Indiana University      Research & Creative Activity      January 2000 Volume XXII Number 3


Of Wine, Charity, and Ego

by Eric Pfeffinger

Charity can spring from decidedly uncharitable impulses. At least that’s what Kevin Robbins, an associate professor of history and philanthropic studies at Indiana University–Purdue University at Indianapolis, has found as he conducts research into the history of philanthropy in France. His current project is a book about the Hôtel-Dieu, a private charity hospital that was founded in the French Burgundian city of Beaune in 1443 and continues to operate today. Its longevity is noteworthy enough, but the Hôtel-Dieu is intriguing also in that its founder’s motives were less than selfless.

Kevin Robbins, Associate Professor of History and Philanthropic Studies, Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis

"Its founder, Nicolas Rolin, was one of the most wealthy and powerful men in Europe," Robbins explains. "A commoner enriched through service as chancellor to Burgundian dukes, Rolin was determined to make his hospital unique—a masterwork of piety and charity. But that wasn’t the milk of human kindness flowing through his veins. Rolin had a lot to atone for; he was supremely vain and self-centered. So he bet on the survival of this institution as a critical component of his eternal renown. The Hôtel-Dieu is a monument to this man’s ego. His piety, yes, but his ego as well."

So it came to pass that one of the oldest and most influential private philanthropies in the world came into being because one savvy rich guy was worried about his posthumous reputation. When you learn that the hospital’s endowment consists largely of its ownership of local vineyards and their annual output of fine wines, managed and auctioned by a board of trustees, it becomes clear that the Hôtel-Dieu is not your run-of-the-mill charity. These are only the beginnings of the reasons why the history of one hospital fascinates Robbins; the other reasons speak not only to the unique appeal of the Hôtel-Dieu but to the inherent advantages and potential of the history of philanthropy as a discipline.

Robbins’s interest in the history of philanthropy didn’t begin with the Hôtel-Dieu; his first book, City on the Ocean Sea: La Rochelle 1530–1650, Urban Society, Religion, and Politics on the French Atlantic Frontier, included in its focus an examination of city residents’ early modern philanthropic activities. In the Hôtel-Dieu, Robbins has taken on a subject daunting in its breadth and depth, a topic whose most attractive feature—the wealth of available archival documentation—also poses a very tangible challenge.

"The Hôtel-Dieu has kept virtually every piece of paper ever generated or acquired while conducting its business since 1443," Robbins says. "It’s an embarrassment of riches." For these riches, Robbins again has Rolin to thank. A savvy politician, Rolin knew that jealous competitors would try to acquire and dominate his hospital after he died, and so he built resistance to hostile takeovers into the hospital’s structure. For example, he stipulated that the hospital’s chief medical services be performed by a lay society of nursing sisters who swore allegiance to Rolin, his heirs, and the governing statutes of the institution; he forbade the sisters to take holy orders at any time. In this way, he cannily thwarted any effort down the road by the Catholic church to dominate the Hôtel-Dieu.

Portrait of Nicolas Rolin circa 1450 by Rogier Van der Weyden. This portrait appears on an exterior panel of Van der Weyden’s great triptych "The Last Judgement" that Rolin specially commissioned to adorn the chapel in the great hall of his hospital.

Rolin’s farsighted egotism had fruitful ramifications for Robbins’s research. "Because this was an institution that from its foundation on was well armed to protect its independence, its trustees realized the importance of archives as a defense against other predatory civil and political powers covetous of its wealth and popular renown," he says. "Historians rarely face the luxuriance of sources that I have. Tens of thousands of volumes of material, patiently accumulated over time. The challenge is coming up with modes of inquiry that will allow me to master this enormous bulk." It’s no small task. Robbins expects his book—its working title is The Hospice of Humanity: Beaune’s Hôtel-Dieu and the Cultural History of Burgundian Philanthropy, 1450–1850—to be out no sooner than 2002 and to address 400 years of the hospital’s history. "Anything less would do a disservice to the archive that inspires me and the great historical changes it reveals," he explains.

One way Robbins deals with the challenge is technological: subjecting the information recorded in the Hôtel-Dieu’s archaic documents to the latest in high-tech software. Using the data he gleans from the hospital’s inventories, receipts, personnel records, and other archives, Robbins constructs computerized spreadsheets and databases with modern information management software. "It’s a matter of extracting data and formulating questions by using machines," he says. "With increasingly powerful laptop computers, it’s child’s play now." For instance, the hospital has archived the wills of every major and minor benefactor over hundreds of years. By feeding the particulars of those wills into a computer database, Robbins can quantify the socioeconomic status, age, marital status, and gender of the Hôtel-Dieu’s givers. "How did the institution’s donor pool change over time? Who tended to be the big donors? Who gave more—men or women? What does that tell us? You can put together compelling arguments about very recondite subjects using such substantial serial data," Robbins enthuses.

