La Santa y Real Hermandad del Refugio y Piedad de Madrid was a voluntary association formed to deal with the urban poverty endemic in Spain’s capital. In tracing the history of this institution, William Callahan provides an excellent analysis of its structure, finances, and operations. He demonstrates how the nature and function of el Refugio reflect the predominance of the nobility in Madrid and, in doing so, deepens our understanding of Spanish society. Of particular interest is his discovery that while the institution was dominated by the artistocracy, its financial support came largely from the lesser nobility of Madrid. His discussion of socorros secretos, aid given to the socially prominent poor, is intriguing, and his treatment of el demente, which concludes that “era preferible estar loco en Madrid que ser sometido a tratamiento en un asilo” (p. 130), is provocative.
Callahan clearly feels that institutions such as el Refugio made a significant positive contribution to the problem of urban poverty. Yet, it is very difficult to determine the precise extent of the contribution. The difficulty is in part a function of the object of his study: a society that regarded poor relief as a religious and moral obligation to be satisfied, rather than as an economic and social problem to be resolved. It is also, however, a function of Callahan’s approach: one that does not substantively analyze the nature and extent of poverty in Madrid and that focuses on one type of institutional response, that of private associations. To determine more fully “el impacto de la caridad organizada en el masivo problema de la pobreza madrileña” (p. 67), Callahan’s excellent study must be read in conjunction with the recent one of Jacques Soubeyroux, Pauperisme et rapports sociaux à Madrid au xviiie siècle (Lille, 1978).