Charity v Altruism: Now & the Medieval era

Straight-out, I’m totally taking a High Medieval module this term (which was fantastic btw and could only be improved with the addition of poor neglected Wace) and this came up during my research for my essay.

Whilst reading Aaron Hostetter’s article “Food, Sovereignty and Social Order in Havelock the Dane.” (The Journal of English and Germanic Philosophy, 2011, 53-77), I was struck by the economic model he describes. Lords live on surplus, and do not labour. The lower classes, slaves, peasants and the like, labour to produce a surplus yet only consume as much as they need to survive and work (and sometimes not even that much). This model he applies to the poem Havelok, a lovely story of the rise of a king from low class work, and specifically to Aethelwold, one of the kings, who “dines in a manner that enforces his claim to rule his nation, but with the happy result that they all have enough to eat,” (57) because out of the surplus he lives on, he sends out alms to the poor so they can eat.

Now, is it just me or does this seem ridiculous?

The power dynamics here are founded upon a circulation of food and wealth that relies upon a minority to be charitable and generous enough to send on the surplus they’ve gained back to the people who produced it in the first place. Very inefficient for mass survival but very good for constructing the minority’s power.

The same thing is still going. A majority work to eat, though our standards of necessities far exceed what we need to actually survive, and produce a surplus that oligarchs, magnates and corporations live off and distribute “charitably”. It’s really no wonder such a sense of cynicism surrounds these charitable acts, though the power now constructed is that of controlling consumer power/power over consumers.

But why? Wouldn’t it be better for those lower in the chain to distribute their wealth/food/all that they produce charitably to others and shorten the circular pass-the-parcel from low to high to low? And wouldn’t this in turn reduce any gap we currently see between the high and low, as the foundation of their power would be eradicated?

Obviously, it requires relying upon a lot more people to be charitable (as crowdfunding seems to prove is possible) and that seems unlikely, but it also seems illogical to rely on a minority of people to be as altruistic and yet.. it works, doesn’t it?


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