Impoverished mothers and poor widows: negotiating images of poverty in Marseille’s courts
By Susan McDonough
Journal of Medieval History, Vol.34:1 (2008)
Abstract: In the early fifteenth century, in Marseille’s court of first instance, a sailor’s wife Margarida Gramone sued her son-in-law’s estate to recoup money she had spent nursing her dying daughter and granddaughter. She justified her claim on the money by arguing that she had been completely impoverished by the medicine, doctors and wet nurses that her sick family had needed. She called witnesses to attest to her impoverished state and they told a story of a woman unable to pay her bills and reliant on the charity of her neighbours. Other witnesses in the same case, however, suggest Margarida was not poor, but a woman of means. Attempting to reconcile this discrepancy, this article will examine how Marseille’s legally savvy citizens negotiated between at least two different attitudes towards the poor: a Christian celebration of charity and a legal scepticism of a pauper’s word. The legal records from late medieval Marseille show a multivalent attitude towards the poor. They suggest that the city’s citizens were able to draw on different narratives about poverty in order to win over the presiding judge. At the same time, witness testimony about the poor reminds us that the burden of charity was not always welcomed by Marseille’s citizens.