Revolution in the Streets: Faith, Poverty, and Religious Ferment, c.1200

Tutor: Sethina Watson

Module type: Special Subject

Module Code: HIS00082H

At the end of the twelfth century, religion took to the streets. Whereas monks, nuns and hermits had sought salvation by abandoning the world, embracing lives of prayerful contemplation in monasteries. Now, numbers of men and women took a more radical stance, heading into the bustle of the world to forge religious lives on city streets, among the destitute and despised. They sought God not by fleeing the pain of human existence, and its sinful causes but by confronting it, ministering to the wretched and embracing lives of degradation and want.

This religious revival was riding the wave of huge social change. For this was the age of urbanization, when the cities of Europe awoke, and prospered. International trade and ready money created new riches and opportunity, but also new social problems. Migrants swelled populations of les miserables, those ranks of abandoned humanity who begged on city streets. Victims of the profit economy became the objects of care as well as models for a new religious life. Men and women founded leper-houses and hospitals. Others surrendered their own comforts to live among the wretched, some horrifying contemporaries by embracing (literally and figuratively) the diseased, disfigured, lepers and paupers. Poverty became the religious problem. From the streets came voices of dissent, proclaiming the corruptions of wealth.

On city streets there emerged new, and suspect forms of religious life. In serving the wretched, many made lives on the fringes of society, beyond the control of the institutional church. New forms of service were forged in leper-houses and poor hospitals. Radicals, including Francis of Assisi, became beggars and preachers, their life of poverty a reproach to the priests, bishops and monks who lived in comfort. Women often led these calls. In Flanders and Northern France ‘beguines’ emerged, women who embraced lives of voluntary poverty to care for the poor and sick, often outside the structures of the church. They could be inspiring, but also dangerous. Some were mystics, their lives of suffering inspiring followers; others were suspected of heresy. The more extreme became objects of wonder, attracting biographers whose vitae (‘lives’) survive.

This module will explore this moment of religious ferment, and of social change and social challenge, on city streets, c.1170-1250. It focuses on the cities of England, Flanders and Northern France, but will glance, too, at Southern France and Italy. It explores the upheaval of the profit economy by looking at the social responses, the religious zeal and the controversies brought about by the clash of urban wealth and poverty. This includes new forms of religious life, forged by this piety of the streets, in houses of beguines and family dwellings, as well as leper houses, hospitals, and even the cells of anchorites, enclosed beside parish churches. We look, too, at the lepers and paupers they served, at the institutions created to serve the needy, and at voices of social criticism of and from the new cities. To do this, we will use a range of source material, including the ‘lives’ of saints and mystics, chronicle accounts, charters and regulations for hospitals, laws and commentaries of concerned churchmen, sermons and religious rules. All material will be provided in English.

Seminars will likely cover the following areas:

  • Three lives in a changing world: anchorite, hospitaller and mystic
  • Crisis or Awakening? Religious life breaks out of the monaster
  • Lepers I: What was to be done with lepers? Donors and the Disease
  • Lepers II: Repulsion and religious calling
  • The profit economy and its critics: St Francis takes to the street
  • The profit economy and its critics: scholars and dirty mone
  • Poverty and Revolution I: Longbeard and the London revol
  • Poverty and Revolution II: the Humiliati
  • A revolution in charity: The founding of hospital
  • What were hospitals? A question of law and unregulated devotio
  • What did women want? Gender and religious service
  • Temples of the poor: The wretched and those who tended the
  • The rise of the Beguine
  • Anchorite
  • A match made for heaven? Male Dominicans and Female Mystics         
  • The question of social responsibilit
  • Conclusion