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Ancient/medieval welfare state?

Discussion in 'Research' started by Jabrosky, May 14, 2012.

  1. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

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    Could an ancient/medieval-style pre-capitalist country implement a welfare system which provided for the poorer members of society? I ask because my current WIP's main bad guy is a king who wants to cut spending on the kingdom's welfare system and redirect the money to the military.
     
  2. Ivan

    Ivan Minstrel

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    There were forms of welfare in the Middle Ages, as charity was encouraged by the church. Kings often paid beggars to pray for the king's or a relative's soul.

    Of course, in the Middle Ages power of all types was decentralized, so there was less capacity for top-down welfare programs. Most housing and feeding was done by smaller organizations, such as convents, local lords and the rich, or the community as a whole.

    Imperial Rome also had the famous "bread and circuses" although this may not have been as much about caring for the poor especially.
     
    Last edited: May 14, 2012
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  3. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

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    I should note that my setting is closer culturally to ancient Egypt and Nubia than medieval Europe, and those civilizations were as I recall quite centralized at their peaks.
     
  4. Ankari

    Ankari Hero Breaker Moderator

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    During the various Islamic Empires there was such a welfare system in place. Its effectiveness would fluctuate depending on who ruled. You had a what was referred to as the "House of Money" in every capital city of a region where supplicants would go to request aid. It shifted towards a localized system that operated out of the mosques as the empire destabilized.
     
  5. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

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    Every wealthier person was EXPECTED to give charity to the poor in Medieval Europe. Table scraps were saved for the poor, prisoners were fed and cared for by friends or relatives or wealthy people (by prisoners I mean people in stocks too, there were not jails as we know them). Churches of course were charitable.

    There was a lot of gifting, so it would not probably have been money doled out as it is today, but a lady might gift her servants with a pair of sleeves or an old dress, and though many things were used until they fell apart, almost every household had things set aside for the poor which were too old to be used, but not yet destroyed.

    An interesting note about this early recycling: The term "garbage" came from the tailoring industry. When everything left over was given to the poor, old clothing, old shoes, leather scraps, food scraps, EVERYTHING, nothing went to waste. Except one thing (probably more, but this is an interesting one). Tailors protected their patterns like it was life or death, and after they cut a garment from a piece of fabric, the remaining fabric went into the cabbage (garbage) and was destroyed. Not even the poor were given the fabric scraps, lest someone use them to steal a pattern. And so, those were "garbage". Okay, sorry for my tangent, just an illustration of how nothing was wasted.
     
  6. Graylorne

    Graylorne Archmage

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    Ancient Egypt for example had a system of public grain stores, to feed people in times of bad harvests. A greedy king could use this grain for his armies. It probably would create unrest, though.

    Wouldn't a lot of welfare go through the temples?

    That 'House of Money' idea is worth to remember, btw.
     
  7. Ravana

    Ravana Istar

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    Rome–the city, that is–had public welfare on a massive level. You know that phrase "bread and circuses"? It may have been coined by a satirist… but it was literal. The "grain dole," or annona, was created in 123 BCE, to provide subsidized grain supplies to the poorer residents: originally, it was bought by the government and resold at discount rates; by the time of Julius Caesar, "discount" had become "free"–for as much as a quarter of the population, depending on which estimates you use. (Augustus reduced the number of recipients to 200k during his reign.) By around 200 CE, olive oil had been added to the annona; by 275, pork and wine (not sure if these were free or discounts). To the best of my knowledge, this remained a feature only of the city, and never extended to any other part of the empire. The "circuses"–public entertainments–were also subsidized by the government (or, occasionally, private citizens). And of course there were the massive public works, water supply in particular, in all parts of the empire, though this might not have been what you had in mind.

    And if Roman history is any guide, if your king wants to reduce welfare expenses, he'd better be rerouting the money into his military–he's gonna need them.

    More generally: could a pre-modern country implement a welfare system? Certainly. All depends on what parts of civic life you want it to cover. The Inca Empire, for example, was a complete socialism, in modern terms: the state controlled all production and resources, and provided for the needs of its citizens. Most examples will be of rather more limited scope, but the principles remain the same: the government will be able to provide to the extent that it controls or takes in resources. If the government holds a monopoly on certain high-value commodities (gold and silver being the traditional ones), it may well be able to provide a standard of living well in excess of the net value of the population's production… as long as there are external trading partners willing to sell to it. And as long as the resources hold out.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 11, 2017
  8. Ravana

    Ravana Istar

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    I'd recheck your sources on that one. The word 'cabbage' comes from the French 'caboche' ("head"); 'garbage,' while of uncertain origin, is unrelated, having entered the language at roughly the same time, with the meaning of "offal." (The earliest attestation of 'garbage' in English predates that of 'cabbage' by ten years: 1430 to 1440.)

    Besides, fabric would make an extremely poor choice of fertilizer, as it can take years to decompose… which also means this would make an extremely poor method of trying to prevent industrial espionage. If tailors wanted to prevent off-cuts from falling into the wrong hands, they would have burned them. The ashes would be better for the garden anyway.

