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

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).
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5. Social attitudes and behaviours toward the poor

The social attitudes and behaviours toward the poor were not always similar such that it is lived in the same way for all levels of the social classes, not even by the members belonging to the same class. In the 17th century social attitudes and behaviours towards the poor varied in such a way that we find ourselves both with ideas from the great tradition that have their roots in the distant Middle Ages, as well as those new ideas that were coming up and that were closely related with the emerging socio-economic mercantilism and capitalism. To know the attitude toward the poor in the 17th century, it is then ne­cessary to remember how they were considered socially in the Middle Ages and how this developed during the 16th century until it ended in a new mentality that became quite generalized in the 17th century.

a) Thinking regarding the poor in the Middle Ages

In general, medieval civilization exalted the virtue of poverty although not all types of poverty were similarly valued. From an evangelical perspective, poverty of spirit was presented as an ideal. Furthermore, the choice of poverty was an essential element that was promoted by the rules of religious orders. But, poverty in fact, was considered a fruit of sin since its causes (wars, agricultural calamities, etc.) were perceived as punishments sent by God for sins committed by human beings.

Despite all these, there was an appreciation that Christ, in His earthly life, had wanted to sanctify poverty. And since then, the poor are identified with Christ: they are His “suffering members,” His representatives on earth. Pierre de Blois called the poor Vicarius Christi, and the expression “the poor of Jesus Christ” was current at that time. The poor were seen as powerful intercessors before God, whose prayer drew more abundant blessings on their benefactors. Thus, poverty acquired a sense of social utility since it contributed to man’s redemption. For the rich, almsgiving to the poor was one of the possible channels of salvation. For the poor, acceptance and humility were attitudes that would help them attain heaven.

However, by the end of the Middle Ages, these theories con­cerning the poor and poverty were not the only ones. These theories co-existed, rather, with a current of thinking that saw poverty as a curse and the poor as a danger to society. It was thought that poverty disgraced man, made him idle and useless. Thus, at the end of the Middle Ages, there appeared a distinction that became widespread in the coming centuries: the distinction between the “good” and the “bad” poor; and public authority would eventually think that there was a need to be strict and severe with the latter.

b) Evolution of the attitude toward the poor in the 16th century

As a whole, the 16th century distanced itself from the concep­tion of the poor as representatives of Christ. Gradually the idea that the poor are a social danger developed: the vagabond was suspected of propagating heresies or acting as a spy for the enemy; the beggar was accused of transmitting the plague. The fact that vagabonds, thieves and highway robbers were considered poor confirmed the notion that the poor and evildoers were the same. Frequently, too, all these poor were linked to social disorders and popular riots, that provoked fear in the “first classes” of society, classes that eventually thought of establishing a “General Assistance” to help the poor and keep them from revolting (Lyon, 1531).

Throughout the 16th century, mistrust toward the poor would continue to grow until poverty ended up being seen as a great obstacle to human development. Even more, the sacred character of the poor and of poverty will not be recognized automatically. It was necessary for the poor to accept with humility and resignation their state so that their poverty would be respectable. And this would lead to a greater emphasis on the distinction between “good and bad” poor pointed out at the end of the Middle Ages and consecrated in the following century. In this context, being a vagabond or beggar was no longer necessarily a sign of being chosen.

This change in the understanding of poverty resulted in a critique of idleness and in an exaltation of the virtue of work: to work is to obey divine law, it is praying, it is complying with one’s earthly vocation; it is sanctifying one’s self. It is said that idleness is the mother of all vices and that work is its antidote. Work tames the passions, educates efforts and is a good penance. It is believed that God has assigned to each one a task in the world and fulfilling it is the way to give thanks to God. Accordingly, the poor who do not want to work are opposing the will of God and are damned. Thus, it is necessary to help them attain their salvation by forcing them to work.

Through these ideas, the classical age would end up giving a moral explanation to pauperism: sin and vice are responsible for pauperism. From this arises the need to solve the problem through moral means. Two ideological elements underlie this approach: the will to regulate everything and the desire to prepare for the reign of virtue.

The publication in 1536 of the book entitled Subventione Pauperum written by J. L. Vives, who inspired the social reforms that flourished in Landes and other places, was of great importance in this context. Vives recommended the centralization of assistance as well as a moral reform and the need to work.

