Encyclopedia of Medieval Philosophy

2011 Edition
| Editors: Henrik Lagerlund


  • Virpi Mäkinen
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4020-9729-4_415


Poverty was a relative matter in the Middle Ages, as it is nowadays. There were different modes of poverty: voluntary poverty for the religious, the simulated poverty of hypocrites, and the involuntary poverty of mendicants forced to beg in order to survive. Since mendicancy was a serious problem throughout the Middle Ages, the church and, later on, society were forced to create and develop forms of poor relief. The church recommended benevolence toward the poor who did not have means of sustenance, mainly encouraging people to give alms. The common opinion was that one should give alms from one’s surplus and take care of oneself and those closest to one first. The recipient should be in need. However, two natural law principles, the maxims of necessitas non habet legem and of communis omnium possessio founded on canon law, ordered the almsgiving. From the thirteenth century onward scholastics emphasized that property was necessary for functioning in the public sphere, both in the state and in the church. They promoted the idea of limited wealth needed to support life and that a person’s moral responsibility involved having property. The Franciscan ideal of poverty as the renunciation of all modes of rights was criticized as being against the natural duty of subsistence. There was also an important discussion on individual rights and actions, which led to the doctrine of natural rights in the late Middle Ages. Poverty was also seen as one central theme in late medieval political theory concerning the relationship between ownership and political rule. Various concepts marked a contrast between the inferiority of the pauper and the superiority of the person who possessed power (potestas) or civic liberty (civis, burgensis), or wealth (dives).

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


Primary Sources

  1. Aquinas Thomas (1888–1906) Summa theologiae, ed. Leonina. Opera omnia, vols 4–12. S. Sabina, RomeGoogle Scholar
  2. Aquinas Thomas (1970) Contra impugnantes Dei cultum et religionem, ed. Leonina. Sabina, RomeGoogle Scholar
  3. Bonaventure (1898) Apologia pauperum. Opera omnia edita cura et studio pp. collegii a S. Bonaventura, vol VIII. Collegium S. Bonaventurae, Quaracchi, pp 30–330Google Scholar
  4. Francis of Assisi (1993) Regula Bullata. Die Opuscula des Hl. Franziskus von Assisi, ed. Esser K. Spicilegium Bonaventurianum XIII. Editiones Collegii S. Bonaventurae ad Claras Aquas, GrottaferrataGoogle Scholar
  5. Gerard of Abbeville (1938/1939) Tractatus Gerardi de Abbatisvilla: Conta adversarium perfectionis, ed. Clasen S. Archivum Franciscanum Historicum (1938) 31:276–329; (1939) 32:89–200Google Scholar
  6. Godfrey of Fontaines (1904–1937) Les Quodlibets de Godefroid de Fontaines, vols I–XV, ed. De Wulf M, Peltzer A, Hoffmans J, Lottin O. Institut supérieur de philosophie de l’université, LouvainGoogle Scholar
  7. Gratianus (1879) Decretum Magistri Gratiani, ed. Friedberg A, Tauchnitz B. Corpus Iuris Canonici, vol I. LeipzigGoogle Scholar
  8. Vives Juan Luis (2002) De subventione pauperum sive de humanis necessitatibus: Introduction, critical edition, translation and notes, Libri II, ed. Matheeussen C, Fantazzi C, De Landtsheer J. Brill, Leiden/BostonGoogle Scholar
  9. William of Ockham (1940/1963) Opus nonaginta dierum, caps. 1–6, ed. Bennet RF, Sikes JG. Guillelmi de Ockham, Opera Politica, vol 1. University Press, Manchester, pp 287–374 (1940); caps. 7–124, ed. Sikes J, Offler HS. Opera Politica, vol 2. University Press, Manchester, pp 375–858 (1963)Google Scholar
  10. William of Saint-Amour (1632) Tractatus brevis de periculis novissimorum temporum, ed. Alithophilius. Opera omnia. Constantiae, Paris, pp 17–72Google Scholar

Secondary Sources

  1. Brunner O (1984) Sozialgeschichte Europas in Mittelalter, 2. Aufl. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, GöttingenGoogle Scholar
  2. Coleman J (1991) Property and poverty. In: Burns JH (ed) The Cambridge history of medieval political thought c. 350–c. 1450. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 607–652Google Scholar
  3. Cusato MF (2009) Poverty. In: The Cambridge history of medieval philosophy, vol. II. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 577–592Google Scholar
  4. de Vinck J (trans) (1966) Defense of the mendicants. Works of St. Bonaventure, vol IV. St. Anthony Guil, PatersonGoogle Scholar
  5. Dyer C (1989) Standards of living in the later Middle Ages: social change in England c. 1200–1520. Cambridge medieval textbook. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  6. Evans GR (2009) Law and nature. In: The Cambridge history of medieval philosophy, vol II. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. pp 565–576Google Scholar
  7. Henderson J (1994) Piety and charity in late medieval Florence. University of Chicago Press, Chicago/LondonGoogle Scholar
  8. Kantola I (1994) Probability and moral uncertainty in late medieval and early modern times. Luther-Agricola-Society, HelsinkiGoogle Scholar
  9. Kilcullen J (1995) The origin of property: Ockham, Grotius, Pufendorf, and some others. http://www.mq.edu.au/hpp/politics/prop.html. Accessed 15 Jan 2009
  10. Lambert MD (1961) Franciscan poverty: the doctrine of the absolute poverty of Christ and the Apostles in the Franciscan order 1210–1323. SPCK, LondonGoogle Scholar
  11. Lambertini R (2000) La povertà pensata. Mucchi Editore, ModenaGoogle Scholar
  12. Lawrence CH (1994) The Friars: the impact of the early mendicant movement on western society. Lingman, London/New YorkGoogle Scholar
  13. Little LK (1978) Religious poverty and the profit economy in medieval Europe. Cornell University Press, IthacaGoogle Scholar
  14. Mäkinen V (2001) Property rights in the late medieval discussion on Franciscan poverty. Peeters, LeuvenGoogle Scholar
  15. McGovern JF (1970) The rise of new economic attitudes – economic humanism, economic nationalism – during the later middle ages and the Renaissance, A.D. 1200–1500. Traditio 26:217–253Google Scholar
  16. McKeon PR (1964) The development of the concept of property in political philosophy: a study of the background of the constitution. Ethics XLVIII:304–312Google Scholar
  17. Mollat M (1978) The poor in the Middle Ages: an essay in social history (trans: Goldhammer A). Yale University Press, New Haven/LondonGoogle Scholar
  18. Roumy F (2006) L’origine et la diffusion de l’adage canonique Necessitas non habet legem (VIIIe-XIIIe s). In: Müller WP, Sommar ME (eds) Medieval church law and the origins of the western legal tradition: a tribute to Kenneth Pennington. The Catholic University of America Press, Washington, pp 301–319Google Scholar
  19. Swanson SG (1997) The medieval foundations of John Locke’s theory of natural rights: rights of subsistence and the principle of extreme necessity. Hist Polit Thought 18:399–456Google Scholar
  20. Tierney B (1959) Medieval poor law: a sketch of canonical theory and its application in England. University of California Press, BerkeleyGoogle Scholar
  21. Tierney B (1997) The idea of natural rights: studies on natural rights, natural law and church law 1150–1625. Scholars, AtlantaGoogle Scholar
  22. Van den Eijnden JGJ (1994) Poverty on the way to God: Thomas Aquinas on evangelical poverty. Peeters, LeuvenGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Virpi Mäkinen
    • 1
  1. 1.Helsinki Collegium for Advanced StudiesUniversity of HelsinkiHelsinkiFinland