Charity in Seventeenth-Century Marseilles: civic virtue and social reform in a maritime metropolis

Le résumé :

Mon travail est une étude locale de la charité à Marseille au XVIIe siècle. Ce sont les conseillers municipaux, inspirés par le mouvement dévot, qui étaient alors les principaux agents de l’assistance aux pauvres de bienfaisance. D’inspiration religieuse au sein de la communauté, mais répondant à des pressions politiques extérieures de la monarchie des Bourbons, la charité est devenue une facette de l’autorité politique locale et un véhicule de la réforme sociale. Le but collectif des nouveaux asiles spécialisés était de façonner des citoyens et citoyennes rompus à l’ordre social et spirituellement orthodoxes. Au vu de la quête incessante de la ville pour une plus grande autonomie et son engagement inébranlable envers le catholicisme, le désir de vertu s’incarne dans la lutte pour une identité distinctement marseillaise. Cette fonction de la charité locale devient apparente dans la mesure où celle-ci porte sur la «réhabilitation» plutôt que sur l’idée de «punition» proposée par Foucault. C’est à travers l’étude de la charité que se révèlent ainsi les aspects d’exclusion de la mosaïque sociale et l’idée «d’appartenance» locale.


This study sheds new light on Marseilles as an early modern Mediterranean metropolis; on its institutions, its people, and their ideas. More specifically, it elucidates the changing nature of charity as it responded to external political and internal ideological pressures in the seventeenth century. ‘Charity’ had become concerned with the moral reform of the recipient, rather than the legacy of the giver, promising the poor salvation and ‘belonging’ in the society. By institutionalizing and reforming the poor via catechesis and work training, the elites drew lines of exclusion based on moral merit. In doing so, they promulgated a distinct definition of Marseillais virtue that encapsulated Catholicism, traditional commitments to local commerce, and strong civic loyalty.

My work contributes to broader debates regarding the formation of the state, the nature and influence of Catholic reform in the seventeenth century, and the place of the Mediterranean in the formation of early modern French society. As a local study of Marseilles, it joins others interested in the topic – André Zysberg, Régis Bertrand, Francine Michaud, and Edouard Baratier among others. As an examination of early modern charity, it responds to two related historiographical debates: the first concerning the need for a local approach to charity, the second evaluating the punitive character of early modern asylums. My findings support the claim that French charity was a localized rather than a royally initiated affair in the seventeenth century.[1] Focusing on local elites, it also de-emphasizes Foucault’s concept of the ‘enfermement’, and instead underscores the ‘charitable’ principles that underpinned the civic councillors’ poor relief initiatives in Marseilles. In doing so, it challenges previous studies of French asylums that tended to treat them as sites of state oppression.[2] Catechesis and spiritual reform – though carried out behind the asylums’ walls – were intended as temporary reformative measures. They were a form of charity, in the councillors’ eyes, rather than of punishment.

The new purpose of charity in Marseilles was precipitated by political and religious changes in the city. The most significant external pressure the councillors faced in the seventeenth century was royal political expansion, which posed a heightened threat to local autonomy.[3] Keeping charity in local hands was one way of retaining influence over local affairs. The poor relief system that emerged was also a response to new economic challenges and wide-spread poverty, similarly caused by royal interference. When Louis XIV expanded the harbour by bringing in the galleys (1665) and enfranchising the port (1669), he indirectly but significantly affected the local population. The practice of prostitution became more visible and concentrated in the port, as thousands of sailors and galley convicts flooded the area. Women, whose husbands were now absorbed by the port as prisoners or marine personnel, were financially vulnerable in the pays de droit écrit, many becoming prostitutes as a result.[4] The numbers of illegitimate children rose perhaps as quickly as did the numbers of lone and poverty-stricken women.[5] In short, the immediate consequences of Colbert’s mercantilist policies upset the city’s maritime livelihood in irreparable ways, prompting local authorities to fashion a new system of charity.

