A topic that greatly interests me is bourgeois guilt. Bourgeois guilt manifests itself in interesting and distinct ways in medieval cultures because of the strong influence of Christianity. This was never so true as in the case of Peter Waldo (c. 1140 – c. 1218), a rich merchant from the southern French town of Lyons. He was eventually condemned for heresy after he began preaching without a license to do so, and his main beliefs - centered on vernacular readings of scripture, a priesthood of all believers, and embracing poverty - give us some ideas about how the medieval bourgeoisie, in their own way, tried to find ways to level the playing field between the rich and the poor, and the clergy and laity.
Jesus, as we all know, had some pretty strong opinions about the possession of wealth and economic privilege.
Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.”
An anonymous chronicle from 1218 described the depths of Peter Waldo’s guilt about bourgeois privilege:
There was at Lyons in France a certain citizen, Waldo by name, who had made himself much money by wicked usury…One Sunday, when he had joined a crowd which he saw gathered around a troubadour, he was smitten by his words and, taking him to his house, he took care hear him at length. The passage he was reciting was the holy Alexis died a blessed death in his father’s house. When morning had come, the prudent citizen hurried to the schools of theology to seek counsel for his soul, and when he was taught many ways of going to God, he asked master what way was more certain and more perfect than all others. The master answered him with this text: “Thou wilt be perfect, go and sell all that thou hast,” etc…
This passage above is purposely copying similar hagiographies of saints who were inspired to sell off or give away all of their possessions in order to lead a life of poverty and prayer. And Waldo wished to do just that:
Then Waldo went to his wife and gave her the choice of keeping his personal property or his real estate, namely, he had in ponds, groves and fields, houses, rents, vineyards, mills, and fishing rights… At the Assumption of the blessed Virgin, casting some money among the village poor, he cried: “No man can serve two masters, God and mammon.” Then his fellow-citizens ran up, thinking he had lost his mind. But going on to a higher place, he said: “My fellow-citizens and friends, I am not insane, as you think, but am avenging myself on my enemies, who made me a slave, so that I was always more careful of money than of God, and served the creature rather than the Creator…”
Of course, it would be foolish to think that embracing poverty and distributing alms were merely bourgeois acts that aimed to help the poor. At the core of this bourgeois guilt was, we might assume, a deep anxiety about the salvation of one’s soul.