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Poverty and Deviance in Early Modern Europe.

by Robert Jutte. New York, Cambridge University Press, 1994. xvi, 239 pp. $49.95 U.S. (cloth), $14.95 U.S. (paper).

The title of this book (the fourth volume in C.U.P.'s "New Approaches to European History") requires clarifying. For the author, the terms "poverty" and "deviance" illuminate different aspects of a single problem: the situation confronting society's weakest members since the High Middle Ages. Poverty is a quantifiable condition whereas deviance, as a socially conferred attribute, belongs to a separate dimension of experience. The impression given is that deviance did not exist above a certain level of material well-being. This is the (erroneous) assumption dictated by the material under consideration. The focus is clearly on poverty.

The early chapters discuss the changing images of and attitudes toward the poor -- erosion of medieval Christian charitableness and its replacement by the indiscriminate labelling of all paupers as reprobates unworthy of public support -- and the causes of poverty. Two middle chapters examine the extent of poverty and living standards of the poor. The gist of the first is that it is impossible to quantify accurately the 'real' extent of poverty as the available data is wanting. In the second Jutte provides information on the domestic environment, on where the poor lived, how they organized their limited personal space, what they possessed, and what they consumed. The brief section on nutrition is disappointing because more could easily have been done to explore the effects of the ingesting of contaminated foods, along lines pursued by Mary Matossian in her intriguing study of mycotomins. Permanent, massive malnourishment brought with it social and political consequences of a kind which most of the literature on this topic only hints at.

The poor were the recipients of charity but they had always also endeavoured to mitigate their circumstances through self-help by relying on the support of an extended household (widows, the elderly) or by exploiting such networks as were to be found within neighbourhoods. We know something of kinship solidarity but little about how groups other than confraternities (guilds) served as informal providers of assistance. While the evidence is spotty, Jutte suspects that the extent of charitableness within subordinate subcultures was more pronounced than we have been led to believe.

Elsewhere the author has written extensively about the administration of poor relief. Perhaps for that reason his discussion of this topic in the study under review forms the dominant chapter, both in terms of length and in the thoroughness of the analysis offered. Medieval charity was replaced, beginning in the early sixteenth century, by two poor-relief systems, a centralized public system, and a decentralized private one which depended on the work of various organizations free from government control. Protestant regimes favoured a policy of rigorous, centrally directed relief while Catholic rulers continued relying heavily on assorted manifestations of private benevolence. The willingness to donate of one's time or money existed to be exploited owing to a fundamentalist Catholic obsession with salvation through good works -- a wonderful paradox, this, where altruism becomes a function of ignorance.

As noted above, only those forms of deviance which were apparently related directly to material deprivation receive attention: vagrancy, theft, smuggling, prostitution. From the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, church and state became increasingly interventionist, stigmatizing and punishing behaviour which violated prescribed norms. While Jutte draws on the work of the sociologist, Erving Goffman, in order to clarify the meaning of deviance (unconventional behaviour as the focus of collective negative regard [emphasis added]), he remains attached throughout his discussion of this topic to a rule-centred paradigm for understanding social order (and disorder), one which most sociologists and criminologists are no longer comfortable with. That is, for him virtually all "strategies of marginalization" were institutionally devised and institutionally executed." Collective, negative regard' evidently followed in the wake of actions initiated by civil and ecclesiastical authorities. Such an interpretation accords well with much of the historical literature on European crime and punishment, but it nonetheless exaggerates the hegemonic power of a minority while underestimating the extent to which popular subcultures coincidentally defined what was considered normal.

These reservations aside and notwithstanding an occasional descent into the realm of things esoteric (for instance, a discussion of the etymology of ergot), this is a text which Europeanists and their students will find useful.
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Author:Wegert, Karl
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1995
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