External factors were matched by internal ones – specifically the local elites’ steadfast commitment to Catholicism. The intimate relationship between religion and civic identity in Marseilles first emerged during the Wars of Religion, when the civic council refused to accommodate Huguenot minorities and rejected Henry IV as king.[6] The magistrates carried the momentum of political rebellion throughout the seventeenth century, pronouncing more emphatically the idea that civic and spiritual identities were mutually formative. Marseilles experienced the Catholic Reformation between the 1620s and the 1690s chiefly as a lay movement that prioritized perfection of the soul through Catholic orthodoxy. Inspired by new religious orders,[7] the civic elites quickly and wholeheartedly developed their own understanding of spiritual and moral reform. The so-called dévot movement appealed to the elites, allowing them to conflate spiritual with civic propriety.[8] As founders of the Compagnie du Très-Saint Sacrement (1639),[9] the councillors became the agents of social and moral order – the secular and spiritual leaders of the community. It was through the Compagnie that they spearheaded the establishment of new charitable asylums.

Over the course of only a few decades, half a dozen new asylums littered the urban landscape. The Panier district housed the medieval H tel-Dieu (1188/ 1596), Charité (1622), the Refuge (1640)[10] with its Maison des filles repanties (1630) and after 1690 the Entrêpot for pregnant women. Soon, the harbourfront, too, became a site of charitable activity: l’Hôpital royal des forçats (1646) and l’Hôpital du bon rencontre des enfants trouvés (1673) were situated there, with the latter attached to the adjoining Maison des filles de la providence.[11] These institutions were rehabilitative – not punitive – and were meant to create and re-create virtuous citizenry. Among the able-bodied begging poor, the dévot-inspired civic councillors targeted women, children, and galley prisoners in particular.[12] They did not simply wish to remove all beggars and disorderly citizens from the streets, but rather sought to individually reform each group. A holistic yet comparative approach to the poor therefore allows us to appreciate which ‘criminal’ and ‘immoral’ behaviours were ascribed to these charity-receiving groups. Only when we deconstruct these social assumptions do we come to understand the complex nature of Marseillais ‘virtue’.

Poor women were among the most targetted charity-recipients at this time. In the Refuge asylum they found shelter, nourishment, and most importantly spiritual education and strict moral training. In most cases these women were suspected of prostitution – a charge driven by derogatory assumptions about the inherent sinfulness of the female sex, singlehood, and venereal disease. Though they were the ‘recipients’ of charity, they were not necessarily the ‘beneficiaries’. The community and the elites had a vested interest in locking up all suspicious women, seeking to establish order in the streets and combat port-related prostitution. Despite the problematic and coercive nature of the Refuge, the ‘charity’ it proposed was fundamental to its function as a rehabilitative site of social control. The condemned women were encouraged to reach a state of spiritual purity either as novices or as nuns while institutionalized. Only as morally sound and honourable women could they return to the community, or devote themselves to God. Younger girls were also judged according to disparaging gendered standards of propriety: daughters of suspected prostitutes and of poor parents were housed in the Maison des filles de la providence. The purpose of their stay was to protect the girls’ innocence and purity. Like the Refuge, the Maison helped to promote the standards of female propriety in the city, and to create a generation of honourable Marseillaises women.

Children were also treated in a new way at this time. In the seventeenth century, children became recognized as important recipients of charity – a trend consistent with children’s growing prominence in early modern society.[13] The authorities perceived all children as unpredictable and inclined to misbehaviour, but as potentially beneficial to society if properly brought up. Marseilles’ three specialized institutions for children shared a preventative, protective, didactic, and corrective purpose. Younger children (generally all anonymously abandoned infants) were presumed to be illegitimate, and were segregated in l’Hôtel-Dieu, so as to isolate their inherent impurity. Older children were housed in the Charité, where they received spiritual and work-training in order to stop their idleness and prevent future begging. Finally, l’Hôpital du bon rencontre targeted non-Christian children. Lacking a work-program and strict rules of mandatory confinement, however, this institution found little support from the civic council. Its existence attests to the curious standing of children as charity recipients. Though the civic authorities agreed that children needed care in order to become orderly citizens, they were not prepared to offer them care unless it fully supported their expectations of propriety. Like the asylums for women, the ‘charity’ offered to children ultimate served a civic purpose.

