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Almsgiving and the Formation of Early Medieval Societies, A.D. 700-1025
By Eric Shuler
PhD Dissertation, University of Notre Dame (2010)
Abstract: This dissertation undertakes an investigation of a behavior practiced by kings and commoners alike: charity to the poor or, to adopt the term favored then, almsgiving (eleemosina). It covers early medieval England and Francia. This work makes two arguments, one for continuity and one for change. Early medieval Christians embraced their late antique inheritance of almsgiving, entrenching it as a sophisticated and robust system of personal and institutional charity. Nonetheless, early medieval charity evolved its own particular character in light of economic circumstances and especially the influence of the Carolingian and Anglo-Saxon programs of Christianization. Its distinctive aspect was its rejection of the idea of discriminating among poor recipients, and its strong push for universal giving.
The dissertation falls into three parts. The first part outlines the place of almsgiving in medieval Christianity. Almsgiving was defined as an act of mercy, and the interior dimensions of it (including love) were key. The theology of charity revolved around a triangle of relationships between God, giver, and recipient; these relationships are best understood in light of anthropological insights into gift exchange. This theology differed from its patristic roots in its emphasis on Christ receiving the alms directly without the pauper having to do anything, as well as its incorporation of private penance and purgatory.
The second part describes the practice of almsgiving. It revolved around the liturgical and agricultural cycles of the year, as well as times of crisis or death. All groups in society gave to varying extents, although there was some resistance, especially regarding hospitality. The church played a significant role in the institutional provision of charity through hospitals, the matricula, rural churches, and the tithe.
The third part turns to society. Most people were “poor” in some sense, and many faced the possibility of needing charity at some point. Using Marco van Leeuwen’s model of charity as a social negotiation between elites and the poor, the final chapter analyzes what exactly each side gained from charity. Hierarchy was influential, but early medieval religious preoccupations and the impetus for creating community were even more decisive in shaping eleemosynary interactions.