From all this new universe of ideas, diverse means make themselves widely known in 16th century France: on one hand, the prohibition of vagrancy and mendicity (means that were more theo­retical than real); on the other hand, the transfer of the general administration of the hospitals from the hands of the clergy to the hands of laypersons and the creation of “offices for the poor.” With these, they also sought the taking of a census of the poor, centralizing resources, distributing aid and preventing mendicity. A special tax applicable in towns would be the means to maintain all the costs. Thus, at the end of the century, it was thought more convenient to separate the poor from society and to enclose them in social assistance institutions. This would be the idea that would prevail in France during the next century, the century when the “General Hospitals” would be half prisons and half hospitals. However, despite all these novelties in the thinking about the poor during the 16th century, we have to note that the old mentality persisted. There were still many who continued to see them as the “vicars of Christ” and many were those who still offered them alms and hospitality in different places.

c) Attitudes and behaviour toward the poor in the 17th century

– Attitude of mistrust and the practice of “enclosure”

Seen from a global perspective, the practice of enclosing the poor was so widespread in 17th century France that we could say that the “great enclosure” was the assistance policy during this century.

This policy of enclosing the poor will be sustained as much by reality as by currents of ideas. The reality was that the 16th century was not able to stop beggarliness, up to the point when in the 17th century it had become overwhelming. Wars, the concentration of properties, scarcity and economic disasters multiplied misery and sent the poor to the cities, thus the need for some effective means. The currents of ideas, on the other hand, were nothing but a continuation of the thinking since the previous century regarding the social danger posed by the poor and the value put on work.

The concern for misery became so obsessive in some sectors that some intellectuals defended the practice of enclosure by citing different reasons for it: reduction in the risk of contagion of sicknesses among the people, possibility of compelling the idle to work (an idea proper of mercantilism, which intends to create a national economy), the poor would be able to live a regulated life according to the prin­ciples of religion (role of the Company of the Blessed Sacrament in the foundation of the General Hospitals)…. From this practical and ideological approach, a network of hospitals to enclose the poor became widespread all over Europe.

In France, the establishment by the “Charity” of Lyon of a General Hospital in 1614 represented the first lasting enclosure. From this experience, the practice became the official doctrine on matters of assistance during the reign of Louis XIII and Louis XIV. Above all, it will be from the time of the foundation of the General Hospital of Paris in 1656 when the intervention of the central authority in the area of assistance would be more dynamic and efficient.

From 1680, the establishment of General Hospitals spread through the concerted action of the State and devoted groups main­tained by the local Companies of the Blessed Sacrament. At the head of all this movement was a representative of the king with the title “Attorney General of the poor” and three Jesuits. The method they generally used to introduce the hospitals was known as the “Capuchin-style method.” The process began with a mission in which the homilies focused on the need to enclose the poor; they would hold a collection for three days for the purpose of gathering resources—money or in kind; thus, after the work of mental preparation and after obtaining the needed resources the hospital then began its operation. Further on, testamentary bequeaths and donations would guarantee the economic support of the establishments. The underlying philosophy which sustained these institutions was none other than the enclosure of the poor in order to separate them from the rest of society. This meant that the poor were considered as “asocial” elements, thus they had to be enclosed with other asocial persons: madmen, prostitutes or young persons who need reform. The ideology of enclosure did not acknow­ledge, for example, the spiritual value of poverty and mendicity. This ideology spread and manifested itself not only in political positions assumed, but also in the literature and arts.

It is believed in all these circles that the asocial and immoral characters that the poor are could be reformed through enclosure and social reintegration. For this, the teaching of catechism and religion will be offered and going to Mass and confession will become obliga­tory. With this they aimed to create in the hospitals a semi-convent environment.

Together with that element of moral correction, the mercanti­list way of thinking (Colbert) that the fight to establish social order passes through forced labour was taken into account. According to this, the General Hospitals were also seen as a means to train workers; thus, the practice of having the apprentice workshops for young people and manufacturing work for adults.

– Traditional and critical attitude on “enclosure”

Even though we can think that this policy of enclosure was generally done and accepted by all in France, it was not so in reality. Already since the 70’s the criticism against “enclosure” spread among all those who stressed how mendicity and vagrancy have not dis­appeared after the establishment of the General Hospitals. Enclosure could not be efficient because it considered the issue of poverty as a moral problem, without confronting the social and economic aspects of the issue. In that way, the roots of pauperism were not touched.

Another reason which explained the failure of this assistance policy was the frequent popular opposition against the detention of the poor. Was there not among the people a kind of consciousness of belonging to the same social class? The people, too, knew poverty and, hence, they saw the poor as an integral part of the same “order” to which they belonged; hence, they ardently opposed the detention of the poor.

