On Hard Times
Updated: Jul 25, 2019
My mother, who delighted in talking about her childhood, often spoke of the hardships her family underwent during the Great Depression, of how her father who was out of work was busy evading the bill collectors and how her mother would manage to make a meal for a family of seven from a fish head or some similar such castoff that she received from the butcher. Although an excellent cook and baker, mother would sometimes be overcome by a surge of nostalgia, and then she would make those detestable dumplings, just as her mother had done in the hard times, and as my father was of a staid Victorian upbringing and believed that everything placed before us was good for us, I and my siblings were required to eat the pitiful, bland balls of boiled flour.
Nostalgia is largely the act of romanticising the past, downplaying or ignoring hardships and magnifying pleasant experiences. It is a mechanism that we have evolved to enable us to remain optimistic in facing an uncertain future. And the one certain thing that we can always say about the future is that it is uncertain.
In the Latin East there was much to be uncertain about. Even in its most stable years in the mid-twelfth century when the kingdom of Jerusalem had reached its territorial peak, external dangers were brewing. In 1144 the first crusader state, Edessa, fell to Zengi of Mosul and the threat of Jihad that continued under his successor in Aleppo, Nur al-Din, would culminate in the rise of Saladin. But in the towns and villages of the Latin East there were many for whom the chief worry was not, whether they would come under attack from their Muslim neighbours or from invading armies, but how would they be able to feed their children.
Evidence for how serious this was for Frankish communities in the crusader states can perhaps be seen in the existence of an orphanage in twelfth century Jerusalem established by the Order of St John. It was a major institution and an exceptional one. Orphanages are common today but were less so in the Middle Ages, not because there were fewer orphans but because there were fewer welfare foundations in general. Where they do exist, they might be read on the positive side as evidence of a society that has developed an understanding of the need to care for its downtrodden. On the negative side they can be seen as evidence of a society that has a great many poor, many parents who cannot care for their children, and many children with no parents at all. Italy had some of the earliest such institutions. In 1198, Pope Innocent III expressed his concern about the growing number of infants being thrown in the Tiber by mothers unable to look after them. In 1212 a foundling home, the San Spirito hospital, was established in Rome and at the same time, openings with cribs known as foundling wheels, where women could leave their unwanted children rather than disposing of them in the river, were installed in the doors of churches and hospitals.
Perhaps the Jerusalem orphanage preceded the Italian ones in this. In a paper examining a twelfth century treatise describing the Jerusalem hospital, Benjamin Kedar briefly refers to the orphanage.* He notes that a statute in the Hospitaller rule contains the charge of the hospital to receive and nourish all infants cast away by their parents. The anonymous German monk who authored the text mentions little children brought to the hospital by their mothers or whoever found them, mothers with their foreheads covered so as to remain anonymous when depositing their children, and mothers of twins who kept one but abandoned the other at the hospital. The children became known as the filii beati Iohannis.
*Benjamin Z. Kedar, "A Twelfth Century Description of the Jerusalem Hospital", in Helen Nicholson, ed., The Military Orders, vol. 2, Welfare and Warfare, Aldershot U.K. and Brookfield, U.S.A., 1998, p. 6.