Marginal People

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Timothy B. Smith

During the first three quarters of the twentieth century, as Europe overcame subsistence problems and constructed massive welfare states, the problem of poverty and social marginality seemed to have receded into the background. Unemployment was down to 1 percent in Germany by 1960, and it remained below 2.5 percent in most of western Europe until 1973. But during the last twenty years of the century, the marginal people of Europe once again became visible: the homeless (an estimated 500,000 in France and 930,000 in Germany alone in 1996), illegal immigrants (up to 1 million in France); the unemployed (20 million unemployed in Europe in the mid-1990s), and the estimated 6 to 8 million Sinti and Roma (commonly known as Gypsies) who for so long have been living on the margins of society. Except for a brief respite between about 1960 and 1975, during Europe's golden age of full employment, vagrants, beggars, and economic marginals of all sorts have always been a visible and significant feature of western European society.

Until the twentieth century, the economies of Europe were not strong enough to support the vast majority of the population at a level of comfort on a regular basis. Plague and famine periodically paralyzed the economy, pushing people to the margins of society. Until the eighteenth century, when Europe escaped from the Malthusian trap, population ebbed and flowed according to the rhythms of the harvest and pestilence cycles. Although England had escaped from the specter of famine by the early nineteenth century, France had its last nationwide subsistence crisis in the 1850s, and in eastern Europe the threat of crop failure persisted decades longer. Starvation was still a real threat to the peasants of eastern Europe and Russia through World War I and, in some cases, after.

The harvest was the lifeblood of the early modern economy; when it failed, as it did so frequently (one in six harvests in England failed during the seventeenth century), a large part of the population would be forced to scramble to make ends meet. Only when European populations became more urban and more commercial and less peasant based and agricultural—would prosperity increase. Those nations which underwent an agricultural revolution first (Britain) would be the first to enjoy widespread material prosperity. But the processes associated with modernization—agricultural improvements, rural exodus, urbanization, mechanization of artisanal industry, and so on—would, in the short (or intermediate) term, push millions of people to the margins of society. East of the Elbe River, millions of peasants remained mired in serfdom until the mid-nineteenth century.

The typical western European peasant family lived in poverty right into the early nineteenth century, but with one unsettling event—a crop failure, an injury or illness, a rise in bread prices, the death of a spouse or a child, a foreclosed debt—they could be pushed from poverty into destitution and would have to seek charity or public assistance or else take to the road to beg or steal. For example, during the period 1840–1842, some 84 percent of those entering three major dépots de mendicité (beggars' prisons) in Belgium were first-time offenders, members of the casual labor force who were ineligible for public assistance.

Women would sometimes resort to prostitution in a last-ditch effort to spare the family from the shame of seeking assistance, or simply to make ends meet: "morals fluctuate[d] with trade" (Leeuwen, 1994 p. 601). Minor forms of illegality such as smuggling, poaching, and petty theft were common. Banditry persisted in parts of Europe (Italy) well into the nineteenth century. Everywhere, the distinction between poverty and indigence was blurred, and until some point in the eighteenth or nineteenth century (depending on the nation) perhaps half of the continental European population risked falling into indigence or destitution at any given time. Within this wider context of general poverty, however, it is possible to identify certain particularly vulnerable and/or marginal groups.


For the most part, our knowledge of marginal people stems from three sources: court and police records, where the otherwise elusive marginal people left their scarce and faint traces in the historical record; the archives of hospitals, poor relief agencies, and charities; and from the observations of elite contemporaries. Scholars have been interested in the study of poverty and marginality not only because of its intrinsic importance, but also because it provides a good window into many other issues: class relations, trends in religious observance and practice, political and social ideologies, the growth of state penal powers and social spending, and so on.

Thanks to several detailed studies of the clientele of hospitals, prisons, and workhouses, we know that some social groups were more at risk of falling into indigence than others: casual farm laborers (journaliers, as they were known in France), the elderly, widows with children, workers with large families, and casual urban laborers. Child beggars could be seen everywhere in London. In 1816, Lionel Rose reminds us, 50 percent of the three thousand inmates in London's twenty jails were under seventeen years of age. In 1848 Henry Mayhew estimated there were thirty thousand to forty thousand young "street Arabs" wandering in London.