Robbins also points out that, while the Hôtel-Dieu is unusual in many respects, thorough records tend to be a characteristic of charities; thus, philanthropies by their very nature have much to offer historians who are willing to be diligent. "Without archives like these, we’d have an impoverished view of early modern France," he says. "Analyzing testamentary charity in La Rochelle for my last book—going through the last wills and testaments of residents of the town over the course of a 120 years—really attuned me to the revelatory power of documents related to philanthropy and charity. It showed me how, through the history of philanthropy, we can get a far deeper understanding of the social, religious, cultural, and political history of a given community. When one attempts to reconstruct the mentalities of people in the past, one needs as much documentation as possible. Archivally, study of philanthropies is the best path to take. It’s one of the most extensively documented human practices but—paradoxically—one of the least studied. Work in this field is helping to redress those lapses."

Analyzing early modern philanthropy can also have significance for charitable practices today, as Robbins’s investigation of the Hôtel-Dieu’s trustees suggests. "The archives include carefully maintained minutes of the board of trustees over half a millennium, which makes possible an historical analysis of trusteeship itself. This could be pathbreaking. Today, no one has a working and informed historical knowledge of what a trustee is. That’s probably because we have only a narrow temporal understanding of what a trustee is and where the genesis of trusteeship lies," Robbins says. "So it could be revealing to study these trustees over time and how their actions and perceptions of themselves changed. Who became trustees? Were there any significant changes in their socioeconomic complexion over time? Were there women? Were trustees always lawyers, or were more humble professions represented? It’s the obligation of social historians to provide the historical context and depth for those institutions, titles, organizations, and concepts that we now take for granted."

Exterior view of the main courtyard of the Hôtel-Dieu in Beaune, showing the glazed tile roof decoration typical of notable Burgundian buildings. The hospital was completed under Nicolas Rolin’s personal supervision in 1452 and continues to operate today in newer structures.

Besides its illuminative implications for modern-day philanthropists, Robbins’s research also fits well with the trajectory of the discipline of history and how it has been practiced over the past decades. "I think one could say that over the last twenty-five years, the historical profession in Europe and the United States has turned away from the narrow history of armies and kings, and toward the study of social history—looking at more than just the governing elite," Robbins says. "The history of philanthropy has been energized by that trend. As a new generation of historians comes up, eager to find caches of material suitable for quantitative analysis, we’ll see a growing interest among younger scholars in exploiting the records of philanthropic institutions to shed light on other fields of historical inquiry."

If the history of philanthropy is useful to historians in other fields, it borrows and benefits from developments in those fields as well. Feminist approaches to history have been particularly relevant to Robbins’s work, which, he says, isn’t surprising. "The history of charity and philanthropy often involves detailed analysis of the social behavior of women," he observes. "One reason for that is women, vulnerable to domination and abuse, were disproportionately aided by charitable institutions. But, as it happens, feminist scholars have discovered that women were also active agents in the distribution and articulation of philanthropic regimes and philanthropic values."

The Hôtel-Dieu, with its permanent staff of lay sisters, is especially representative of that trend. "This remarkable institution was practically controlled by an increasingly powerful and politically active sorority," Robbins observes. "It’s an example of the empowerment of French women through service to an institution that depended on their independence of mind and action." The role of women in the Hôtel-Dieu reflects an element of philanthropic history that Robbins finds most exciting. "One of the things that has really been brought home to me is the role of philanthropic institutions as engines of empowerment, particularly for communities previously marginalized in scholarship," he says. "Contrary to the received wisdom of scholars, these institutions amplified the agency and power of women, of the sick, orphans, widows. It gave them a public stature—it empowered those it served."

This discovery, in turn, has affected not only the way Robbins views his subject matter but the way he approaches his teaching. "Of course, on one level, my teaching has been significantly enhanced through my research in one of Europe’s most intriguing institutions," he observes. "My awareness of the sheer richness of the record makes me a better guide to late-twentieth-century American students who are almost completely bereft of any deep historical understanding of philanthropic institutions.

"Understanding the power dynamic—the political nature of all philanthropic institutions—that’s what has really made me a better teacher to my students," he continues. "More than anything else, I wish to convey to my students the status of charitable institutions as power political players in all stages of historical development. I can happily report," he says, "that approach seems to be of great interest in the classroom."

Given his passion for it, that’s no surprise.