If proverbially beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then apparently charity is in the definition of the donor …. The Europe-wide horsemeat scandal that surfaced in February 2013 invited some rather cynical attitudes toward charitable provision that had equally unpleasant antecedents in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

First the modern story: as readers will recall, in the early months of 2013 traces of horsemeat were being found in all sorts of processed and pre-packaged meat, mainly stocked by supermarkets, and thus with a complicated supply chain that made it all the more difficult to know where the meat originated from. As was pointed out at the time, correctly I think, this was more about fraud and less about food safety. As far as meat goes, the horsemeat was perfectly fit for human consumption, it’s just that consumers had paid for beef, lamb or pork, and not horsemeat. Suppliers therefore removed the contaminated products from their shelves. The result was tonnes of foodstuffs going to waste. Where the cynicism set in was when aid organisations in France suggested to redistribute some of these products to poor people, providing the meat was deemed edible. The French Red Cross, however, argued that such a gesture would be an affront to human dignity: “If one does not have enough to eat, then that does not mean one has to eat what others reject”, a spokesperson said.

In Germany, too, first a parliamentary member of the CDU, Hartwig Fischer, and then the development minister, Dirk Niebel, echoed the call to redistribute contaminated meat to the poor. German aid organisations and the opposition parties equally condemned this suggestion as respectless and insulting toward the needy. Just because someone had less income did not mean they were second-class citizens. However, the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) maintained an ambiguous attitude. “We as a Church find the throw-away mentality in our society concerning. How and whether to distribute the products in question would have to be examined,” Prelate Bernhard Felmberg said. “But to throw away food that could be consumed without risk is equally bad as false labelling and cannot be a solution.”

The moral quandary is a valid one, for in a hungry world it is reprehensible to waste edible food, yet at the same time it is demeaning to our contemporary poor. The later Middle Ages had no such moral qualms.

Correct guidance on charitable discrimination was provided in the account-book of the Cistercian monastery of Beaulieu abbey, compiled 1269-70. This discrimination went so far that the poor sick people in the abbey’s infirmary were to be fed the meat of animals that had died of disease. One may also note that in 1506 the household records of the bishop of Lincoln contain a note that charity given to the poor consisted of fish that had become “corrupt and defective” (Christopher Dyer, Standards of Living in the Later Middle Ages, Cambridge, 1989, p. 241). Prof. Dyer (op. cit. p. 237) comments that this attitude of “attention to economy, the discrimination and the distrust of the poor would not have been out of place among the zealous administrators of the new Poor Law in the nineteenth century.”

One can find further medieval examples of such a cynical definition of charity. The guild of butchers of Toulouse exercised similar charitable discrimination, in that the 1394 redaction of their statutes specified certain kinds of dubious meat (including “flesh from pigs with leprous tongues and dead animals not properly slaughtered by butchers”) to be confiscated by guild officials and if deemed still edible to be given to the poor, otherwise to be disposed of in the river; hence “at least one guild passed off its refuse as a charitable donation” (Steven Epstein, Wage Labor and Guilds in Medieval Europe, Chapel Hill, 1991, p. 168). And in 1356 St John’s hospital, Oxford which accommodated poor and sick people, was assigned “all flesh or fish that shall be putrid, unclean, vicious or otherwise unfit”, while St Giles’s hospital, Maldon, received all confiscated “bread, ale, flesh and unsound fish” deemed commercially non-viable (Carole Rawcliffe, Leprosy in Medieval England, Woodbridge, 2006, p. 79). According to Rawcliffe, the medieval rationale behind redistributing contaminated foodstuffs to, in the main, the inmates of leper houses was that such people were already affected by disease, and eating foodstuffs condemned as unfit for human consumption couldn’t make them any worse. Perhaps our present day political leaders think of the poor as lepers in this respect.