Dictionary and Thesaurus
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 supplied. Only a few
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
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
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.