Chapter 4.2

Social Engineering and Welfare

4.2.1 Social Engineering and Welfare in Early Modern History (ca. 1500–1800)

Lars Behrisch, Jiří Janáč, and Sünne Juterczenka


The early modern period saw a considerable growth in population. Many people moved to towns and cities, urban poverty increased, and rural areas also endured impoverishment. The onset of industrialisation contributed to this trend, with large swaths of the population dependent on low wages and insecure employment. Increasing poverty in turn increased vagrancy and begging. Authorities tried to contain this development by separating foreign poor from those originating from within their own jurisdictions, based on the principle that poor relief could only be granted to locals. The growing number of poor and homeless people was seen as a social and political threat. As a result, legislation was introduced that discouraged vagrancy and begging and regulated the financing and distribution of poor relief. In England, a national system of poor relief that combined these aims was first created during the reign of Elizabeth I. Work and schooling were seen as a means of social and moral betterment and were often made mandatory in connection with poor relief; the poor were subjected to policing and ‘correction’.

The early modern period also saw a tendency to rationalise welfare and bring it under lay control, although religion remained a strong impetus for charitable activities. Welfare policies were implemented by individual parishes. Ecclesiastical and corporate charity operated independently of, but still related to, the authorities’ own poor relief. Early modern welfare measures targeted basic needs, such as for meals and clothing, as well as more complex issues like healthcare, housing, education, and care for the elderly, orphans, and those with disabilities. The growing complexity of social organisation, associated with the emergence of a global economic system and proto-industrialisation, contributed to the gradual evolution of broader and tighter networks of social relations. Western monarchies overcame traditional localism and assumed an increasing share of competence and power also in the social sphere.

Charity and Religion

In Christian communities, both religious and private giving were based on the concept of Christian charity. This concept was rooted in biblical commands for mutual responsibility and the readiness to help the needy. Poverty and sharing were also Christian ideals. Since the Middle Ages, love of the neighbour had been closely related to the love of God; acts of charity had been regarded as a visible expression of faith. Charity had been extended mainly through hospices, refuges, and almsgiving. Women had gained some degree of influence in distributing poor relief through the charitable work of monasteries. One important purpose of charitable acts had been to promote to the donor’s salvation through beneficients’ prayers. This changed with the Reformation, when Luther extolled charity as a spontaneous expression of love for the neighbour, without which there could be no love of God. The Protestant communities that emerged from the Reformation subsequently interpreted charity slightly differently: Lutherans tended to rely more on secular authorities than Calvinists.

Jewish people had neither access to the relief provided by secular authorities nor to that offered by the Christian churches. Hence Jewish communities organised and funded their own system of poor relief, coordinated through synagogues. Jewish poor relief was based on the principle of tzedakah, the religious obligation to act righteously. In continental Europe, Jewish people were required to house and feed travellers and the travelling poor in exchange for written vouchers (Pletten) regularly submitted to the synagogues by each household. Despite this system, the Jewish population was disproportionately affected by the growing poverty towards the end of the early modern period, due to its exclusion from many trades.

Charitable activities that were motivated by religious principles sometimes undermined secular attempts at rationalising, communalising, and regulating poor relief. By contrast, pietism, a religious movement that originated in the seventeenth century, championed cooperation between state authorities and Protestant communities, especially with regard to education.

Welfare and Education

Starting with the Reformation, Protestant clergy who promoted Bible reading demanded universal schooling. As early as the sixteenth century, compulsory education laws were passed in some German territories. This concern for Christian education was taken up by orphanages such as those in Frankfurt am Main and Glaucha near Halle an der Saale, which sought to integrate work and education in poor relief. The Halle orphanage is a prime example of how welfare and schooling intersected. The orphanage was established towards the end of the seventeenth century by the Lutheran pietist and divinity professor August Hermann Francke (1663–1772). Francke started a charity school aimed at enabling the local poor to learn a trade and earn a living, and later built his orphanage with the support of the Prussian King. This institution grew over time and eventually also offered education for the children of the local nobility and more wealthy citizens. Francke prioritised religious instruction, but languages, natural sciences, and practical skills were taught as well. The orphanage was intended to be economically viable; it ran a publishing business and bookshop as well as a medical dispensary. Through Francke’s teaching at the local university, Halle also became involved in missionary work. Missionaries trained at Halle forged alliances with religious organisations such as the London-based Anglican Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge (SPCK) and thus extended their charitable enterprise to other European countries and to other parts of the world. The Francke Foundations later became a model for similar institutions globally.

