There had been an organized system of poor-relief in every parish at least since the eleventh century…St Riquier, for example, served more than five hundred meals each day; Corbie distributed fifty loaves; while Cluny kept an annual reserve of five hundred sides of salt pork for the use of the poor. […]

Thus, by the conjoint efforts of the hierarchy, the new [religious] Orders, and private generosity, there came into being a host of charitable institutions…[T]heir character was always markedly religious; the staff consisted of men or women dedicated to God and styled ‘brothers’ or ‘sisters,’ who, even if they belonged to no recognized congregation, followed a Rule inspired in most cases by that of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem, and were almost always governed by a cleric, priest or monk. The majority of hospitals were vast buildings – that of Milan was renowned for its beauty – where the sick, the infirm, and the aged alike were received and cared for. […]

Abandoned children, according to ecclesiastical law, were to be laid at the door of a sanctuary or religious house as a precaution against their being killed. They had their own hospital, run by the Order of the Holy Ghost, or were sheltered by Hospitallers of Jerusalem who had left their normal duties in Palestine so as to carry on this holy work in Europe. Some of these children’s hospices were enormous, and the inmates were looked after until they reached adult age, when work was found for the boys and a dowry provided for those girls who did not wish to take the veil.

Henri Daniel-Rops, Cathedral and Crusade: Studies of the Medieval Church (1050-1350) 

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If we desire one more proof of [the Catholic Church’s] boundless charity, we shall find it in the Redemptive Orders, whose founders were inspired by the most sublime of motives. In Africa and Asia the infidels treated their Christian captives as slaves, who were not seldom in peril of their lives. A number of heroic souls combined in an attempt to deliver these unfortunates: they begged money for ransom, and even visited Moslem territory, offering themselves as substitutes for any captives whose salvation was thought to be in danger. […]

The Ransomers, otherwise known as the Order of Our Lady of Ransom [now Mercedarians], was founded in 1223 by St Peter Nolasco and St Raymond of Pennaforte, who introduced into their Rule the vow of self-substitution for captives. Between the date of their foundation and the French Revolution, these two orders delivered more than 600,000 captives, among whom was Cervantes.

Henri Daniel-Rops, Cathedral and Crusade: Studies of the Medieval Church (1050-1350) 

If the sick and the infirm were dear to God, there was yet another class of men for whom our Lord demanded succour in the parable of the Good Samaritan. These were travellers, especially pilgrims, who journeyed in search of Christ, and for whose benefit several congregations were founded. In Italy, the Hospitallers of Altoparcio guided travellers through the dangerous marshes around Lucca; in Spain, the Knight of St James protected pilgrims on the road to Compostella; and a like duty was performed by the Templars in Palestine. In the Alps, where the passes were especially difficult in winter, hospices were established by St Bernard of Menthon (996-1081), a young nobleman from the Val d’Aosta…In the thirteenth century, when a new road was opened from Central Switzerland towards Italy, the monks of Disentis built a hospice and named it St Gothard in memory of the holy bishop whose charity had shed light on Hildesheim.

So hospices sprang up on all the highways of Christendom, centres of Christian welcome where travellers and pilgrims found food and lodging, where they could mend their clothes and shoes, get a shave and a haircut, and confess their sins.

Henri Daniel-Rops, Cathedral and Crusade: Studies of the Medieval Church (1050-1350) 

It is impossible to enumerate all the forms assumed by Christian charity, or the institutions to which it gave rise. Some of the most curious were devoted to the recovery of prostitutes. This social sore existed throughout the Middle Ages, but increased during the thirteenth century with the growth of towns and universities. Prostitutes were found everywhere, even in the crusading armies! St Louis took steps to regulate their trade, and an encyclical of Innocent III in 1198 promised total remission of his sins to any pious man who married a harlot with a view to her rehabilitation.

In 1204, Fulk, parish priest of Neuilly who was afterwards celebrated as Peter the Hermit of the fourth crusade, began, with his curate Peter of Rossiac, haranguing fallen women in the public squares and in the streets. Later, he founded a congregation for the purpose of reclaiming them; and his devoted efforts soon brought into being an abbey which adopted the Cistercian Rule. Fulk was not alone in this work; in 1272, Bertrand, a citizen of Marseilles, established a similar community which was recognized as a monastic Order by Nicholas III. Their example was imitated at Rome, Bologna, Messina, Bourges, Bijon, and even at St Jean d’Acre in Palestine. But the most interesting and most successful of these undertakings was that of Canon Rudolph of Hildesheim, who was asked by the Archbishop of Mayence to reclaim the fahrende Weiber (street-walkers). He founded the Order of Penitent Sisters of St Magdalen, under whose austere rule these ladies might walk the road to heaven.