Many rural marginals were attracted to the large capital cities, as were youth, who were drawn to places like London and Paris by the thousands. Few young provincials, Arthur Young noted in 1771, could resist the allure of London. But the medium-sized regional centers—Lyon, Grenoble, Turin, Toulouse—were usually closer to home. Seasonal migration within a region was also common, especially in Alpine areas. For example, every year during the period 1780–1820 roughly twenty thousand peasants would leave their spartan mountain villages in Piedmont (today part of Italy) to eke out an existence in nearby cities or in France for six or even nine months.

These people, like their elders, lived in what Olwen Hufton has termed an "economy of makeshifts." Agricultural laborers, those who lived on the margins of rural society, with no firm roots or legal claims to the land, accounted for roughly 40 percent of those who entered the Charitè hospital in Aix-en-Provence, France, during the eighteenth century; up to one-half of those assisted by some charities in the 1890s; and 20 percent of patients in the hospitals of Mantes-la-Jolie, outside Paris, around 1900. Typically, landless rural laborers were the largest single component of any given nation's floating, vagabond population, but textile workers, artisans, soliders and sailors, servants and apprentices were also commonly found among the wayfaring poor.

Most villages also contained a marginal population, as opposed to older images of village solidarity and rough equality. Many villagers lived hand to mouth, easily victimized by disease, periodic bad harvests, or simply overlarge families. As European agriculture became more commercialized, with inroads on community resources such as common lands, the marginal village population increased.

The debate over the social consequences of enclosure (the process whereby the English—and, later, other Europeans—cleared and enclosed common lands and forests and set about using the land more productively, with fewer laborers) has divided historians for generations. Undoubtedly, enclosure was good for the economy in the long term, leading to more productive use of land, but it hurt several social categories, in particular small owners and casual farm hands, who drifted to the margins of rural (and urban) society. The historian Deborah Valenze has argued that in England women were hurt more than men. The modernization of agriculture during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries eliminated women's traditional role in growing and gathering food as well as other customary activities such as tending livestock. Women were forced into domestic service, factory work, marriage, and quite often into begging and prostitution. Some enterprising people, like the English landowner John Warren of Stockport, were not unaware of the consequences of their actions: having enclosed a commons in 1716, he set up a prison and a workhouse in one corner of his lot. As Roy Porter concludes in his acclaimed survey, English Society in the Eighteenth Century, the eighteenth-century agricultural revolution created a landless proletariat, many of whom remained on the margins of society for decades before being integrated (if they ever were) into new positions in society.


Many cities engaged in significant efforts to help both the working and the unemployed poor. Between 1829 and 1854 in Amsterdam, for example, a quarter of the population received assistance on a regular basis. But as Marco van Leeuwen shows, the elderly and workers with large families were favored. In an age of limited resources, a sharp line between different categories of poor served to ration relief. Poorly paid artisans and textile workers were among the luckiest of the poor, in the sense that their somewhat respectable occupations gave them a chance of receiving public assistance from urban authorities. Lyon geared its relief system to unemployed silk workers; Florence geared its poor relief system to unemployed shoemakers, textile workers, woodworkers, and the like; and Antwerp favored unemployed textile workers (27 percent of those assisted in 1855 were in the textile trade).

A wide stratum of urban society was never fully integrated into the civic fabric or the regular economy and would have had a harder time getting relief: young journeymen, apprentices, casual day laborers, hawkers, porters, ragpickers, haulers, dustmen, charwomen, and domestic servants. These last were particularly vulnerable. Most were unmarried, and many lived in damp basements or cramped attic apartments. Many slipped into prostitution, begging, or vagrancy at some point in time.