An engraving from 1749: depicts the exterior face of an orphanage, on the top a Dutch inscription.

Fig. 1: Gottfried August Gründler, The Halle Orphanage (1749), Public Domain, Wikimedia,


The example of Halle and its missionary connections illustrates how welfare continued to be linked to religious motives even as welfare measures were further secularised during the eighteenth century. Social issues became a major concern to Enlightenment thinkers and social reformers. ‘Philanthropy’ (literally meaning ‘love of mankind’)—the private promotion of welfare—developed into a bourgeois phenomenon based on enlightened humanitarianism. It spawned organisations that campaigned for a wide variety of improvements, ranging from adult education, prison reform, aid for especially vulnerable social groups like immigrants, prostitutes, and mariners, to the abolition of slavery. Some devoted themselves to more specific concerns like saving people from drowning. Through a combination of public, private, and religious interests, a ‘mixed economy of welfare’ emerged. Like religious charity, philanthropy was designed to benefit donors as well as recipients. It can be argued to have been instrumental to both welfare and social control. Unlike earlier welfare measures taken by authorities and churches, this new brand of benevolence extended moral responsibility beyond local communities. Philanthropists co-operated transnationally and regarded themselves as cosmopolitans.

Social Engineering or Social Control?

There is much discussion as to whether the early modern period saw attempts at ‘social engineering’, be it of a religious or of a secular kind, or a combination of both. For those who think that some form of ‘social engineering’ did take place, the key concept is ‘social discipline’, a translation of the German term Sozialdisziplinierung. It suggests that there were indeed conscious and long-term attempts by church and/or lay authorities, starting somewhere in the sixteenth century under the influence of the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation, to mould people’s behaviour, uproot traditional mentalities and belief systems, and transform entire populations into pious and obedient subjects. Even among those who believe that such attempts existed, however, there is considerable dissent concerning the level of success that they might have had.

A lot of criticism has been levelled against the notion of ‘social discipline’. Many studies have shown that there are few indicators of overall behaviour changes through conscious efforts ‘from above’. More than that, it has also been argued that few conscious efforts for such societal moulding by the authorities existed in the first place. It is true that churches tried—egged on by confessional competition—to inculcate moral values and behavioural norms, but such efforts were often of a short-term nature. Secular authorities, in turn, tried to enforce tax demands and other, more immediate obligations; but the extent to which such demands succeeded depended on the cooperation of local elites, such as urban oligarchies or village elders. Government in the early modern period, to use the expression of Charles Tilly, was not ‘direct’ but ‘indirect’—i.e., mediated by regional, local, professional, and other elites, rather than being exerted directly on the population as a whole. As a consequence, early modern populations could not be transformed into uniform subjects. It may be true that royal courts, the only places where rulers had a more direct impact on behaviours and norms, were platforms for a kind of elite education, as the sociologist Norbert Elias has argued, influentially, for the court of Louis XIV. Even here, though, as recent scholarship has shown, the relationship was more complicated, as the King himself had to heed aristocratic values.

Long-term changes of behaviours and mentalities both among elites and populations at large did occur, to be sure, and they were not entirely unrelated to different actions and efforts by churches and secular authorities. However, because these efforts diverged in their aims and changed over time, rather than following some thought-out master plan, those changes cannot be considered direct results of social engineering from above. At best, such change was the long-term and often unanticipated consequence of various short-term policies. To take an example, the rate of homicide in most parts of Europe decreased gradually from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century. The extent to which this very long-term trend was the result of concrete government initiative, the result of religious or cultural mentalities, or the consequence of yet other factors (economic, for example) is still much disputed.

The difficulty of answering these questions is compounded by methodological problems. What can we really know about people’s behaviour in such a remote era? Are sources such as criminal records in any way reliable? Perhaps a decline in registered violence was a decline in registration rather than a decline in actual violence itself? Many case studies have in fact shown that we can only very rarely be sure about the actual patterns of behaviour behind the recorded sources. The specific case of homicide rates seems to be a more reliable indicator, as violent deaths had been registered relatively systematically since the late Middle Ages. But what is the real significance of homicide rates as an indicator? We might expect it to be a reliable measure of overall violence—but this is not the case, given that (among other factors) minor wounds could often lead to death due to a lack of proper treatment and medical hygiene; as these gradually improved, everyday violence may have produced fewer cases of (apparent) homicides in later centuries without a decrease in overall violence. Similar methodological problems concern the long-term development of sexual behaviour. A number of different sources suggest that, for example, pre-marital sex declined between the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries, in line with—if delayed by more than a century—church inculcations and related government efforts. Still, questions of changes in statistical reliability crop up, as does the question of factors of short- or long-term causation.