Henri Daniel-Rops, Cathedral and Crusade: Studies of the Medieval Church (1050-1350)

If we would estimate the benefits conferred by the medieval Church upon the society in which she lived, we must take into account her labour in a field which is now described by such phrases as ‘public assistance’ and ‘social security’. Here she stood practically alone. The State as such, whether described as empire, kingdom, or republic, did not consider itself bound by any duty toward its subjects even though they were helpless, destitute, or sick. By the end of the period in question only very few municipal or royal hospitals had come into existence, and these were administered by religious. The Church, however, taught her children that each one is answerable for all.

There you have one of the paradoxes of the Middle Ages: a society which was, on the whole, more violent and more indifferent to suffering than that of western Europe in the twentieth century, could behave with extraordinary generosity and refinement, working the constant miracle of Christ’s charity. It is astonishing that, with no official organization and no help fro the Government, Christian generosity sufficed to run welfare institutions upon a scale which would have done credit to ourselves.

Henri Daniel-Rops, Cathedral and Crusade: Studies of the Medieval Church (1050-1350) 

One need only visit the ruins of a medieval monastery to realize the sums necessary to erect and maintain it, more especially as the monks built on the grand scale for God’s glory and the benefit of future generations. Without seeking comfort, they had an eye to hygiene and convenience, as may be seen from a glance at the latrines of Fontenay. A monastery in the twelfth century had a better supply of flowing water than has the Palace of Versailles…

Think what the Church as a whole must have spent in works of charity at a time when she alone was responsible for social security and public assistance, not to speak of education. Even the business of hotel-keeping, which appears to us strictly commercial, was part of Christian charity; most places of call on the roads were hospices, religious establishments for the convenience of travellers and pilgrims…There are numerous instances of diocese and monasteries selling their treasures, even the sacred vessels, in order to save the neighbouring people from starvation.

Henri Daniel-Rops, Cathedral and Crusade: Studies of the Medieval Church (1050-1350) 

In the early Middle Ages relations between Church and State were founded on a spirit of co-operation. Three dates are of capital importance. In 380 Theodosius decreed that all his subjects should embrace ‘the faith delivered to the Romans by the Apostle Peter’; in 490 the hierarchy of Gaul baptized Clovis, the young Frankish king, and thereby determined the fate of the barbarian world; while at Christmas in the year 800, Pope St. Leo III conferred the ancient crown of empire upon Charlemagne, a descendant of the invaders. Throughout six hundred years and more, by means of unending courage and endurance, the Church had kept a restraining hand upon those turbulent princes who dominated Europe, with the result that society had returned step by step to the light of civilization.

There was another side to this tremendous achievement. Though herself a spiritual power, the Church had worked well upon the temporal plane; but in doing so she had failed to put first things first. Her leaders had grown deaf to the Gospel precept; by mixing with the world they had lapsed into worldliness. The history of the barbarian epoch of that of continual co-operation between the spiritual and the temporal, a co-operation with Charlemagne treated as a principle of government.

Henri Daniel-Rops, Cathedral and Crusade: Studies of the Medieval Church (1050-1350) 

The coming of the friars, therefore, was a landmark not only in the field of moral reform. They upheld the cause of successive popes in their struggle with the temporal power. But they also represented a new conception of the Church and of her function in the world: a Church in whom the brilliance of feudal power would give place to interior prestige; the Church of the missions, and of the universities wherein human thought was to make notable advances; a Church in closer sympathy with the aims of an enlarged society. Thus, once again, as has happened so often in the course of history, the permanent message of Christ was embodied in a particular form of Christianity; once again the leaven had done its work.

Henri Daniel-Rops, Cathedral and Crusade: Studies of the Medieval Church (1050-1350) 

The appearance of the mendicant Orders was the most significant event of the Church’s interior life during the thirteenth century. Not from the seclusion of their cloister, nor even through the lecture-room, would this new class of monks influence the mass of Christians. Their approach was more direct; their method a form of preaching better suited to the aspirations of mankind at large.

The extraordinary success of the mendicants goes to prove that they satisfied an urgent need. The stream of vocations soon became a torrent: in the second half of the thirteenth century, for example, the Franciscans had 25,000 religious and 1,100 houses; by 1316 there were 30,000 friars in 1,400 convents. The growth of the Dominican Order was not quite so rapid. Its emphasis upon intellectual attainments and its relative indifference to popular forms of devotion tended to limit the number of vocations. Nevertheless, it counted 7,000 members in 1256, 10,000 friars with 600 priories in 1303, and 12,000 in 1337.

Henri Daniel-Rops, Cathedral and Crusade: Studies of the Medieval Church (1050-1350)