    Also, there are far easier ways to "steal" patterns, should you want to, than by trying to recreate them from off-cuts. I've duplicated relatively complex ones without disassembling the garment I was using as a template—and I'm no wizard when it comes to sewing. It would be far simpler to get your hands on a single garment you wanted to copy, rip out the seams, and lay out the pieces, than it would be to try doing the same from any number of remnants: to start with, you'd never know if you had all the pieces—and if two pieces shared a cut line you wouldn't be able to determine this even if you did have all the extras—nor would it tell you how they all went together.
     
  9. Fnord

    Fnord Troubadour

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    Ain't that the truth. If you need a more civilized, modern picture just look at how some of the citizens in countries like Greece have handled some cutbacks. And of course, Greece is a good example of the inevitability of such systems taken to extremes: people became very good at tax avoidance while reaping what benefits from the public coffers they could. In a country like Greece, whose main exports are largely tourism, the resource surplus that funds this system dries up pretty quickly.


    Yeah, to a degree and for a fairly short time (inversely correlated to how large in scope the nation or kingdom is). For example, the Spanish Empire certainly worked hard at plundering the New World (including the Inca) of their gold and silver under the mistaken idea that gold and silver were intrinsically valuable commodities (meanwhile, the British were looking more at useful resources like timber)--the influx of gold and silver into Spain didn't make the people there wealthier because their production wasn't improving as a result (because you can't build ships out of gold or feed people piles of silver), so the end result was ultimately price inflation and a loss of domestic production (and thus quality of life).

    So resources definitely matter (a modern example would be Norway's petroleum production) in sustaining a "welfare state" and it's certainly a precarious position to be in; people don't like to have the spoon yanked out of their mouth and eventually it will have to happen. The results are ugly either way.
     
  10. SeverinR

    SeverinR Vala

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    The welfare system would have to utilize only trusted people, as funneling money down to the needy, it tends to stick to each hand it passes through. Even if money was not used, but food or goods.They could be sold instead of given to the needy, or at least a good portion of them.

    No matter what year, if goverment gives someone something, they tend to expect it, and if it is threatened, they will fight to keep it, even if it destroys the country.
    It seems there should be more fare, then well.
    Giving away aid, encourages more people to seek aid, thus eventually aid will take over more and more of ones budget.
     
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  11. Ivan

    Ivan Minstrel

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    I think Jabrosky was asking for facts or information about ancient or medieval welfare more than generalized opinions about welfare as a policy.

    I am not very familiar with Egyptian history, more so with their northeastern neighbors; but as far as I know, it was usually held together on the basis of the monarch rather than national or religious unity, and an army can only do so much. You'vf the got to have carrots as well as sticks, and it is no stretch of my imagination to see some kind of welfare. Though, as Fnord pointed out, gold and silver do not feed people. Cash would be dearer to the rich than to the poor, and things like bread would be the most likely form of charity.

    The Romans also did a lot for their soldiers- hard to call this welfare since this could easily be considered military spending, but it is possible that the bad guy could force the soldiers to take reductions in pay and benefits in order to pay for better equipment. Just a suggestion.
     
  12. Ravana

    Ravana Istar

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    Actually, they did, from time to time. Even when the soldiers were getting paid cash at all, as much as three quarters of their nominal salary was withheld to pay for their support.

    I was not, however, suggesting that the soldiers' pay be thought of as "welfare." I was suggesting that if you plan to cut welfare, you'd best have some good soldiers ready. ;)

    And, yes, even with that, the army can only do so much–more to the point, will only be willing to do so much. Ordering soldiers to kill their parents, brothers, and so forth is rarely a sound policy decision. Which is why, in many realms large enough for it to be possible, the soldiers would be garrisoned somewhere far away from where they'd been recruited… so they'd be killing someone else's family instead, if it ever came down to internal warfare. In smaller realms, or where there are few standing troops, this isn't always practical, of course.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 11, 2017
  13. ArielFingolfin

    ArielFingolfin Troubadour

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    I don't know what the cultural norms were, but I do know that 1601 was when the first laws governing the treatment of the poor were established. They were called the Elizabethan Poor Laws, and they shifted the treatment of the poor from the respnsibility of the church and family to the government. Before it was catch as catch can for the poor if they didn't have a family or couldn't get care from the church; the government was no involved. Also before that the poor was considered (by the general population) as one group. It wasn't until the poor laws came along that they were separated into 'deserving poor' and 'underserving poor' - or rather the poor who were lazy and those who simply had had hard times or couldn't work for medical reasons.
     
  14. Aldws

    Aldws New Member

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    In medieval cambodia, there was universal health care.
     
  15. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    Um, please elaborate and maybe cite a source or two for any who care to investigate further. A quick search on the net didn't turn up anything.
     
  16. Pemry Janes

    Pemry Janes Sage

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    I believe he gets this from one of ExtraCredits latest videos. This one:
    They talk about it 7 minutes in.
     
  17. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    I think the Queen of Hearts had universal healthcare as well... off with their head!

    Sorry, couldn’t resist.
     
  18. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I watched the video, or at least that part of it. It says the system was only put in place by a particular king and that free health care was one of the reasons for the financial collapse within a generation later. So, not exactly a great precedent!

    I tried to find more information, but Cambodian history is far from my field and nothing about health care came up readily. YouTube is pretty much useless for citations, so that video is a dead end.
     
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