Poverty, the Poor and Welfare in Medieval Urban Culture
By Lucas Burkart
The Welfare State: Past, Present, Future, edited by Ann Katherine Isaacs (University of Pisa, 2001)
Introduction: Influenced by sociology, the study of social groups has formed an important focus of historical investigation. For almost forty years now historians studying different epochs have examined societies from the perspective of their social stratifications. The sociological paradigm refined the vocabulary of historians by making available terms and concepts that helped to understand the process of social stratification (Sozialgeschichte). The process of social stratification is different from one epoch to another. As a result of the methodological change of paradigm, interest shifted from the study of the rich and powerful who lead societies economically and politically to the lower classes, to groups and individual at the edge of societies. For historians of western societies of the 19th century the interest shifted from the bourgeoisie to the emergence of a proletariat as a consequence of industrialisation, whereas historians of ancient societies showed particular interest in slaves and no longer exclusively in slave-owners.
Moreover, the question of the social stratification of groups and individuals is closely connected to the question of their economic position within in a society. That there exists a relation between social rank and economic conditions is one of the paradigmatic methodological implications of social history in general. The group we wish to analyse in this chapter is therefore described better as a socio-economic group than a social class in the strict sense. The sociological approach, however, is very much present through the fact that we describe certain individuals as representatives of a group, and by the very fact that we utilise ‘the Poor’ as a category of scientific analysis.