Galley prisoners – namely the Protestant forçats and Muslim slaves – are the final distinct group of the poor discussed here. Confined to the royal prison amidst Marseilles’ harbour, they could recover their health and receive spiritual succour at l’Hôpital royal des forçats. This institution differed from the other asylums in the city: it was primarily a royal rather than a local initiative, and it had an explicitly medicinal purpose (at least initially). Despite these differences, however, it shared important features. First of all, the founding chaplains were the Pères de la Mission, a charitable confraternity informally related to the civic elite and the Compagnie du Très-Saint-Sacrement. Both groups combated heresy and targeted the Huguenots throughout the period. It was after 1685, when the Huguenots arrived in the galleys, that the hospital and the Pères embraced a new definition of charity. Espousing Louis XIV’s vision of social order, the charitable Fathers now focused on enforcing the abjuration and conversion of all Protestant prisoners, offering both as a form of ‘charity’. Only when they became Catholics could these ‘heretical’ French subjects hope to be released from the galleys, gain the king’s forgiveness, and aspire to salvation. Like in the Refuge and the Charité, charity meant moral reform. It too promised ‘belonging’ to those who exhibited moral merit and spiritual orthodoxy.


My study treats ‘charity’ as an analytical lens that speaks to the civic needs of the sea-side metropolis of Marseilles. The city leaders pursued political autonomy, while embracing the Catholic Reform as a campaign for morality and civic virtue. They fashioned a reformative type of charity that helped them achieve these goals.

In the context of early modern France as a whole, the asylums that emerged raise important questions about the nature of two larger seventeenth-century phenomena: the so-called Catholic Counter Reformation and Bourbon absolutism. The French monarchy initiated, paralleled, and was forced to tolerate localized designs to shape and mold obedient subjects. We, then, are pressed to inquire about the relationship between the absolute state and isolated regions such as Marseilles. To be sure, the case of Marseilles suggests that even though the monarchy and the civic leaders’ respective agendas for social order and spiritual orthodoxy intersected, the implementation was distinctly local. The fact that these new institutions were in lay hands, yet relied on the values of Catholicism, raises equally important questions about the relationship between the Church and the secular governments in this period. It appears that instead of a movement towards secularization, the urban elites deployed religion for purposes of civic government – the opposite of secularization.

The unique charm of Marseilles and of Mediterranean Europe in this period is that it reveals with one hand as it conceals with the next.

Methodology/ Archives

A variety of primary and secondary sources were consulted, chiefly hospital logs, royal correspondence and edicts, police records, and published correspondence from the galleys. I found these in Marseilles’ Archives Départementales des Bouches du Rhône (Marseilles and Aix-en-Provence), Archives Communales de la Ville de Marseille, Archives de la Chambre de Commerce de Marseille, Service Historique de la Défense à Toulon, Archives Nationales à Paris, Archives Hospitalières à Paris, Bibliothèque de l’histoire du Protestantisme français, and several libraries. I also consulted visual architectural and artistic sources that were manifestations of the Catholic Reformation in Marseilles.




[1] Early debates regarding ‘charity’ in Ancien Regime France tended to prioritize the state’s involvement. See, for example, Emanuel Chill, “Religion and Mendicity in Seventeenth-Century France,” in International Review of Social History, No.7 (1962), 400-425, Jean Imbert, Histoire des Hôpitaux en France (Paris: Presses universitaires, 1958), and most famously, Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, transl. Richard Howard (New York: Vintage Books, Random House, 1988). Beginning in the 1980s, historians have revised this notion by studying urban centers across France. Examples include: Kathryn Norberg, Rich and Poor in Grenoble, 1600-1814 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, Ltd., 1985), Tim McHugh, Hospital Politics in Seventeenth-Century France: The Crown, Urban Elites and the Poor (Hampshire, UK: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2007),  and Daniel Hickey, Local Hospitals in Ancien Regime France: Rationalization, Resistance, Renewal, 1530-1789 (Quebec: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997).

[2] Some historians studying the Refuge in Marseilles tended to over-state the hegemonic effects of contemporary gender relations, and echoed Foucault’s emphasis on the asylum’s oppressiveness. See, for example, Annick Riani, “Pouvoirs et contestations: La prostitution a Marseille au XVIIIème siècle (1650 – 1830) “ (Thèse : L’Université d’Aix-Marseille I, 1982).

