Cultures of Charity

Cultures of Charity

Women, Politics, and the Reform of Poor Relief in Renaissance Italy

eBook - 2013
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Harvard University Press

Renaissance Italians pioneered radical changes in ways of helping the poor, including orphanages, workhouses, pawnshops, and women’s shelters. Nicholas Terpstra shows that gender was the key factor driving innovation. Most of the recipients of charity were women. The most creative new plans focused on features of women’s poverty like illegitimate births, hunger, unemployment, and domestic violence. Signal features of the reforms, from forced labor to new instruments of saving and lending, were devised specifically to help young women get a start in life.

Cultures of Charity is the first book to see women’s poverty as the key factor driving changes to poor relief. These changes generated intense political debates as proponents of republican democracy challenged more elitist and authoritarian forms of government emerging at the time. Should taxes fund poor relief? Could forced labor help build local industry? Focusing on Bologna, Terpstra looks at how these fights around politics and gender generated pioneering forms of poor relief, including early examples of maternity benefits, unemployment insurance, food stamps, and credit union savings plans.

Renaissance debates about politics and gender led to pioneering forms of poor relief, devised to help women get a start in life. These included orphanages for illegitimate children and forced labor in workhouses, but also women’s shelters and early forms of maternity benefits, unemployment insurance, food stamps, and credit union savings plans.

Baker & Taylor
Explains how many of the charitable programs to come out of the Italian Renaissance—orphanages, workhouses, pawnshops and women's shelters—were created to address the problems of women in poverty.

Book News
Terpstra (history, U. of Toronto) investigates the reformation of poor relief in Renaissance Italy, specifically Bologna, and the driving role that women played in it. He points out that several other cities looked to Bologna as a model for dealing with its own poor. He also investigates this influence. He considers the creation of workhouses for the poor, the increased practice of saving for dowries, moral discipline, women as administrators and recipients of aid, and the presaging of unemployment insurances, food-stamps, and maternity benefits. This fascinating history moves between the politics of gender, class, and charity as it draws attention to the exploitation of women in the formation of capitalist welfare institutions. Annotation ©2013 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

Publisher: Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 2013
ISBN: 9780674067929
Characteristics: 1 online resource (x, 379 pages) : illustrations, map


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