As a result of such critical insights, the more neutral concept of ‘social control’ has come to be generally accepted as more suitable than that of ‘social discipline’. This concept takes into account the essentially ‘horizontal’ (mutual and social) character of norm control and behavioural change. At the same time, it leaves room for the notion that government and church initiatives would also influence and, at least in the long run, inform social control and thus at least indirectly shape changes of behaviour. To come back to the example of homicide and violence, by the beginning of the early modern period, it was still broadly accepted that a violent reaction was a legitimate response to an insult to a man’s or woman’s honour. Insults in fact were themselves considered a form of violence, all the more so as they affected not just individuals but families, neighbours, or colleagues, too. Since the fifteenth century, however, many local authorities stipulated that violence was not a legitimate reaction to an insult and ought to be punished, while insults to someone’s honour should be brought to court (and duly punished) rather than being avenged on the spot. These initiatives took many decades to bear fruit, but in the long run, they do seem to have influenced everyday behaviour—if only with a considerable delay, distorted and redirected by many other factors pulling in different directions, and in any case only in tandem with changing local patterns of social control.

Social Utopias

Despite their relatively limited practical application and political success, explicitly articulated visions proposing reorganisation of social relations marked a distinctive break in this era with the medieval traditions—in fact, they foreshadowed in many respects the progressivism and social engineering of the modern era. Observing the growing social problems in cities with swelling numbers of urban poor and the negative impact of the emerging agricultural capitalism on living standards of the peasants, intellectuals across Europe began to contemplate the role of the state (sovereign) and community. They developed radical proposals for a reorganisation of society and its institutions based on rationality, with an aim to secure ‘welfare’ for all. Equality of citizens, not only in terms of legal rights, but also cultural and even economic equality, represented a guiding principle of such treatises. This call for reform, clearly traceable in writings of influential humanists and advisors of princes and kings from the fifteenth century onwards, often highlighted the obligation of the state to develop and institutionalise secular care of people and their health.

English Catholic politician Thomas More (1478–1535), who served as Chancellor of England to Henry VIII in his fictional, socio-political satire Utopia (1516), described an ideal society inhabited by rational men, contrasted with a contemporary Antwerp stricken by mounting social ills. In a more explicit way, the converted Spanish Jew and scholar Juan Luis Vives (1493–1540) addressed the social problem. Vives had spent a short spell at the court of the English ruler Henry VIII and later became a teacher of a prince and archbishop of Toledo, William II de Croÿ. In his De subventione pauperum (‘On Assistance to the Poor’) he explicitly called for the state to provide social and financial relief for the poor. In his eyes, neither the Church—of which he was mostly suspicious—nor individual almsgiving could stand up to the new challenges associated with urban population growth in places such as Bruges, the city which had commissioned his treatise. Besides providing funding and shelter, Vives also suggested the state should provide education to the poor and unskilled who, as he argued, could not be blamed for their fate. His propositions for a secular poor relief system fell by the wayside amid the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Nonetheless, an emphasis on the provisioning of education for impoverished children remained a crucial part of nascent welfare policies, as evidenced in the writings of, among others, the Moravian theologian and pedagogue John Amos Comenius (1592–1670).

While the practical achievements of humanist scholars remained rather modest, their works inspired social relief legislation in Western Europe through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and marked a decisive step towards the development of modern welfare policies and social engineering—including the unfortunate belief that a well-functioning community (urban and national) requires cultural homogeneity, excluding marginalised groups.