[3] Marseilles had an uneasy relationship with the monarchy since Provence became part of the royal domain in 1482. Religious differences and contested autonomy caused ongoing tensions that continued to escalate throughout the period. See Raoul Busquet, Histoire de Marseille (Paris, Editions Robert Laffont, 1945)  and Edouard Baratier, Documents de l’Histoire de la Provence (Toulouse: Privat, 1971).

[4] Unlike ‘droit commun’, the Roman Law-based ‘droit écrit’ effectively excluded women from private ownership unless a widow. Manlio Bellomo, The Common Legal Past of Europe, 1000–1800, 2nd ed., transl. Lydia G. Cochrane (The Catholic University of America Press, 1995).

[5] Historians studying women in the port-city affirm their vulnerability in relation to the harbour. See Francois-Xavier Emmanuelli, “La marginalité feminine à Marseille a la fin de l’Ancien Régime,” in Marseillaises : Les femmes et la ville des origines à nos jours, ed. Yvonne Knibiehler (Paris : Côté-femmes éditions, 1993) ; also, Yvonne Knibiehler, “L’accueil des mères pauvres XVIIIe-XXe siècles,” in the same collection, and Dr. Hippolyte Mireur, La Prostitution a Marseille: Histoire, administration et police hygiène (Paris, Marseilles, 1882). Royal edicts in AN Marine A2 6 also confirm a rise in prostitution at this time.

[6] Busquet, Histoire de Marseille, 206–207. Also, AMM. GG 134/ GG 135/ GG 154.

[7] The Recollects, Jesuits, Oratorians, Carthusian brothers, and reformed Augustinians and Carmelites were among those religious orders that embraced a Tridentine-style reform in Marseilles between the sixteenth and seventeenth century. See the work of Régis Bertrand on the topic: Bertrand, Patrimoine de Marseille: une ville et ses monuments (Marseille: J. Laffitte, 2001), Bertrand, “Cinq églises du temps des rois,” in Revue Marseille: La revue culturelle de la Ville de Marseille, No. 215 (Décembre 2006), 19–25, Bertrand, “Les Jésuites à Marseille sous l’Ancien Régime,” in Suite baroque: tableaux pour l église des Jésuites de Marseille, essais d’identification (Marseille: Musée des beaux-arts de  Marseille, 1998), and Bertrand, Les Compagnies de pénitents de Marseille XVIe – XXe siècles (Marseille: La Thune, 1997).

[8] The dévot movement was not a unified school of thought; nevertheless, its supporters across France shared a commitment to Catholic orthodoxy and morality. For more on the dévots, see Elizabeth Rapley, Dévotes: The Women and Church in Seventeenth-Century France (McGill-Queens University Press, 1992), and  Joseph Bergin, Church, Society and Religious Change in France (1580-1730) (London: Yale University Press, 2009).

[9] Raoul Allier, La Cabale des Dévots, 1627-1666 (Paris: Librairie Armand Colin, 1902) and Allier, La Compagnie du Très-Saint- Sacrement de l’autel à Marseille (Paris: Librairie H. Champion, 1909).

[10] The decision to establish the Charité took place in 1622, but it opened in 1641. Similarly, the Refuge was “founded” in 1640 but did not commence operations probably until 1649 when first independent records appear. Until that time, women were likely confined in the Maison des Filles Repanties (est. 1630).

[11] In the seventeenth century the following additional hospitals emerged in Marseilles: Hôpital des Insensées (1698), Hôpital des Incurables, Hôpital des pauvres passants (1654), Hôpital St. Lazare (medieval leprosarium – in 1672 united with the Hôtel-Dieu), and Hôpital des Convalescents (1654). For reasons of scope and lack of documents for our period, they are omitted from this project.

[12] Historians generally make only cursory references to the various categories of the poor. Medievalist Sharon Farmer recently engaged in a comprehensive study of the distinct categories of the poor in medieval Paris. My study takes a similar approach to hers. See Sharon Farmer, Surviving poverty in medieval Paris: gender, ideology, and the daily lives of the poor (New York: Cornell University Press, 2002).

[13] Though of older date, DeMause’s study is an invaluable study of early modern childhood. Lloyd DeMause, The History of Childhood (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1974).

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