In the 16th-century Low Countries, some 20% of all people were exempted from taxes due to poverty. It was a period of increasing prices - even hyperinflation – and wages not keeping up. Contemporaries also noted an increase in the poverty level, causing major reorganisations and reforms. Historians have labelled pre-modern poor relief either as a 'moralising' poor relief, a tool
to regulate labour markets, or as an alternative to informal solidarity networks which all but disappeared in increasingly anonymous cities. However, such general explanations do not explain why seemingly very similar poor relief institutions could allow for very divergent practices. Starting from the praxis of rural poor relief in the 16th-century Southern Low Countries, this project argues that it was above all an instrument of village elites. The aim and function of poor relief – but also the tools that were used – varied according to the composition, characteristics and social strategies of the elites controlling it. Poor relief might thus have been labour-regulating in one region and solidarity-enhancing in another, or something in between these two extremes. By
focussing on the 16th-century Holy Ghost tables (the major providers of rural poor relief) and the regional and local differences in relief praxis, I will argue that the effects of similar institutions were strongly divergent due to differences in social structures and concomitant elite characteristics.