This state of affairs had not changed much by the late nineteenth century. The lack of full-time, reliable, adequate wages was the root of the problem. When the city of Hamburg was engaged in a public-health crusade against cholera in the 1890s, it did background checks on the laborers employed in "disinfection columns." Of some 671 men who had their backgrounds checked, 82 had criminal convictions, often several. But most of these convictions were for minor contraventions, indicating, as Richard Evans concludes in Death in Hamburg, "the extent to which the poor of Wilhelmine Germany habitually broke the law in order to survive" (Evans, 1987 p. 322). These were working men, not professional vagabonds or beggars. Catharina Lis observes that the vast majority of those interned for petty crimes in early-nineteenth-century Antwerp were of the poorest stratum of the lower classes.

Surveying a wealth of literature on European urban and social history since 1750, Peter Stearns and Herrick Chapman estimate that the typical large European city in the nineteenth century had a floating, marginal, casually employed labor force which might amount to 20 percent of the population. These unskilled transient laborers searched for new work every day or every week—dock work, ditch digging, hauling, carting, construction work. Paid low wages, they were often hired by the day by a hiring boss in a city square. Many drifted from city to city in search of work, and along the way they might be forced into begging or petty crime. Deprived of the strong neighborhood support networks enjoyed by permanent residents of the city, they lived on the margins in every sense. And yet their very numbers suggest that they were indispensable to the running of the cities—they performed work which no one else would. In a world without the eight-hour day, with little or no labor protection, no welfare state, and low expectations, "marginals" could pick up society's crumbs by taking on a handful of odd jobs at any given time.

Indeed, Barrie Ratcliffe has argued that to be marginalized from mainstream society during the nineteenth century did not necessarily mean that one was also alienated and more prone to criminality. Indeed, as he suggests, when one adds up the various categories of "marginal" people even in early-nineteenth-century Paris, one approaches such a large number that one may be able to speak of the mainstream. Certainly these "marginals" were more integrated into the casual economy than today's unemployed marginals. Still, workers in the early stages of industrialization were often lumped together in the minds of elites with vagrants and other unsavory characters. As the French Journal des débats put it in 1832, "workers are outside political life, outside the city. They are the barbarians of modern society." The same was true, John Merriman argues, for workers in the new faubourgs. Suburban workers were relegated, in Merriman's term, to "the margins of city life."


In the Germanic areas of central Europe, the loss or lack of honor, a value enforced by the urban guilds, was a barrier to entry into society. It could even be a permanent condition, passed on to one's unlucky offspring. This sort of inherited dishonor was less common in western Europe. Honor could be lost in the first instance through illegitimate birth, a criminal record, or racial "impurity," such as having Slavic blood. Lack of honor might mean permanent marginalization, which would force people into a lifetime of begging, theft, smuggling, and/or vagrancy.

The religious divide was often impenetrable. Numerous large European cities had important religious minority communities: Muslims in Venice, Moors in Spanish cities (until they were expelled), Protestants in predominantly Catholic cities, and so on. Of course Jews were marginalized throughout European history in every nation. Indeed, as Christopher Friedrichs notes, "perpetual marginalization was the norm for non-Christians" in Europe in the period 1450–1750—and beyond (Friedrichs, 1995, p. 239).

The Jews were first granted full civil rights in France during the Revolution, but social and economic discrimination continued in the early nineteenth century and then increased later in the century, as the traditional religious recipe for anti-Semitism was made more virulent with the addition of racial, biological anti-Semitism. Jews were dispersed throughout Europe, but everywhere they lived they were conspicuously marginalized, often as a matter of local or central government policy. Jews were often forced to wear markers on their clothing so that they would not be mistaken for Christians. The concept of the Jewish ghetto was first introduced in Venice, but it reached its zenith in Frankfurt, where Jews were confined to a single street, walled and gated off from the rest of the city, and restricted in their movement. If there was one caste-like division in European society in the early modern period, this was it: the towering wall between Jews and Christians.