Population Policies and Statistics

There was one long-term ambition that was a more consistent goal in many early modern states, namely the goal of increasing the territorial population. It was on the agenda more consistently because the number of people living in a polity had a direct impact on its fiscal and military power. Italian thinker Giovanni Botero (c. 1544–1617) and French political philosopher Jean Bodin (1530–1596) in this sense equated population with the wealth of a state. Efforts to increase the population potentially touched on people’s everyday lives—but once again, they were rarely enforced and did not seem to have had a fundamental impact on people’s reproductive behaviour. There are few indications of their success, with the sole exception of some major waves of immigration such as that of the French Huguenots who, towards the end of the seventeenth century, were invited and encouraged by some rulers to settle in their territories in large numbers. In the second half of the eighteenth century, ‘populationist’ ideas and policies came to be refined with various incentives, state welfare programmes, and efforts to improve hygiene conditions and health care. It is possible that these efforts began to usher in the massive population growth of the nineteenth century. Ironically, however, at the same time, a negative view of population growth set in, soon to be labelled ‘Malthusian’ after the English political economist Thomas Malthus (1766–1834) who gave it its clearest expression. Malthus claimed that population growth was limited by agricultural, economic and infrastructural resources; it would be harmful above a certain threshold and therefore had to be carefully monitored and contained.

Additionally, in the second half of the eighteenth century, a new technique began to be employed more and more systematically to measure und number the population and the factors of its growth, as well as to specify its relations with the economy—namely, the instrument known today as ‘statistics’ (the term took on this sense at the very end of the century). The deployment of statistical calculations and projections was arguably the closest early modern protagonists came to such a thing as ‘social engineering’. Once again, though, the endeavour remained largely theoretical—although some statisticians did propose systematic manipulations of the economy as well as of the population, based on their numerical projections and planning (the first to do this was one of the inventors of statistics, the seventeenth-century English political economist William Petty [1623–1687]). It can thus at least be argued that the statistical instruments that would enable later ‘social engineering’ had been created in the early modern period.


While European welfare systems did not evolve in a linear fashion and the early modern period in particular saw both continuity and change, the time between the Reformation and the onset of full-blown industrialisation clearly emerges as crucial in this process. Religious reform, utopian thinking, political decisions, and private initiatives did lead to significant shifts in the perception and handling of poverty; but economic factors, wars, environmental conditions, and epidemics which impacted demography and wealth distribution were also contingent upon the dynamics that shaped early modern welfare. While both ecclesiastical and state efforts at containing the rise in poverty became more noticeable and systematic, welfare did not become universally available. Poor relief and access to education improved significantly for some social groups, especially in urban areas, but others remained marginalised and largely without support. Welfare, like other sectors of early modern societies, underwent a gradual and often tortuous transformation. The complexity of the multifaceted and at times contradictory development of early modern welfare is mirrored in the complexity of scholarly debates. It is safe to say, however, that the ground was at least prepared for later attempts at ‘social engineering’ that would promote ever closer connections between welfare and social control during the nineteenth century.

Discussion questions

  1. The early modern period saw a tendency to rationalise welfare. What did this mean in practice?
  2. In which ways was welfare a way to control the population in early modern Europe?
  3. What was the role of religion in welfare in early modern Europe?

Suggested reading

Behrisch, Lars, ‘Social Discipline’, in Friedrich Jaeger, ed., Encyclopedia of Early Modern History, vol. XII (Leiden: Brill, 2022).

Gorski, Philip S., The Disciplinary Revolution: Calvinism and the Rise of the State in Early Modern Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).

Grell, Ole P. and Andrew Cunningham, eds, Health Care and Poor Relief in Protestant Europe 1500–1700 (London: Routledge, 1997).

Jersch-Wenzel, Stefi et al., eds, Juden und Armut in Mittel- und Osteuropa (Cologne: Böhlau, 2000).

Johnson, Eric A., Eric H. Monkkonen, eds, The Civilization of Crime: Violence in Town and Country Since the Middle Ages (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996).

Ogilvie, Sheila, ‘“So that every subject knows how to behave”: Social Disciplining in Early Modern Bohemia’, Comparative Studies in Society and History 48:1 (2006), 38–78.

Sadler, John E., Comenius and the Concept of Universal Education (London: Routledge, 2014).

Safley, Thomas M., ed., The Reformation of Charity: The Secular and the Religious in Early Modern Poor Relief (Leiden: Brill 2003).

Spicker, Paul, ed., The Origins of Modern Welfare: Juan Luis Vives, “De subventione pauperum”, and City of Ypres, “Forma subventionis pauperum” (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2010).

Spierenburg, Pieter, The Prison Experience: Disciplinary Institutions and their Inmates in Early Modern Europe (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1991).

Tuttle, Leslie, Conceiving the Old Regime: Pronatalism and the Politics of Reproduction in Early Modern France (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Wilson, Renate, ‘Philanthropy in Eighteenth-Century Central Europe: Evangelical Reform and Commerce’, Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations 9:1 (1998), 81–102.

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