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Group]Lectures in Medieval History

The Medieval Paupers

Who Were the Medieval Paupers?

About 20% of the medieval population were destitute and homeless, wandering the roads of Europe looking for work or for charity, and climbing beneath a roadside hedge to die. Although they were ubiquitous, they have been neglected by historians because of the lack of sources discussing them directly. One exception was the starving beggars who followed "King" Tafur on the First Crusade. They were utterly without fear and, when food was low, would go out and capture one of the Muslim opponents. They would then roast and eat him. Leaders of both Muslims and Christians feared the beggars and finally conspired to lure them out into a waterless desert and abandon them there without supplies. Only a few survived.

Why Were Some People Paupers?

Most paupers fell into one or another of three groups.

The physically incompetent: the mentally retarded, blind and deaf, halt and aged, the deformed, maimed or mutilated, "lepers," epileptics, emotionally disturbed, and others.

The socially marginalized: widows and orphans without protection, any criminals who had been "marked," captured soldiers who had been maimed, old women, the "immoral," and others cast out of their own societies.

The economically deprived: those who had been left homeless by the agricultural and commercial revolutions.

The last group was perhaps the largest and grew throughout the later middle ages. Improvements in agricultural technology had increased both production and productivity. This meant that a larger population could be supported by a smaller proportion of its people. Let's make that a bit more concrete. If a million people can be supported by the work of 90%, there will be 100,000 people without work. If the population grows to ten million, however, there will be 1,000,000 million people out of work. When the expansion of medieval agriculture reached its limit, there were no new lands for the unemployed to settle, and they became permanently indigent.

At the same time, manufacturing had been increasing and this manufacturing required a great deal of agricultural raw materials such as hides, fleece, flax, hemp, and the like. This meant that manufacturers and merchants took over land that had once supported peasant families to raise sheep or flax or hemp instead of wheat. Such proprietors did away with the system of scattered strips in open fields and concentrated their holdings in fenced properties that became known as farms. They seized the meadows and woods that had been the common lands of the villages, and destroyed the villages by doing so.

At the close of the medieval period, Thomas More (1478-1535), the English humanist, described this situation in the first part of his famous work called Utopia and goes on to describe how a well-ordered society would operate.

A less dramatic, but equally important source of poverty was the rationalization of agriculture through use of wage labor. Peasant farming was a seasonal occupation, in which the work of producing a crop occupied only three to four months out of every twelve. It was therefore quite inefficient from the point of view of the proprietor since he had to provide the workers with a year's subsistence for a third of a year's work. "Labor costs" consumed 75-85% of a village's production. It was much more efficient for the landowners to hire workers when they needed them since they needed to pay them only for the time they worked, and did not have to provide for their workers' old age, illness, or subsistence in times of shortage.

The towns and manufacturing had been absorbing a portion of the displaced peasants, but this came to an end with the shrinking and markets of the fourteenth century. In a new competitive environment, the merchants established new modes of production that replaced the old guild system. self- employed craftsmen were replaced by day-workers or those on piece-work (a system where the worker is paid on the basis of the amount of finished goods he or she produces.)

Basically, population had increased faster than property, so some people had to be excluded from the benefits of property ownership since there was no longer enough property for everyone. Economic forces allowed property to concentrate in relatively few hands, and, when population dropped, proprietors used force to keep their privileged position. (Statute of laborers and so forth). The fundamental fact was that a large body of cheap and helpless workers was a benefit to the property-owning class, and the exploitation of those workers provided everyone else with a higher standard of living than they would have enjoyed if the economy had been one that distributed production relatively equitably.

People tend to look back on periods of technological or economic "advance" and assume that they were exciting eras in which people were caught up in the forward march of "progress." This is rarely the case. Most periods of change -- such as the early Industrial Revolution -- are times of social and economic dislocation when large segments of the population suffer. Today's students will be living in the "post-Industrial Revolution," an era in which automation will continue to eliminate industrial and manufacturing jobs and in which international competition will lead "proprietors" to lower costs as much as possible. One can consider what happened in western Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and see many parallels with America at the end of the twentieth century.

How Did medieval Society React to the Constant Presence of the Paupers ?

Christians had an obligation to help the poor. Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of my brethren, you have done it to me. The Church administered a 10% tax on Europe's total annual production (the tithe) to help the poor. But many felt that God had made the poor to give them the opportunity to gain merit through charity, so they did not attack causes. Instead, they took refuge behind the scriptural statement that The poor will always be with you. But as population grew in the 11th - 13th century, so too did the number of the poor. By the 1100's, the middle class came to the aid of the Church with added endowments and with the establishment of private and municipal charitable institutions. With the Avignon papacy, however, the Church was no longer capable of adequately assisting the rapidly growing class of indigent, not even, given the break-up of the guilds and rise of capitalism, with the aid of the middle class. By about 1200, the matter had gotten entirely out of control. Many concerned people, both clerics and laity, called for the Church to give up all of its wealth to aid the paupers, but most knew that this would not be a permanent solution. The Christian obligation to care for the poor and the impossibility of doing so adequately was a serious problem in the minds of many, since scripture, particularly Jesus' words in the 25th chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew, emphasized that charity was essential for salvation. The Franciscan movement was at least partly a response to this dilemma, but it was a weak response. In a sense, the message of the Franciscan movement said that being poor was a good thing because the poor were closer to God than the rich. In addition, the early Franciscans brought in troubadour ideals and acted as if Our Lady Poverty should be pursued like a lover pursues his beloved. In a sense, it was a game for many in which they acted out the role of a beggar, but without any real chance of starving. Few stopped to consider that the Franciscans who were wandering around taking odd jobs in exchange for a beggar's crust of bread were also doing the jobs that the beggars might have been able to do and were eating the crusts that real beggars might have eaten.

The situation grew somewhat better after 1300. Plagues and famines kept the numbers of the poor down, particularly since the paupers died in far greater numbers than the well-to-do. But the wild fluctuations in population also revealed that society as a whole was not interested in eliminating poverty. When the Black Death took about a third of the population, laborers were suddenly in short supply. The paupers now had a chance at a better life. But the propertied classes immediately began to condemn and regulate, rather than assist, them. It became clear to many that the paupers were a guarantee of cheap labor, and that the leaders of the economy had no wish to see them disappear.

By the close of the fourteenth century, many previously well-to-do groups had been driven by economic pressures into poverty, and there were stirrings of protests against an unjust society and economy. The Peasants' Revolt of 1381 was perhaps an example of this frustration, with John Ball's question Wham Adam delved and Eve span, where then was the gentleman? ("when Adam was digging and Eve spinning, where was the noble by birth?"). Perhaps the most enduring example of this social protest, however, was Steven Langland's poem Piers Ploughman, a protest against fourteenth-century English society written by a cleric living at the very edge of poverty.

How Was the Problem of the Paupers Finally Solved?

The number of poor and homeless stabilized at about 20% of the population. They were increasingly regulated and guarded, and institutional assurances erected that they would not better their condition. Poverty became institutionalized by the early modern period and remained so until the European empires could raise living standards generally by exploiting their colonies. Now that the colonial system has collapsed, there are signs of the reappearance of a permanent underclass even in the industrialized nations. So the beggars of the middle ages may not have been so much a reflection of medieval society's lack of sensitivity or humanity as a result of economic changes that they were unable or unwilling to control.


Lynn Harry Nelson
Emeritus Professor of
Medieval History
The University of Kansas
Lawrence, Kansas

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