Walled free cities in central Europe usually denied full citizenship rights to foreigners of all sorts. But money could serve as a passport to social acceptance, if not full citizenship. Some foreigners were prized for their skills or assets (Italian bankers and silk weavers in Lyon, foreign merchants in Polish cities, Italian master craftsmen in France); others were feared as dangerous marginals (Italian peasant migrants in nineteenth-century Marseille). Impoverished foreigners who arrived in distant cities seeking casual labor or charity might be lucky enough to be tolerated, but often they were sent packing with the crack of a whip. A steady flow of Irish beggars was redirected from London back to Ireland in the eighteenth century, but most managed to elude authorities long before their ship set sail, returning to London to start all over again. In addition to the usual social and economic obstacles thrown in the way of immigrants, non-Christians and foreigners had to cope with hostility toward their different religion, language, and customs. They accounted for a large proportion of any given city's beggars.


The problem of begging and vagrancy decreased significantly between the two world wars (there were, for example, only 4,760 prosecutions in Britain in 1934, as compared with up to 25,000 per year in the period 1900–1914). Still, beggars could be seen in European cities until the 1950s or 1960s, and in the 1980s they reemerged in a dramatic fashion. The question, as always, is one of magnitude. In the early modern era (1450 to 1750), and in many places right into the late nineteenth century, beggars could often swamp cities.

German court records from the early modern period provide a glimpse into this complex and colorful underworld: there were Stabülers (professional beggars with several children); Klenckner (beggars who positioned themselves near churches and marketplaces with broken limbs and other deformities, whether real or feigned); and Grantner (beggars who feigned illness, often using soap to induce foaming at the mouth). The fifteenth-century Italian writer Teseo Pini listed forty different "occupational groups" within the world of begging in his book Speculum cerretanorum (1484). The Englishman John Awdeley listed nineteen in his 1561 study of the issue, Fraternity of Vagabonds. Marginals inspired fear in the minds of many people, and many imaginary traits were ascribed to them. As Keith Thomas has shown, in early modern England vagabonds were often seen as filthy, scavenging dogs, beasts who lived from one scrap to another, slaves to their empty stomachs. Often portrayed as subhuman, marginals were sometimes treated as such.

Despite the misconceptions and fears that surrounded marginals, the image of the "professional beggar" was in fact grounded in reality: one could cite the unofficial beggars' guild in fifteenth-century Cologne; the thousands of beggars who paid taxes in German cities in the early modern period; or, more recently and specifically, a certain Hubert Nicolourdat, a sixty-eight-year-old Parisian arrested for begging at least fifty-six times by 1899, or Louis-René Pasquer, a sixty-year-old with fifty-four arrests to his credit. Every European town had its share of occasional and professional beggars. As is the case today, some had their fixed spot—on a certain street corner or opposite the church—which they "owned." In eighteenth-century Marseille, beggars bequeathed their spots to their impoverished relatives, who would come in from the countryside to claim their deceased relative's corner. In some smaller cities, like those of Brittany as late as 1900 or like Aix-en-Provence, in southern France, the streets were overrun by beggars:

They squatted on street corners, swarmed near the city gates, and crowded the churches, disrupting services with their piteous pleas for alms. Once in the troubled days of of the 1620s, more than 2,000 beggars crowded the courtyard of the Hôtel-de-Ville [city hall]; when they tried to climb a staircase to beg outside the chamber of the municipal council, it collapsed under their weight. (Fairchilds, 1976, p. 100)

This type of scenario was still being played out in the nineteenth century, for instance in Florence, where begging and poverty were widespread. A census of 1810 recorded 36,637 poor persons, of whom 22,838 were deemed to be indigent, out of a population of only 69,000. Vagabonds who hailed from outside the city were threatened with a prison term of up to ten years if they were caught by officials. A new workhouse-prison, the Pia Casa di Lavoro, awaited them.


Socially marginal groups in the early modern period were often made up of itinerants who practiced a number of precarious occupations. Some even peddled quack medicine. When this precarious "economy of the makeshift" failed—as it did so often—they might resort to other forms of legal activity; failing that, they would turn to begging, swindling, and theft. It was in all rural marginals' best interests to keep their options open. A typical landless wanderer was Edward Yovell, a vagrant whose story has been told by the historian Paul Slack. Yovell was born in London in the sixteenth century. After an apprenticeship in Worcester ended, he began wandering. Twice in a two-year period he took up casual work in London. He helped out at harvest time at his uncle's farm in Surrey, worked at various inns in Chichester, and followed a circuit leading back to Worcester via Salisbury, Bristol, and Gloucester, where he begged and took casual work when he could find it. Like most vagrants, he often took on work—when it was available.

