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Cultures of Charity

Cultures of Charity

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

Nicholas Terpstra

ISBN 9780674067097

Publication date: 02/15/2013

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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.


  • This sweeping exploration of early modern poor relief shows how Bologna became a model for other cities in meeting the challenge of female poverty across the life cycle. By putting gender squarely at the center of analysis, Terpstra brilliantly illuminates how widespread concerns for poor women and girls sparked innovative networks of care aimed at both charity and discipline.

    —Sharon Strocchia, Emory University


  • 2014, Winner of the Phyllis Goodhart Gordan Book Prize
  • 2014, Winner of the Helen and Howard R. Marraro Prize


  • Nicholas Terpstra is Professor of History at the University of Toronto.

Book Details

  • 400 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

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