Likewise, there persisted among the people the Christian mentality that idealizes poverty: the poor continued to be seen as a member of Christ and personal almsgiving was still highly praised as a gesture of interest and love. During this time many treatises regarding almsgiving which highlighted aspects such as its obligatory character, its imitation of the mercy of God, a form of penance continued to be published. Therefore, the poor were still seen as useful social beings: if they humbly accept their state then they will be saved, giving the rich person the opportunity to save him/herself through almsgiving. Saint Vincent himself, to a great extent, shared these ideas. As we know, he declined taking charge of the religious service at the General Hospital by means of his Congregation “for not knowing well whether the will of God desires it, since coercion could be an obstacle to God’s plans.” And he preferred to place his gaze on Christ in the poor and made made himself available to evangelize and serve them.

Those who shared this traditional vision of the poor and charity maintained traditional forms of assistance and initiated other new systems. For example, they continued the conventional forms of per­sonal and collective almsgiving (in monasteries, parishes, convents). Hospitals continued to be opened and maintained for transients or pilgrims, in a way that strengthened the establishment of the Hertel-Dieu, to the point that “General Hospitals” became a minority in the assistance groups. There was also an increase in the feminine “hospi­talier orders” which guaranteed the day-to-day management and care of the hospitals. Groups to take care, visit and help the poor and the sick — Confraternities of Charity of Saint Vincent, Company of the Blessed Sacrament, etc. —flourished. During this time there was much concern for the education of the poor, in such a way that, starting with the desire to teach catechism, the educational activity broadened into the formation of children and adolescents (reading, writing, counting) in order to keep them from idleness and prepare them for a decent work.

There was no univocal practice then in the 17th century con­cerning behaviour towards the poor; neither was there a particular attitude when considering their situation. If the policy of “enclosure” from an attitude of mistrust towards the poor for their being a social danger to society was the official doctrine of public authority, the practice of charity from a traditional Christian attitude was thus the response of a good part of the population and of the Christian spirit to the problem of poverty. Saint Vincent shared rather this latter per­spective. But our saint did not only agree with the Christian vision of the poor but rather, by seeing Christ in them so passionately, he would open new avenues in the service and evangelization of the poor.

6. Theological attitude

Given the evolution of the Catholic Reform movement in different countries of Europe, it is probable that the Catholic spirit was better incarnated in this century in France. Christian witnesses and saints abounded all over the country. Missionary efforts and works of charity were multiplied. And all of these did nothing but showed that where there was genuine reform in the Church, there was also radical conversion towards the poor.

The theology of many writers of the time was surprisingly current. And what was even more interesting was the fact that this theology did not originate from classrooms but from the spiritual experience of the poor. It was the contact with the poor and the daily experience of their misery that challenged the beliefs and the lives of many of those Christians. And it would be that same reality close to the poor that would lead them, like Saint Vincent, to a new way of understanding the Gospel and their sense of belonging to the Church.

For all those with a sensitive Christian spirit, the poor showed a kind of representation or vicarship of Christ, in such a way that they came to appear as the “Word” of God Himself or a living manifesta­tion of His will. Saint Vincent, Saint John Baptist de la Salle, or Bishop Arnauld had expressions that summarized those ideas: “members of Christ and His chosen ones” (J. B. de la Salle), “to serve Christ is to serve God” (Vincent de Paul), “what the poor suffer, Jesus Christ suffers” (Arnauld).

Precisely because of this presence of Christ in the poor, the pain of the poor seems to challenge the manifestation of God in them. Like the cross of Jesus, the mere existence of the poor is a scandal that seems to deny all Divine “Providence” and His love for man (Bousset, Masillon). This objection will only have an answer if the presence of God in the poor takes on the form of a determined need of the rich to put an end to poverty: the will of God for the rich is that they put their wealth at the service of the poor and not on themselves.

This theology results in a reorientation of the subject of po­verty. If in the Middle Ages poverty was considered above all as an ascetic virtue (of renunciation), the subject of the “poor” is now seen in relation to solidarity with them (a focus more proper to the Fathers of the Church). Nonetheless, it is true that this reorientation was realized more on the theoretical rather than on the actual level. The courtly character of the majority of the French bishoprics in this cen­tury resulted in an incoherence that Saint Vincent dreaded so much. Perhaps it was for this reason that the undeniable blossoming of the spirit of charity towards the poor in the 17th century was followed by a real dryness (desert) in the 18th century. And that is because talking about the poor without sharing anything with them is not the Chris­tian way.

According to Bossuet, God had made the rich so they would be servants of the poor. Their wealth had no other raison d’etre than to be shared (Masillon). But, instead of this, the rich considered themselves rich for their own sakes and in this way they became blind (Arnauld), deceitful (Masilion) or idolatrous (Montargon). And this is how the perversion of their human identity — denounced by Bossuet — happens.

This theology and anthropology of poverty and wealth con­dition by themselves a vision of the Church. If the poor are God’s business (Saint Vincent) then they constitute by themselves the honour of the Church. If they are the presence of Christ, it is not strange that they be, at the same time, “our lords and masters” (Saint Vincent). And from this title we can understand why they have primacy and an “eminent dignity” (Bossuet) in the Church, why they are her most important children and why the Church should be called the “city of the poor” (Bossuet). From all these expressions taken together will spring forth some time later the modern affirmation of “taking on the cause of the poor” (Saint John Eudes), and the Church ends up presenting itself as a society “in opposition” to the world, where everything is subject to the power of money.

It is also surprising to note, in many of the writers cited in this century, the “horizontality” of that lordship that the Church accords to the poor: the Church is interested in their “material needs” (Saint Vincent) and in their human rights (such as that of education, for example, with Saint Joseph Calasanz, la Salle, etc.). There is, therefore, in this century of Catholic reformers a dynamic preoccupation in all of them to see Christ in the poor, to serve them in all their needs and to emphasize their prominent place in the Church. All genuine reform in the Church has precisely as its touchstone the conversion of Christians to the poor.

7. Attitude of saint Vincent de Paul

Sustained by a triple source of inspiration in Saint John, Saint Paul and Saint Luke, Vincent de Paul contemplates a Christ full of zeal, of tenderness, of compassion. It is a humiliated Christ, crushed up to the point of taking on the human condition to its limits. It is a Christ who came for the poor and who identifies with them; a Christ who leaves to His Church the mandate to continue His mission of evangelizing the poor.

For Saint Vincent the poor gradually became a “sign,” a presence” and, above all, a “call” of Christ that urges him to respond and commits him to a mission. However, it was not easy for our saint to acquire this consciousness. When he arrived in Paris in 1608 he was in misery: he was a simple fortune-seeking priest who was not at all interested in the poor. The contact with them, the episode of being accused of theft and the doubts of faith of the theologian opened a process of spiritual experience in his inmost being which would lead to an absolute dedication to Christ in his self-giving to the poor.

That encounter with the poor was what helped him discover the Gospel of Jesus, who was sent to the poor. And this Gospel permit­ted him to acknowledge the Church as the depository of this mission to the poor. In the same act he thus found Christ, the Church and the poor. And from then on Saint Vincent will never separate these three realities that mutually enlighten each other.

In his deep inner experience, in his passionate love for Christ, in his firm union with the Church, in his self-giving to the poor, Saint Vincent found the principles that oriented all his actions in the charitable and evangelizing service to the poor:

  • The life of the Son of God, as well as His Eucharist, is at the service of the poor.
  • Jesus was not satisfied with simply preaching to the poor; He served them.
  • The Son of God is present in the poor. They are apparently rough and ignorant. However, we have to acknowledge that true religion can be found in them. Thus, if you turn the medal around and see them with the eyes of faith, they will appear as “images of Jesus, who wished to be poor and who is represented to us in the poor.”
  • The life of Jesus was a movement of becoming poor in order to enrich us. True life is found in this movement which fulfils the self-giving of the Son of God.
  • Finally, Jesus Christ is present in the poor and considers every­thing that is done to the poor as done to His person. These beings, apparently despicable, are in reality great lords. They can condemn us before God and society. But they can also liberate us and be instruments of our salvation.

If we definitively want to summarize the vision that Saint Vincent had of the poor, it would be enough for us to repeat his own words: “God loves the poor, so He also loves those who love the poor, because when you love a person very much, you also show affection to their friends and to their servants. Well, this little Company of the Mission tries to devote itself to serving the poor, with affection, because these people are God’s chosen ones, and so we have every reason to hope that God will love us, because of them. So then, my brothers, let us serve the poor with renewed affection, and let us search out the very poorest and the most abandoned; let us recognise before God that they are our lords and masters, and that we are unworthy to render them our paltry services.”1

Saint Vincent probably said it with greater tenderness and emotion to the Daughters of Charity: “By serving the poor, we serve Jesus Christ. 0 my daughters, how true that is! You serve Jesus Christ in the person of the poor. And that is as true as that we are here. A Sister will go and visit the poor ten times a day, and ten times a day she will find God there. As Saint Augustine has said, what we see with our eyes is not so certain, because our senses sometimes deceive us, but the truths of God — never. Go and look at the poor convicts in a chain-gang, you will find God there; take care of the little children, you will find God there. 0 my daughters, how delightful that is! You go into their poor homes, but you find God there. 0 my daughters, once more how delightful! He accepts the services you render the sick and looks upon them as done to Himself.”2

From this dynamic consciousness of the presence of Christ in the poor, all of Saint Vincent’s life revolved around them: he evan­gelized and served them; he created institutions and promoted vocations; he helped them corporally and spiritually and promoted their dignity; he gave himself completely to them and stirred up a spiritual movement of fraternity and service that has reached up to our present time. The love of God urged him and charity for the poor sustained him.


It is not easy to summarize in some pages the reality of the poor in a period as complicated as the 17th century. And this is because we do not have before us a univocal and homogenous phenomenon but rather we are confronted by a complex and varied reality. Certainly the great number of poor people at that time stands out: they were practically the majority of society. The variety and plurality of situations that are covered by the term “poor” also stand out. However, there was something common that affected them all: their social margin­alization in the sense that they are unimportant, their illiteracy, their propensity to be in debt, the misery in which they live…. And faced with this situation, there are two attitudes which are predominant: that of mistrust towards them by seeing them as a social danger (hence, it was convenient to have recourse to “enclosure”); and the attitude of respect by considering them as the “suffering members of Christ” who have to be assisted through charity. Saint Vincent de Paul certainly shared this second perspective: for him the poor were the living presence of Christ. That is why he loved and served them. And so, with creative love, he placed his capacity and charism at their service.

Basic Bibliography

  • CARMONA, Michel: “La France de Richelieu” Fayard (1984) Paris. pp. 51­83; 241-285.
  • CARVEN, John: “The poor. An attempt to fathom the mind of Saint Vincent”, in “Vincentiana” (1979), pp. 42-56.
  • CHRISTOPHE, Paul: “Para leer la Historia de la Pobreza”. Verbo Divino (1989) Estella, pp. 138-176.
  • CORERA, Jaime: “El pobre según San Vicente”. en “Vincentiana” (1984), pp. 578-586.
  • GOUBERT, Pierre: “El Antiguo Regimen. La sociedad”. XXI (1971) Madrid. pp. 67-141.
  • GOUBERT, Pierre: “La vie quotidienne des paysans francais au XVII'”” siecle” Hachette (1982) Paris. pp. 41-56; 135-152; 199-222; 272-291.
  • GUTTON, J.P.: .La societe et les pauvres en Europe (XVIeme-XVIIIem4 siecles). P.U. F. (1974) Vendrome. pp. 5-157.
  • IBÁÑEZ BURGOS, J.M.: Wicente de Pail. Realismo y Encarnation. Sigueme (1982) Salamanca. pp. 211-292.
  • IBÁÑEZ BURGOS, J.M.: “Vicente de Pail y los pobres de su tiempo” Sigueme (1977) Salamanca. pp. 64-156.
  • IBÁÑEZ BURGOS, J.M.: “Entorno histórico social en tiempo de Vicente de Paúl”. in “Vincentiana” (1984) pp. 334-355.
  • JACQUART, Jean: “La crise rurale en Ile-de-France (1550-1670)”. Armand Colin (1974) Paris. pp. 101-161; 213-254; 445-596.
  • MANDROU, Robert: “Francia en los siglos XVII y XVIII” Labor (1973) Barcelona. pp. 33-62; 107-113; 197-216.
  • MOUSNIER, Roland: “Furores campesinos: Los campesinos en las revueltas del siglo XVII (Francia, Rusia, China). (1976) Madrid. pp. 11-55; 268-305.
  • PORCHNEV, Boris: “Les soulevements populaires en France au XVIIerne siecle. Flammarion (1973) Paris. pp. 271-317.
  • RIBOT, Luis Antonio: “El entorno histórico de San Vicente de Paúl. in “Vicente de Paúl, la inspiracion permanente” (1982) Salamanca. pp. 23-37.
  • ROMÁN, J.Ma: “San Vicente de Paul. Biografía” B.A.C. (1981) Madrid. pp. 491-531; 643-649.
  1. Conferences to the CM’s, Conference 164, pp. 366-367.
  2. Coste IX, Conference 24, p. 199.

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