The University of Arizona

From the Poor Clares to the Care of the Poor: Space, Place, and Poverty in Sixteenth-Century Geneva

Kristen Coan Howard


My paper examines the transformation of sixteenth-century Geneva’s only religious house for women, the Convent of the Poor Clares, into an institution dedicated to caring for the poor, the Hôpital Général (General Hospital). Before the Reformation, the convent held a central place in Geneva both physically, in a central neighborhood, and spiritually, as Genevans considered the prayers of the Poor Clares to be especially efficacious. Although this spatial and spiritual centrality served the nuns well before the Reformation, it became problematic during the surge of Protestant sentiment and iconoclastic activity in the 1530s.

This came to a head in August 1535, as iconoclasts entered the convent, intent on the destruction of images, icons, and the nuns’ way of life. Convinced they could no longer live safely in Geneva, the Poor Clares abandoned their convent. But the building did not sit empty for long. Within a few weeks of their departure, the former home of the Poor Clares became the Hôpital Général, now home to the care of the poor. I argue that this incredibly fast transition -- despite immense damage to the building -- demonstrates the strength of a new understanding of poverty that cast the poor as lazy and impure rather than holy. The new hospital was intended to address the problems of poverty, rather than encourage the perceived impurity of the lifestyle and mendicancy of the Poor Clares and other impoverished Genevans.

By examining the building’s physical and spiritual transition from the (sacred, private) home of the Poor Clares into the (secular, public) home of the poor, my paper provides us with a nuanced picture of the use and transformation of space in the process of Reformation. Moreover, this case exemplifies a change in perceptions of the poor which led to changes in social welfare systems throughout early modern Europe.

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