Many wanderers tended to try to make it on their own in the summer by foraging, hunting, and mushroom picking in forests, and by traveling. The forests were their safety valves. In winter, however, demands for charity and public assistance would increase significantly, especially in northern Europe. The roads would become more dangerous at this time of year. In some countries, such as France, marginals would head south for the winter. The city of Nice was overwhelmed with this type of seasonal migrant in the late nineteenth century. Hospital admissions would double in some towns during the winter months and at the low points of the harvest cycle, when marginal people would suffer more than others.

Peddlars—a more enterprising lot than simple vagabonds—roamed the rural roads selling their wares: repair services, odds and ends, almanacs, chapbooks, and medical potions. They were at once marginal and indispensable, in that they helped to spread news and knowledge.


Edme Gardy, a twenty-seven-year-old from Auxerre, France, was condemned in 1775 in Paris to stand in the pillory for two hours, to pay a small fine, and to be banished from Paris for three years. His crime? He had been arrested for begging. His road to the pillory had begun shortly before his arrest, when he had sustained an injury while doing some casual farm work in the Brie region. He had been forced to beg, he pleaded to the magistrate, while he nursed his injury. At a time when Paris was overrun by several thousand beggars (there were up to eight thousand detained beggars alone in prisons in the region in 1784), there was little sympathy to be found. Gardy's story, recounted by Jeffrey Kaplow, speaks volumes about life at a time when the slightest injury (for a manual laborer especially) could spell a trip to the poorhouse or to prison.

In the absence of effective and widely available medical treatment, illness, disability, and serious injury were three sure tickets to a life on the margins of society. Disease and deformity meant shame—and shame meant marginalization. Lepers are the most obvious example of such a marginalized group. Similarly, victims of venereal disease were often treated by special hospitals, cut off from the mainstream, or even relegated to the margins of city boundaries. But there were many others. In Toledo in 1598, for example, 15 percent of arrested beggars and poor-relief recipients were lame, 12 percent had broken or missing limbs, 7.5 percent were blind, and most others had some other form of illness or disability (5 percent were without a tongue). In Lower Saxony in the period 1659–1799, 24 percent were lame; in Aix-en-Provence in 1724, the figure was 25 percent. The elderly infirm without familial support or social patrons often ended up being dumped into beggars' prisons in nineteenth-century France, or else they ended up in the hospital or hospice. Until the second half of the twentieth century, when European governments finally began to provide meaningful assistance to the physically handicapped as a sort of social right, physical disability almost certainly led to a life on the margins of society. In the French city of Saint-Étienne 83 percent of beggars arrested in 1858 had some form of physical disability. Epileptics and persons with severe skin diseases formed a disproportionate number of French beggars and vagabonds into the early 1900s.


Many marginals were forced to wander because they had been branded (sometimes literally) as outcasts. Stigmatization is a product of scarcity and low expectations: stigmata mark off the unworthy from the worthy and ease the claims on public resources. The branding of vagrants with hot irons is perhaps the utmost form of stigmatization. It was indeed practiced, but it was certainly not a routine affair in most areas of Europe. David Underdown uncovered only one branding of a "rogue" in an eight-year period in seventeenth-century Dorchester, England. The practice appears to have been more common in central Europe. Nonetheless, the practice of branding—from England to France to the German lands—suggests that European elites generally shared the idea that poor marginals were some sort of subhuman species, to be treated like livestock. Indeed, in his study Man and the Natural World, Keith Thomas unearthed much evidence to suggest that marginal people were often deemed worthy of the same (harsh) treatment as animals.


