Proposal preview


The wide phenomenology of Medieval poor relief provisions has long been perceived as religiously motivated and controlled by the ecclesiastical apparatus. In the main charitable initiatives have been regarded as individual manifestations inspired by pietas, disconnected from rational evaluation of social and economic needs, unconcerned with the efficiency of the services offered and the effectiveness of the management of assets. These interventions were disorganized and haphazard, and exhausted their purpose with the spiritual and worldly investment of benefactors. The postulate that communities have a moral responsibility to help the poor has been associated to the Protestant Reformation and to the Enlightenment. From a historiographical point of view, this perspective has justified the confining of the history of welfare to “a history of piety” till the 19th century – especially in Catholic countries – and the consequent lack of understanding and marginalization of pre modern assistance.
Since the 1970s, a progressive renewal of the historiographical perspective has taken place. Thanks to the proliferation of studies on the history of poverty, social exclusion and welfare institutions (Pullan 1971; Mollat 1974; Rubio 1984; Geremek 1986; Barry & Jones 1991; Brodman 1998; Farmer 2002; Horden 2008), the view of a clear cut modern rise of new rational forms of relief directed by secular authorities has been questioned. In turn this had led to a fruitful discussion about the very evolution of the concept of social responsibility in pre modern Europe, the scope and means of early welfare services provided to the sick and the poor by secular authorities. These historiographical developments have allowed us to view and approach in new ways the practices of poor relief and the complex institutional networks for social welfare that had already developed in urban communities in the late Middle Ages.
The session aims at shedding light on the common roots and evolution of western welfare culture, investigating goals, features and development of the various forms of care, social and economic relief that arose in European communities from the late Middle Ages onwards. Particular attention will be devoted to the growing role played by local authorities in promoting, directing and coordinating welfare policies.
We invite all session participants to address general issues in presenting their case studies, so that it will be possible to compare different models of welfare, diverse funding systems and styles of assets’ management, allocation of resources, and the impact different approaches had on policies of social control from the late Middle Ages to the 19th century.


  • Paola Avallone, Italian National Research Council (CNR) - Institute of Studies on Mediterranean Societies (ISSM) - Italy,, Italy
  • Mauro Carboni, University of Bologna - Italy,, Italy
  • Nicholas Terpstra , University of Toronto - Canada,, Canada

Session members

  • Colesanti Gemma Teresa, Italian National Council of Research (CNR) - Institute of European Mediterranean History (ISEM) - Italy,
  • Antoni Furiò, University of Valencia - Spain,
  • Luciano Maffi, University "Cattolica del Sacro Cuore" of Brescia - Italy,
  • Raffaella Salvemini, Italian National Council of Research (CNR) - Institute of Studies on Mediterranean Societies (ISSM) - Italy,
  • Matthew Sneider , University of Massachusetts - Dartmouth - USA,
  • Donatella Strangio, University "Sapienza" of Roma - Italy,
  • Jaco Zuijderduijn, Lund University,
  • Myriam Greilsammer, Bar-Ilan University,
  • Timothy Fehler, Furman University,
  • Martín L. E. Wasserman, University of Buenos Aires – National Scientific and Technical Research Council,

Proposed discussant(s)

  • Thomas Safley, University of Pennsylvania,