1] The economic structure of France during the seventeenth century
Vincent spoke to the Missionaries in order to encourage them to dedicate themselves to the works proper to their vocation, but at the same time and without intending to do so, he described the reality of France’s economic situation: We live on the sweat of poor people … poor vine dressers, who give us their labor, who expect us to pray for them while they wear themselves out to feed us! (CCD:XI:190). The poor that Vincent referred to here were not the many beggars in Paris but poor peasants. Fifteen million people of the nineteen million that made up France’s total population lived in the rural areas and provided for themselves through cultivation of the land. The whole economic and social structure of the “good” French society, bourgeois, nobles, church, monarchy, were based on and sustained by the work of the peasants and by the work of the artisans (about two million people). Even though at that time there were the beginnings of some industrial production, especially in textiles, as well as financial and commercial activity of some importance, yet the national economy was fundamentally based on agriculture. Thus the fluctuations in the annual yield of the harvests had a powerful influence on the well-being of people on every level of the social ladder as well as the possibilities for France’s national and international policy.
In this situation the peasants possessed less than half the land. The remainder belonged to the great social powers, the monarchy, the nobles, the church and (in Vincent’s lifetime) the emerging bourgeois. Through the different systems of collecting taxes, which were basically the feudal systems of that time, the great social powers extracted up to thirty percent of the production of the peasants … and at times demanded more than thirty percent. The peasants who were able to preserve half their harvest for themselves and their family felt a certain satisfaction. The local community, the parish church, the local lord (and these lords were present in almost every part of France) and finally the king … all of these groups received benefits from the work of the peasants, benefits that resulted from various taxes and contributions. The French society and also Vincent’s congregation certainly lived on the sweat of poor.
This was always the situation in a feudal society and continued to be the prevailing situation in Vincent’s time. But now the situation became worse for the peasants. The annual yield of the harvest was lessened as the result of adverse climate conditions. There were successive very cold winters followed by humid summers and historians began to speak about a “small ice age”. The buying power of the rural population also became worse as a result of higher prices that prevailed during the first half of the seventeenth century. Only the more wealthy peasants who were able to sell their harvest on the open market benefited from this situation. Such was not the case for those modest peasants who retained their harvest for the survival of their family and themselves. The debts that they incurred were often settled through the sale or the expropriation of their limited possessions. All of this resulted in greater poverty among the peasants and led to an increase of emigration to the cities. The situation of the peasants became worse because royal taxes were raised to incredible levels: 31 million livres in 1620, 85 million in 1639, 118 million in 1641 (a 400% increase in just twenty years). Most of these increases in taxes resulted from the need to finance the international wars that were conducted by Richelieu and Mazarin during the reigns of King Louis XIII and King Louis XIV.
2] The economic structure of the Vincentian works
Of the three large institutions established by Vincent de Paul only the Congregation of the Mission based its economic infrastructure on a style that was characteristic of the era. The activities of the other two, the parish Confraternities of Charity and the Daughters of Charity, were financed by other means: voluntary contributions of the Confraternities and salaries and voluntary contributions of the Daughters of Charity. From the time that Vincent moved into Saint-Lazare at the beginning of 1632, his Congregation was wholly involved in the predominant economic structure of his time. This structure was one the one hand semi-feudal that involved the possession of land and therefore income from agricultural production and on the other had involved participation in the new commerce and service economy: income from the means of transportation and the collection of rent. These last two, income from the coaches and the collection of rent, were systems of lesser importance in financing the activities of Vincent’s congregation. Just as the French economy was fundamentally based on agricultural production so also was the economy of the Congregation of the Mission.
This was the situation from the time of the establishment of the Congregation of the Mission. The 45,000 livres which the de Gondi family gave to Vincent could be spent on either land investments or established revenues (CCD:XIIIa:215). Vincent preferred the former type of investment and noted that the cost of things doubles at least every fifty years (CCD:I:384). This statement implied that there was a great depreciation in cash revenues. Ten years after Vincent’s death in 1660 thing changed and as a result of a period of sustained deflation, established revenues were favored. It is not known how Vincent invest the 45,000 livres that he received at the time of the foundation of the Congregation, but we do know that seven years after the received the priory of Saint-Lazare and its vast holdings, these became a burden for the Congregation whose financial structure was basically a feudal structure.
This, however, was not totally true since the presence of lay brothers as members of the Congregation made it possible to cultivate the community lands which directly benefited the community. Here we refer to the thirty hectares of land within the walls of the priory. With regard to the rest of the community’s possessions, that is, several hundred hectares of land in different places, Vincent seemed to change his mind through the years on the best way to assure the optimum yield. Even though he would have preferred the system of direct cultivation of the land, if it had been possible, yet for the most art he had to use the system of absentee landlord … a very common reality during that period of history, especially among the bourgeois. At times Vincent showed his preference for this system which, though not as productive, provided less distraction for the Missionaries who were thus able to dedicate themselves to the works proper to their vocation.