Olwen Hufton estimated that among the wandering poor in eighteenth-century France, men outnumbered women by six to one. This figure, as she notes, is skewed in that men were more threatening and therefore more likely to be reported to police. Still, there were fewer opportunities for women to take to the road. Their safety would be at risk, and the need to care for children often anchored them to a particular city, where they might beg or receive charity. Men forced to live on the margins of society were arrested at ten times the rate of women in late-nineteenth-century France.

Despite men's higher rate of conviction for begging and vagrancy, few social groups were as vulnerable as young single pregnant women or elderly widows. A pregnant village girl might escape to the city to bear her child far from the watchful eyes of her fellow villagers, or she might become pregnant by some young man (or her employer, if she were a domestic servant) in the city and be left to fend for herself. As Rachel Fuchs has shown in her book on child abandonment in urban France, illegitimate birth and child abandonment were perhaps the most pressing social problems of the early nineteenth century in several major French cities. In the 1830s over thirty-two thousand infants were officially abandoned each year, and the actual figure was much higher. At times up to one-third of all live births were abandoned. As recently as the 1890s, over thirty-three thousand Italian newborns were abandoned by their mothers each year. Similar patterns of child abandonment have been found in Russia and Spain. By the late nineteenth century one-third of newborns in Milan and Florence were left at foundling homes. In Italy and in other Catholic countries, the Catholic Church deprived illegitimate children of a social identity and branded their unwed mothers as sinners, relegating both to the margins. Until the advent of child and maternal welfare benefits in the twentieth century, pregnancy for young, poor, or single women almost certainly spelled poverty and often social marginalization.

Elderly men and women, especially those who had toiled away at physical labor throughout their rough lives, were particularly prone to begging and vagrancy. The old and retired vineyard workers of the Gironde, near Bordeaux, are a case in point. As an inquiry during the French Revolution revealed, when these men could no longer work, they became prisoners of their worn-out bodies, often totally dependent on public charity or begging (or both) to survive. Elderly, impoverished widows were a common sight at street corners, as well as in hospitals and hospices (where they often constituted a majority of residents) and at charities, many of which devoted as much as half of their resources to the elderly. A wide but insufficient array of charitable institutions was set up to assist these people. Elderly journaliers (casual farm hands) in France and English farm hands dispossessed by enclosure were overrepresented on the relief rolls and in the begging and vagrancy statistics.


Europeans have usually held conflicting views of the poor and have accordingly prescribed contradictory measures to deal with poverty. This is as true for the sixteenth century as it is for the nineteenth. If, on the one hand, marginals were to be chased out of town after having their ears bored, their noses cropped, their backs lashed, or the letter V (for vagabond) or R (rogue) inscribed on their arms with a branding iron, the worthy poor served, on the other hand, as what Hufton called "the linchpin in the salvation of the rich" (Hufton, 1974, p. 132). They were to be assisted, and those who administered the institutions which assisted them would gain social, political, and spiritual capital.

Early responses to begging and vagrancy. A wave of reform swept across Europe starting in the 1520s, prohibiting indiscriminate public begging. The concept of the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor gained ground at this time and was officially incorporated into many municipal poor-relief systems. Badges were introduced to distinguish the worthy poor from all others. This had the effect of further marginalizing those who were not recognized as the local worthy poor. Vagrancy and begging were on the rise at this time, and reform was designed to cope with these problems, which seemed to be getting out of hand. Banditry, for example, had become so severe on the Italian peninsula that in 1572 Milan and Venice concluded a treaty regarding punishment of bandits: They were not to live within fifteen miles of the places from which they had been banished. If found within these limits, they could be attacked and killed without penalty. Bandits were preferred dead to alive; there were no extradition provisions in the treaty. Authorities took remarkably repressive measures to combat the problem of banditry, but bandits and vagabonds also inspired sympathy among the common people. Some marginals, such as Cartouche, the legendary French criminal, or Geronimo Tadino in sixteenth-century Veneto, became folk heroes, to be revered as well as feared.

