The Poor

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The Poor



Perennial Problem. Europe was close enough to being a subsistence economy that poverty was a constant presence. Almost no one believed that the elimination of poverty was a sensible social goal. Instead, social policy centered on how to minimize the negative effects of poverty both for its vic-tims and for society at large. There were, in fact, two distinct layers of the poor within European society. Some families and individuals were completely incapable of sup-porting themselves from farming or wages. Even in the best of times, they had to rely on alms, or charity, to survive. Still others were capable of working but were close enough to the margins of existence that the slightest food shortage would plunge them into crisis. The proportions of both of these groups could be very high. In one city in the late-sixteenth century, it has been estimated that 15 per-cent of the population was completely dependent on alms for survival. Probably 65 percent of the population was vulnerable to economic crises and would fit the second definition of the poor.

Perceptions. The poor were “always among us,” but that does not mean that people did not distinguish between the deserving and the undeserving poor. It was widely recognized, for example, that an injury to the principal laborer in the household, usually the father, could push a family into desperate economic circumstances. Formal disability insurance was unknown, but friends, relatives, and even town or village leaders would step in to try to help families who were thrown into poverty by an unfortunate accident. At the other extreme, however, were those who “chose” to be poor, rather than submit to the social confines of town or village life. Critics complained about the swarms of beggars that accosted people in the towns and migrated through the countryside. It was widely understood that some of these beggars had no other way of earning a living because they were blind or crippled, but that others were fakers, who hobbled about to gain sympathy. For that reason, officials often insisted that beggars obtain begging licenses to prove that they were genuinely desperate. The trickery often associated with begging also meant that there was a fine line between general vagrancy and crime. In towns, some vagrants earned their living from pickpocketing or robbery. In the countryside, bands of beggars frequently joined together to undertake highway robbery. Indeed, most officials assumed that unlicensed beggars and criminals were equivalent.

Occupations. The lives of the poor were different in the towns than in the countryside. In the countryside, the poor were those who had little or no land of their own and had to earn a living by supporting the agricultural economy in some way. Most were day laborers who assisted in the plowing or harvesting of the fields during the peak seasons. In between, many developed additional talents that made them potentially valuable, but also potentially dangerous, members of the community. Poor women sometimes sup-ported themselves by becoming midwives or mastering herbal remedies. Villagers sometimes suspected that those women inflicted spells on members of the community. Poor men might find jobs tending animals or cleaning out toilets and cesspits. Such positions often were considered dishonorable, making the men who performed them outcasts in their own communities.

Servants, Prostitutes, and Soldiers. In towns, there were a greater array of tasks that the poor might undertake, but most of the poor subsisted on wages from day laboring. An honorable route to employment would be as a servant or maid in a citizen’s household. Women who were unable to find other employment might become prostitutes in the licensed brothels of the towns. Some men became soldiers, who were generally recruited from the most desperate sectors of society. Pay was haphazard and discipline extremely violent, but there was the occasional opportunity to strike it rich by plunder or the ransoming of captives.


The honorable city council has been informed often and emphatically, fully and credibly that some beggars and beggaresses live a life without fear of God, even lives that are unseemly and unbecoming. Also that there are some who come here to Nuremberg for alms, demanding and taking them, even though they are not needy, And because alms, when they are given, are a particularly praiseworthy, meritorious, virtuous and good work, and because those tliat take alms without need or falsely are thereby burdened by a heavy and manifest wrong, the above-named our councilors, to the praise of God but also from necessity, undertake to prevent such dishonesty and danger from swindling whereby poor, distressed persons are deprived from their support by alms. To this end they desire to establish and earnestly command that the following ordinance, avoidance of which shall incur the herein contained penalties, shall be enforced and kept, according to which everyone is to comply:

First, our councilors direct, establish, and command that neither citizens nor visitors—men or women—in this city of Nuremberg may beg either day or night, unless permission to do so is granted by the appropriate person appointed by the honorable council.

And whoever has received such permission shall not beg unless they openly wear the beggar’s badge that is given them. Whoever begs without permission and the badge shall remain a year and a mile away from this city.

Beggars and beggaresses who are ashamed to beg by day and desire to beg only at night will be given a special badge. In the summer, they are to beg no longer than two hours in the night, and in the winter no longer than three hours, and not without a light according to the law of the city ordinance.

Then each beggar and beggaress, before being given permission and the badge, shall inform in an appropriate manner the lords chosen by the council the truth of their condition, their health, whether married or single, and number of children in order to determine whether they are dependent or not on begging. Whoever holds back the truth shall remain a year and a mile outside the city. In addition, even if begging is necessary to such a person, permission will not be granted unless he brings at least every year from his father confessor a statement that he has at least confessed and received absolution.

Beggars will not be permitted to beg if they have children with them among whom one is eight years old and without disability because they could very well earn their own bread. However, if a man or woman beggar has four or five children, all under seven years, and also a child over eight to watch the rest, then the elected lords shall be entitled to make an allowance.

The names of such beggars’ children who are over eight and are healthy and would not be helped by their parents to work, shall be indicated to the bailiff. This is in order to be able to pick them up, make note of them, and determine whether they can be helped to employment here or in the countryside.

Source: Carter Lindberg, Beyond Charity: Reformation Initiatives for the Poor (Minneapolis: Fortess Press, 1993), pp. 179-182.

Poor Relief. Individual almsgiving was probably the most common way that Renaissance society provided for the poor. There are no statistics to indicate just how much money circulated because of money placed by villagers and townspeople in beggars’ cups. Catholic religious ideals favored individual almsgiving as a form of good works. But often, charity was focused in larger religious organizations. In Italy, in particular, urban confraternities ministered to the poor. Confraternities were not made up of priests, but of ordinary citizens who wanted to increase their merit in the eyes of God by performing acts of mercy such as caring for the sick, almsgiving, and burying the dead. In some cities, these organizations were large and diverse enough to handle the main load of poor relief. In the Spanish town of Zamora, for example, there was one confraternity for every fourteen households in the town.

Community Chests. Partly under the influence of the Protestant Reformation, poor relief came to be viewed more as a civic responsibility than a religious obligation. Protestant theology undermined the rationale of confraternities, and instead urged the creation of “community chests” that would be available to minister to the poor of a specific neighborhood or village. Protestants maintained and even deepened the distinction between the deserving poor and the idle and dangerous beggars. Territorial rulers used poor-relief measures to intensify social control to the best of their abilities. However, in the end, poor-relief policies in either Catholic or Protestant lands had little measurable effect on the numbers of poor or idle, undeserving poor, which were determined much more by broad demo-graphic and economic forces than by social policy.


George Huppert, After the Black Death: A Social History of Early Modern Europe (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986).

Robert Jiitte, Poverty and Deviance in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, U.K. & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

Carter Lindberg, Beyond Charity: Reformation Initiatives for the Poor (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993).

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The Poor

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