3] Vincentian behavior
Vincent demonstrated that he was careful with regard to these properties. Perhaps the word “properties” is not the best expression to use here because Vincent was very aware of the fact that the goods of the congregation were the patrimony of Jesus Christ that were given to the community with the sweat of the poor. This awareness meant that Vincent and the congregation were merely administrators of these goods and they would have to render an account before God with regard to the ways in which these goods were used (CCD:XI:25). He demanded the Missionaries to be careful in administering these good and on several occasions he expressed his displeasure when the confreres made important financial decisions without consulting him (CCD:IV:326). Vincent was careful in this matter and therefore was concerned about the income from these properties but at no time was he so demanding as to exploit the tenants cultivating the land. Perhaps the system itself was exploitative and certainly it was a cruel system that was utilized by the nobility and the bourgeoisie of that period. With regard to Vincent we find in his correspondence several examples that testify to his sense of fairness and even generosity when dealing with the peasants who cultivated the land. Even through Vincent’s dealings with these tenant farmers ought to be further nuanced in light of the numerous testimonies that we find in his letters (CCD:VI:311-312; VIII:6), Abelly is not exaggerating nor is he being carried ways with enthusiasm when he sums up Vincent’s actions in the following way: It is impossible to know how often he helped the farmers, tenants, or other debtors of the community who were unable to meet their obligations. He preferred to make new loans and risk losing everything, rather than to demand payment from them (Louis Abelly, The Li9fe of the Venerable Saint of God, Vincent de Paul, New City Press, New Rochelle, New York, Volume III, p. 129).
4] Sources of income
As we have already noted the rent from these lands as well as the direct cultivation of some of the land comprised the basic means for supporting the Missionaries and their activities. The Congregation of the Mission, however, had other sources of income and here we highlight a few of those sources: income from ecclesiastical benefices and from investments, rent from tenants in houses, benefits and income from some businesses (for example, the coach lines) taxes on salt and wine, income as a result of serving in official position (serving as France’s consul in Tunis and Algeria). We do not, however, want to give the impression that Vincent had abundant resources. The reality was quite the opposite.
5] Obligations and expenses
The obligations and expenses that the Congregation incurred were often greater than the income it received and this was especially true during those years when the harvest was poor. When these deficits occurred Vincent drastically reduced the costs of feed his large community (CCD:XII:233-234). The very property of Saint-Lazare, a more desirable rustic property than that which boarded the city of Paris, had to support the different groups of ordinands who came to the house for their retreat. In 1657, after having living at Saint-Lazare for twenty-five years, Vincent wrote: this house is nearly overwhelmed by its own needs; often we are so impoverished that we do not have the wherewithal to send someone to the market, and we do not know where to turn to pay what we owe there (CCD:VI:624). Vincent wrote these words in order to explain why he was unable to help one of his confreres, a form of assistance that he had previously told the Missionaries was obligatory (CCD:XII:312-313). Vincent experienced an even deeper pain when he was unable to pay a large sum of money to rescue a member of his congregation who was serving as consul in Algeria and who had been imprisoned there by the local authorities. At that time the Congregation could not even obtain a loan in Paris because of the debt that had been accumulated: As for having recourse to others, I assure you that I do not know to whom I could turn. Charity has grown very cold here in Paris, Monsieur, because everyone is feeling the effects of the public miseries; so much so that, instead of the sixteen thousand livres that used to be sent every month to the devastated border towns, we find it very difficult right now to send one thousand (CCD:VI:624). 6] Possession of goods and survival
It was not only the debts that placed the Congregation in a position of possible collapse. The very possession of so many properties was more dangerous than the debts. Thus Vincent, in the Rules that he wrote for the Missionaries acknowledged that these goods prevented the Congregation (founded to imitate Jesus Christ) from practicing the poverty that Christ lived and taught (Common Rules, Chapter 3, #2; CCD:VII:406-406). Yet the very mission that Jesus Christ pointed out forced the congregation to possess property in order to provide for itself since all the works of the community were directed toward the poor and should be provided free of any cost to those being served (CCD:IV:466). Yet the missionaries had to live. Since they did not charge for their ministry they had no other option but to live on the income from their property. Vince was very aware of the practical dangers of such a situation (CCD:VI:532-533) and so he struggled to help his confreres avoid these dangers. Yet given the realities of that era he was unable to base the finance of the community on some other structure. Yes, he would have liked to do this if there was no need for the community to possess property (CCD:VII:406-407) and if they could have provided for themselves from salaries that they received from public or private institutions (a system used by the Daughters): We, who do not take anything from the poor, need revenue (CCD:IV:466).
6] Possession of goods and the spirit of poverty
Vincent often spoke to the confreres on these themes. Vincent was aware of the dangers and was therefore concerned about the ways in which the goods of community might hinder the evangelical spirit that should be proper to the congregation. In his youth Vincent had experienced the temptation to have and possess more … in fact at one time in his life this desire to have more dominated his activity. He did not want the confreres to fall into the same trap and as a result of this he also wanted to have the Missionaries provided for. Two years before he died, but certainly not the last time, Vincent warned the confreres in the following words: O my God, necessity obliges us to have these perishable goods and to preserve for the Company what Our Lord has placed in it; but we have to apply ourselves to this in the way God himself applies himself to produce and preserve temporal goods to adorn the world and feed its creatures, so that he takes care to provide for even the tiniest insect. This does not hinder his interior operations, by which he engender his Son and brings forth the Holy Spirit. He does those things without omitting the others. So, just as it is god’s pleasure to provide good for plants, animals, and human beings, those who are in charge of this little universe of the Company must6 likewise provide for the needs of the individuals who compose it. This really has to be done, my God; otherwise, all that your Providence has given for their maintenance would be lost, your service would come to a halt, and we would be unable to go to evangelize poor persons gratuitously. So then, my God, allow us, in order to continue our ministries for your glory, to work at the preservation of temporal things, but to do it in such a way that our spirit may not be contaminated by them nor justice wounded, nor our hearts encumbered. O Savior, remove the spirit of avarice from the Company (CCD:XII:95-96).