relief to able-bodied beggars unless they were set to work (Charlem. Capit. v. 10). Thus we find here the germ of a poor-law system. As in the times of the annona civica, slavery, feudalism, or statutory serfdom, the burthen of the maintenance of the poor fell only in part on charity. Only those who could not be maintained as members of some “family” were properly entitled to relief, and in these circumstances the officially recognized clients of the church consisted of the gradually decreasing number of free poor and those who were tenants of church lands.
Since 817 there has been no universally binding decision of the church respecting the care of the poor (Ratzinger, p. 236). So long ago did laicization begin in charity. In the wars and confusion of the 9th and 10th centuries the poorer freemen lapsed still further into slavery, or became coloni or bond servants; and later they passed under the feudal rule. Thus the church’s duty to relieve them became the masters’ obligation to maintain them. Simultaneously the activity of the clergy, regular and secular alike, dwindled. They were exhorted to increase their alms. The revenues and property of “the poor” were largely turned to private or partly ecclesiastical purposes, or secularized. Legacies went wholly to the clergy, but only the tithe of the produce of their own lands was used for relief; and of the general tithe, only a third or fourth part was so applied. Eventually to a large extent, but more elsewhere than in England (Ratzinger, pp. 246, 269), the tithe itself was appropriated by nobles or even by the monasteries; and thus during and after the 10th century a new organization of charity was created on non-parochial methods of relief. Alms, with prayer and fasting, had always been connected with penance. But the character of the penitential system had altered. By the 7th century private penance had superseded the public and congregational penance of the earlier church (Dict. Christian Antiquities, art. “Penitence”). To the penalties of exclusion from the sacraments or from the services of the church or from its communion was coupled, with other penitential discipline, an elaborate penitential system, in which about the 7th century the redemption of sin by the “sacrifice” of property, payments of money fines, &c., was introduced. (Cf. for instance Conc. Elberti:—Labbeus i. 969 (A.D. 305), with Conc. Berghamstedense, Wilkins, Conc. p. 60 (A.D. 696), and the Penitential (p. 115) and Canons (A.D. 960), p. 236.) The same sin committed by an overseer (praepositus paganus) was compensated by a fine of 100 solidi; in the case of a colonus by a fine of 50. So amongst the ways of penitence were entered in the above-mentioned Canons, to erect a church, and if means allowed, add to it land ... to repair the public roads ... “to distribute,” to help poor widows, orphans and strangers, redeem slaves, fast, &c.—a combination of “good deeds” which suggests a line of thought such as ultimately found expression in the definition of charities in the Charitable Uses Act of Queen Elizabeth. The confessor, too, was “spiritualis medicus,” and much that from the point of view of counsel would now be the work of charity would in his hands be dealt with in that capacity. For lesser sins (cf. Bede (673–735), Hom. 34, quoted by Ratzinger) the penalty was prayer, fasting and alms; for the greater sins—murder, adultery and idolatry—to give up all. Thus while half-converted barbarians were kept in moral subjection by material penances, the church was enriched by their gifts; and these tended to support the monastic and institutional methods which were in favour, and to which, on the revival of religious earnestness in the 11th century, the world looked for the reform of social life.
To understand medieval charity it is necessary to return to St Augustine. According to him, the motive of man in his legitimate effort to assert himself in life was love or desire (amor or cupido). “All impulses were only Medieval revision of the theory of charity.evolutions of this typical characteristic” (Harnack, History of Dogma (trans.), v. iii.); and this was so alike in the spiritual and the sensuous life. Happiness thus depended on desire; and desire in turn depended on the regulation of the will; but the will was regulated only by grace. God was the spiritualis substantia; and freedom was the identity of the will with the omnipotent unchanging nature. This highest Being was “holiness working on the will in the form of omnipotent love.” This love was grace—“grace imparting itself in love.” Love (caritas—charity) is identified with justice; and the will, the goodwill, is love. The identity of the will with the will of God was attained by communion with Him. The after-life consummated by sight this communion, which was here reached only by faith. Such a method of thought was entirely introspective, and it turned the mind “wholly to hope, asceticism and the contemplation of God in worship.” “Where St Augustine indulges in the exposition of practical piety he has no theory at all of Christ’s work.” To charity on that side he added nothing. In the 11th century there was a revival of piety, which had amongst its objects the restoration of discipline in the monasteries and a monastic training for the secular clergy. To this Augustinian thought led the way. “Christianity was asceticism and the city of God” (Harnack vi. 6). A new religious feeling took possession of the general mind, a regard and adoration of the actual, the historic Christ. Of this St Bernard was the expositor. “Beside the sacramental Christ the image of the historical took its place,—majesty in humility, innocence in penal suffering, life in death.” The spiritual and the sensuous were intermingled. Dogmatic formulae fell into the background. The picture of the historic Christ led to the realization of the Christ according to the spirit (κατὰ πνεῦμα). Thus St Bernard carried forward Augustinian thought; and the historic Christ became the “sinless man, approved by suffering, to whom the divine grace, by which He lives, has lent such power that His image takes shape in other men and incites them to corresponding humility and love.”
Humility and poverty represented the conditions under which alone this spirit could be realized; and the poverty must be spiritual, and therefore self-imposed (“wilful,” as it was afterwards called). This led to practical results. Poverty was not a social state, but a spiritual; and consequently the poor generally were not the pauperes Christi, but those who, like the monks, had taken vows of poverty. From these premisses followed later the doctrine that gifts to the church were not gifts to the poor, as once they had been, but to the religious bodies. The church was not the church of the poor, but of the poor in spirit. But the immediate effect was the belief for a time, apparently almost universal, that the salvation of society would come from the monastic orders. By their aid, backed by the general opinion, the secular clergy were brought back to celibacy and the monasteries newly disciplined. But charity could not thus regain its touch of life and become the means of raising the standard of social duty.
Next, one amongst many who were stirred by a kindred inspiration, St Francis turned back to actual life and gave a new reality to religious idealism. For him the poor were once again the pauperes Christi. To follow Christ was to adopt the life of “evangelical poverty,” and this was to live among the poor the life of a poor man. The follower was to work with his hands (as the poor clergy of the early church had done and the clergy of the early English church were exhorted to do); he was to receive no money; he was to earn the actual necessaries of life, though what he could not earn he might beg. To ask for this was a right, so long as he was bringing a better life into the world. All in excess of this he gave to the poor. He would possess no property, buildings or endowments, nor was his order to do so. The fulness of his life was in the complete realization of it now, without the cares of property and without any fear of the future. Having a definite aim and mission, he was ready to accept the want that might come upon him, and his life was a discipline to enable him to suffer it if it came. To him humility was the soul making itself fit to love; and poverty was humility expanded from a mood to a life, a life not guarded by seclusion, but spent amongst those who were actually poor. The object of life was to console the poor—those outside all monasteries and institutions—the poor as they lived and worked. The movement was practically a lay movement, and its force consisted in its simplicity and directness. Book learning was disparaged: life was to be the teacher. The brothers thus became observant and practical, and afterwards indeed learned, and their learning had the same characteristics. Their power lay in their practical sagacity, in their treatment of life, outside the cloister and the hospital, at first hand. They knew the people because they settled amongst them, living just as they did. This was their method of charity.
The inspiration that drew St Francis to this method was the contemplation of the life of Christ. But it was more than this. The Christ was to him, as to St Bernard, an ideal, whose nature passed into that of the contemplating and adoring beholder, so that, as he said, “having lost its individuality, of itself the creature could no longer act.” He had no impulse but the Christ impulse. He was changed. His identity was merged in that of Christ. And with this came the conception of a