Medieval attitudes to poverty and wealth

Medieval attitudes to poverty and wealth were based on the teachings of Christ. The key priority was not to set one's heart on worldly riches, but to focus on storing up spiritual riches:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. TNIV Matthew 6:19-21


Though there were enormous contrasts between rich and poor in the fourteenth century, there was also a strong ideal that poverty was a positive state. Being poor on earth was considered better than having riches:

  • A prosperous person might be diverted from seeking salvation by the cares of his or her wealth
  • However, the simplicity of a poor person's lifestyle meant they were more likely (in theory) to be concerned with the values of heaven. Poor people and—particularly--those who voluntarily embraced a simple life were less contaminated by materialism and the desire for the pleasures of this world. They were believed to be in a state that made it easier to concentrate on the life of the soul and virtue
  • It was widely believed that Jesus and the disciples had been poor. That the Church should imitate this, was a central argument of the Wycliffites, the followers of the reformer John Wyclif
  • When Saint Bernard founded the first monasteries and St Francis founded the friars, the ideal of poverty was central to their vision. Thus, monks, nuns and friars swore oaths of poverty, chastity and obedience (to their religious order). They were supposed to spend their lives in prayer but also in work of various kinds, manual or mental. 

A pilgrim's flaskA wealthy church

In the face of all the teaching about the virtues of poverty, the wealth of the Medieval Church caused great disquiet. It was not just deceitful when churchmen made money from charging people to see or buy relics, for example. It was also seen as contrary to the example of poverty and anti-materialism that the Church was meant to stand for.

Chaucer's concern with avarice

Avarice or covetousness (greed for money and material things) is one of the so-called deadly sins, believed to be particularly dangerous to the soul. (See Medieval beliefs about sin and forgiveness). To the medieval mind, getting absorbed in the pursuit of worldly things distracted humans from the real priority, serving God and endeavouring to gain God's grace and go to heaven. In The Canterbury Tales, avarice is probably the vice that Chaucer most attacks and satirises.

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