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A History of the Reformation (Vol. 1 of 2)

These were all ecclesiastical beggars


Nothing shows how the Church of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries had instilled the mind of Jesus into the peoples of Europe like the zeal with which they tried to do their duty by the poor, the sick, and the helpless. Institutions, founded by individuals or by corporations, for the purpose of housing the destitute abounded, and men and women willingly dedicated themselves to the service of the unfortunate.

"The Beguins crowned with flapping hats, O'er long-drawn bloodless faces blank, And gowns unwashed to wrap their lank Lean figures,"(93)

were sisters of mercy in every mediaeval town. Unfortunately the lessons of the Church included the thought that begging was a Christian virtue; while the idea that because charity is taught by the law of Christ, its exercise must be everywhere superintended by ecclesiastics, was elevated to a definite principle of action, if not to something directly commanded by the law of God. The Reformation protested against these two ideas, and the silent anticipation of this protest is to be found in the non-ecclesiastical piety of the close of the fifteenth century.

The practice of begging, its toleration and even encouragement, was almost universal. In some of the benevolent institutions the sick and the pensioners were provided from the endowment with all the necessaries of life, but it was generally thought becoming that they should beg them from the charitable. The very fact of begging seemed to raise those who shared in it to the level of members of a religious association. St. Francis, the "imitator of Christ," had taught his followers to beg, and this great example sanctified the practice. It is true that the begging friars were always the butt of the satirists of the close of the fifteenth century. They delighted to portray the mendicant monk, with his sack, into which he seemed able to stuff everything: honey and spice, nutmegs, pepper, and preserved ginger, cabbage and eggs, poultry, fish, and new clothes, milk, butter, and cheese; cheese especially, and of all kinds--ewe's milk and goat's milk, hard cheese and soft cheese, large cheeses and small cheeses--were greedily demanded by these "cheese hunters," as they were satirically called. On their heels tramped a host of semi-ecclesiastical beggars, all of them with professional names--men who begged for a church that was building, or for an altar-cloth, or to hansel a young priest at his first Mass; men who carried relics about for the charitable to kiss--some straw from the manger of Bethlehem, or a feather from the wing of the angel Gabriel; the Brethren of St. James, who performed continual and vicarious pilgrimages to Compostella, and sometimes robbed and murdered on the road; the Brethren of St. Anthony, who had the special privilege of wearing a cross and carrying a bell on their begging visits. These were all ecclesiastical beggars. The ordinary beggars did their best to obtain some share of the sanctity which surrounded the profession; they carried with them the picture of some saint, or placed the cockle-shell, the badge of a pilgrim, in their hats, and secured a quasi-ecclesiastical standing.(94) Luther expressed not merely his own opinion on this plague of beggars in his _Address to the Nobility of the German Nation_, but what had been thought and partially practised by quiet laymen for several decades. Some towns began to make regulations against promiscuous begging by able-bodied persons, provided work for them, seized their children, and taught them trades--all of which sensible doings were against the spirit of the mediaeval Church.


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