poorly. The ploughs did not till deeply. The lack of a workforce at harvest time hindered increasing the areas for culti­vation. The result of all these was a reduced and insufficient production for a numerous and increasing population; a population that was malnourished, of mediocre health and with a short lifespan.

b) Series of phenomena with negative consequences: meteorology

A series of cold and rainy years occurred in the 17th century. The atmospheric phenomena between 1629 and 1631 led to catas­trophic situations: the first great frost (1629-1630) destroyed the harvest and resulted in famine that was aggravated by the plague and eventually led to death. From 1639 to 1643 and from 1646 to 1650, the cold and humid summers reduced grain production. This scarcity caused the increase in the price of common cereals and affected the poor the most.

Frequently, those years of adverse meteorological conditions coincided with epidemics and plagues. In these cases, the fear of contagion made isolation obligatory, limited circulation, paralyzed the industry and closed down fairs and markets. Life in the cities and in the countryside was paralyzed. Death took its toll and pauperism increased.

c) A suffocating tax system

The 17t centurywas a century of wars. The policy of the State centred on the rise of the royal power and hegemony of France and this implied wars: with external powers and local lords. Wars entailed soldiers, arms, allies, provisions… and all these cost money. They then resorted to a tax system inherited from the past that was marked by many privileges and exceptions. The royal government found it necessary to ask for credits to finance their policies. In this context, direct taxes increased four times between 1610 and 1640; and indirect taxes increased likewise. However, harvest was not bountiful and a large part of the fiscal obligation fell on the people, who found themselves each day with less and less available resources for their needs.

d) The effects of war

The soldiers, who played a major role in the wars, not only generated some expenses that led to increase in taxes but they were also a source of conflicts and misery for the peasants: soldiers ran­sacked, killed, destroyed and burned. Practically until 1660, there were continual wars in different territories of France. And always, these wars were followed by their inevitable consequences — destroyed harvests, occupied towns, oppressed, poor people and a stagnant economy. This absence of peace led to rebellion and to more violence, and brought with it an increase of unemployment, abandonment of the land and a growing number of beggars.

e) Unequal and unjust system of property ownership

In the time of Saint Vincent, the wealth of France came prin­cipally from the land. But land was not owned by the peasants but by the clergy, nobles or bourgeoisie, all of whom were exempted from paying taxes. With them as owners, the system of developing the land was usually by leasing (renting) it to the peasants, a system that was very unfavourable to the interests of the latter. In times of bad harvest, what was harvested was not enough to pay the rent to the landlord. And in times of good harvest, they could hardly survive after paying the rent. The evolution of France throughout the 17th century (population increase, demand for land to be exploited, sus­pension of the offer of new lands) made the conditions for leasing the land to the peasants more difficult, thus worsening their life conditions and even requiring them to sell the little land they possessed. The number of poor people thus continued to increase.

f) The acquisition of debts

Given the frequency of bad harvests and fiscal pressures, the peasants had no other recourse in order to survive than to loan future seeds and to be in debt. This indebtedness was difficult for them to overcome. Hence, selling the small inheritance they possessed in order to pay their debts and to eat became habitual. In this way, the bourgeoisie began to own more and more lands. And the peasants bound themselves more and more to the lease system and the number of poor and of beggars increased.

These causes apply fundamentally to the peasant world (which was, let us not forget, the overwhelming majority in France), but many of them likewise affected the workers and the poor in the cities. All these resulted in a poverty situation that became generalized and that can be characterized into different groups.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *