The words of exclusion in medieval Europe

By focusing on texts and the history of words, Jean-Louis Roch emphasizes the ambivalence of the feeling of charity in the Middle Ages, and shows how the figure of the poor becomes desecrated on the edge of modernity.

The study of poverty and exclusion in medieval and modern Europe has seen a strong revival of interest among historians, particularly since the success of the work of Giacomo Todeschini (In the land of the nameless2015), and as evidenced by this new book by Jean-Louis Roch, or even, very recently, the Living Poor, by Laurence Fontaine. For a long time remained in the tutelary shadow of figures as important as Michel Mollat ​​(The Poor in the Middle Ages1978) or Bronislaw Geremek (The Parisian Marginals XIVe And XVe shekels1976), the subject has been renewed by recent publications, which place particular emphasis on the experience of poverty, and the very definition of the poor, as modes of exclusion and otherization occurring from the end of the Middle Ages, in a increasingly dense, legally and politically constructed urban world.

The study of Jean-Louis Roch is a welcome contribution to this historiographical news, the latter claiming affiliation with Mollat, director of his doctoral thesis defended in 1986, as with Geremek, whose author shares not only the thematic framework, but also the interest particularly for a semantic approach, aiming to reconstitute the lexicon of poverty and misery at the end of the Middle Ages, not only to approach social dynamics through their representation, but also to construct, through this vocabulary, a true genealogy of the figure of the excluded.

Utility of the poor and economy of salvation

To establish the historical framework of his study, Jean-Louis Roch emphasizes an approach to poverty through textual sources, particularly on the experience of misery. This is conceived, not only as a way of experiencing poverty by those who suffer from it themselves, but as a way of understanding it for society as a whole. from XIIeXIIIe century, with the growth of cities and visible inequalities within them, everyone must in fact get used to the presence of a new unwelcome population, largely undesirable, and yet essential. Beyond the usefulness of low-cost labor, Jean-Louis Roch underlines the insertion of the phenomenon of poverty into a social balance dominated by Christian doctrine. Also the poor man has a role which goes beyond that of a boundary of civilized society, or a foil for its members, and which refers both to the person of Christ and to the Christian economy of the salvation of souls.

In fact, in poverty both the salvation of the poor and that of the rich are at stake. Poverty, despite negative representations, is necessary within a social environment where the poor are recipients of alms, a condition of salvation for those who are not. For this reason also, the poor must know how to accept their situation, against any idea of ​​social mobility, equality or reparation for the injustices of fate. The poor, last in the social hierarchy, sees his salvation in suffering itself, and makes him endure the trials he undergoes. But if poverty is a means of salvation for the poorit's only whatever condition you endure patiently (p. 171). This logic is found both in literary sources and among theologians, who, like Thomas Aquinas, cite the homily on the avarice of Basil of Caesare: you are in abundance, your neighbor is reduced to begging, why is that?? So that you both acquire merits, you by good dispensation, he by great patience (p. 174).

Mobility rejected, feared

The relationship between urban societies and poverty evolved, particularly after the Great Plague, from 1348, and the rapid growth of a population of supernumerary poor people who the scarce supply of work could not absorb, the unemployed and the beggars. A new distinction then takes off, between good and bad poor people, real and false beggars: able-bodied beggars, vagabonds, lazy people. It is associated with new regulations aimed at repressing them, forcing them to work, and preventing vagrancy. In this moment of change takes root the entire modern police of poverty, and the disqualification of the rights of the poor to assistance.

If the figure of the poor is thus desecrated, however, the rejection of social mobility remains significant, what Jean-Louis Roch calls the eradication of the desire for social ascension (p. 71), this going against a society of orders which, at the end of the Middle Ages, was renewed and strengthened. This is observed both by the condemnation of geographical mobility and the importance of the figure of the vagabond, widely identified by Geremek as a dangerous and contemptible figure in his book Ugly and miserable (1980), that by the criticism of people who dabble in too many professions (p. 35) or the literary way of making fun of figures of social ascension such as the schoolboy or the soldier (p. 46-47). Until XVIe century and in Rabelais thus persists the idea that everyone must remain in the place which has been given to them, the theater providing the support of this with its archetypes, such as topos of the joyful, true poor antidote to the egalitarian claim (p. 50).

Making fun of the poor: the functions of laughter

Reserving a large place for theatrical literature, that of farces and societies, Roch is even more in line with Geremek, and in particular his foray into literature of war in the Son of Can (1980). Laughter (just like other forms of symbolic or physical violence against the poor) is thus imbued with a quasi-ritual function. Exercise to the detriment of the beggar in the theater of the excluded, as it is perhaps in current practices of almsgiving, it allows the poor to be corrected when they lack patience, gratitude, or simply morality. At the same time, it operates a distancing or disidentification which also supports the logic of pity and charity: it not only serves to stigmatize immorality, it also plays a conjuring role (p. 182). Mockery does not arise only from ignorance or incomprehension of the figure of the poor, but also from a desire to se put aside poverty. This is, at least, one of the aspects illustrating the ambivalence of charitable giving as a daily and obligatory practice, and of its motivations in the medieval and modern urban environment.

This literature of derision constitutes one of the main avenues for identifying a popular discourse on poverty. Roch recalls (p. 200) the trap, identified by Todeschini, consisting of approaching poverty only from the discourse of the elites, making the Italian historian say thatwe can only write about the poor of the Middle Ages, the story of their exclusion, their devaluation and their infamy. However, there would indeed exist, according to the author, a way of approaching the specificities specific to medieval poverty: the recurrence of famines and plagues.; the interpenetration on the margins of society of begging, wars, vagrancy and crime; the importance of hospitality and mutual aid mechanisms; and finally the absence of the state, the preponderant role of shaping discourses and supervising assistance institutions falling to the Church.

Experiencing poverty also means experiencing proximity to it, experiencing it as an omnipresent, threatening prospect for the Christian subject to the whims of Fortune. In this very experience the ambivalence of the charitable feeling is rooted, perpetuated in the ambiguities of modern assistance systems whose function also remains the exclusion of the poor poor. If they fall outside the scope chosen by the author, we can at least point out the sustained interest of canonists and theologians in the question of the rights of the poor until XIIIe century, studied within the scholastic framework, and which hardly survives after the XIVe century.

The fate of the poor, from bad luck to responsibility

If Jean-Louis Roch's book, because it partly takes up texts already published elsewhere, is not completely devoid of the disadvantages inherent to this type of publication (a few repetitions, and a certain formal heterogeneity), the emphasis placed on the vocabulary of the poverty perfectly highlights the concomitance between the appearance of social dynamics and the invention of language. The emerging French in fact saw the appearance and evolution of a number of terms designating the poor, the modern meaning of which has often evolved, not only towards a derogatory meaning, but sometimes very far from the original usage. So the uglywho is none other than a beggar, without nuance of deception (p. 116); of ribaudfirst designating the lower level of soldiery, before moving towards the evocation of debauchery (p. 120); of naughtyor kitchen boy (p. 123); of blisterreserved for false beggars (p. 125); of tricksterwhich adds begging to the idea of ​​trickery, of trick (p. 151); of cayman from which the modern term derives to askand which refers to the figure of Can, Christian model of the traitor (just as much as Judas), and father of wandering races (p. 133). So, again, beggarof coquillartof harlotof scoundrelof maraudof snatcher

Among these words, that of naughty particularly attracts attention (pp. 94-101). THE nasty is in fact first the one who falls into the bad luck, who suffers from bad luck. By extension, it also designates the poor. The villain is therefore at the origin, simply, the unfortunate, before meaning from the outset XIVe shekel he who is inclined to evil. Jean-Louis Roch sees in this shift the sign of a double evolution and a renewal of the outlook on the poor, which results in the one who suffers evil also being the one who does it or even suffers it. becausehe does it. First change: the intervention of human responsibility, and the consequent idea that the poor are responsible for their poverty. Second point: the rapprochement within the discourses between social baseness and moral baseness. Forgetting the old idea of ​​the Wheel of Fortune (p. 102), the communities of emerging modernity do not see more luck in the fortune the rich, what bad luck there is for the naughtywhose bad life no longer comes from the accident, but from a freely chosen lifestyle (p. 105).

Poverty overthrowing fortune, Illustration by Boccaccio, British Library

In this, Jean-Louis Roch's study goes beyond the medieval view of poverty, and sheds light on the persistent tension between assistance and rejection of the poor. Operated by mockery, by laughter, and by the very gesture of almsgiving, the medieval distancing, largely dramatized from the poor, is thus perpetuated by the modern police of the poor and up to us.? through exclusion, forced labor and soon confinement (p. 186).