The creation of a rural proletariat in Europe, beginning (slowly) in England in the seventeenth century, in France and elsewhere in the eighteenth century or later, exacerbated the problem of vagrancy. Already in 1688 Gregory King's crude demographic study of England (only a rough sketch of reality) estimated a population of 400,000 cottagers and paupers as well as 849,000 vagrants. Historians are generally in agreement that vagrancy and begging became more acute problems over the course of the eighteenth century. All statistics point in this direction—arrests, admissions to hospitals and charities, and so on. London and Paris were never more overrun by beggars than in the period from 1770 to 1820, but the problem persisted into the twentieth century. Kathryn Norberg provides ample evidence of the increasing geographic mobility of the population, coupled with the rise in vagrancy in and around eighteenth-century Grenoble. Bands of thieves and vagrants terrorized the French countryside in the eighteenth century and well into the late nineteenth. In 1820 thirty-nine thieves led by a certain "Bruno" wreaked havoc in the Auvergne. The notorious vagabond-murderer Vacher terrorized France in the 1890s, killing up to two dozen people. Bands of so-called apaches terrorized Parisians at about the same time. These seemingly rootless marginals from the suburbs, living on the margins of the city and the world of work, struck fear in the hearts of polite society. Stern repression was seen as the only solution.

But official proscriptions against begging were not always received sympathetically by the general population. In many parts of Europe, a certain "moral economy of begging" persisted, whereby people, particularly the common people who must have realized that they might one day be forced to beg, recognized that beggars were not necessarily lazy, immoral shirkers. In her study of Aix-en-Provence, Cissie Fairchilds found numerous occasions in which the common people prevented city officials from enforcing the laws against beggary. In July 1749, for example, an angry crowd forced the officials of the Charité hospital to set free a group of beggars they had arrested. The poor in eighteenth- and even nineteenth-century England and France embraced the "moral economy" which defended their customary rights, including a notion of the right to subsistence. Food riots in defense of a "just price" were common.

With the advent of liberal political economy in the period from 1780 to 1850 (depending on the nation), this old "moral economy," which provided certain benefits to the respectable poor, was attacked by economists and politicians alike. As the market eroded the old paternalistic society, the tendency to marginalize the poor and blame them for their poverty increased. Those who failed to live up to the notion of self-help espoused by Samuel Smiles (in Self-Help, 1859) were deemed doubly responsible for their lot in life. Vagrancy laws and urban police forces were introduced in Britain between 1815 and 1830, which turned the screws of the law tighter on the nation's marginal population. A more concerted approach to "eradicating" mendicity was (once again) introduced in France in the 1830s. Belgium followed the same path once it won its independence. In an age which celebrated individual self-improvement, marginals became less tolerable: they stood as a threat to the ethos of the age. The penitentiary was born, and beggars' prisons got a second life in the period from 1820 to 1850.

Attitudes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Late in the nineteenth century, attitudes toward marginals hardened in several countries, as the issue became entangled in the growing concern over national depopulation and the "degeneration" of racial stock. In light of the heightened military competition that preoccupied politicians and elite opinion, marginals were seen as a sort of cancer on the body politic, a threat to the military, economic, and demographic virility of the nation. This was particularly the case in France, Germany, and Italy—three countries whose cities were being overwhelmed by rural migrants, vagabonds, and beggars at this time.

In the countryside, vagabonds and migrant workers were a regular sight into the early twentieth century. There were still an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 vagabonds (up to 1 percent of the population) roaming the roads of France in the two decades before World War I. Guy Haudebourg estimates that 9 percent of Bretons were beggars in the eighteenth century, and 6 percent of the population still begged in parts of Brittany in the nineteenth century. The problem was also acute in Germany, which was in the grips of a process of rapid and massive internal migration, with only half of Germans living in the place of their birth in 1907; in Italy, where the southern population was being "pulled" up toward the northern cities out of hope for a better future; and in Belgium. Over fifty thousand people were arrested for vagrancy and begging each year in France during the 1890s.

In the thirty years before World War I, France took remarkably repressive measures against marginals. In 1885 the "relegation" law was passed, empowering judges to deport certain categories of recidivist and violent vagabonds. France deported over five thousand vagabonds to its colonial prisons in the tropics each year in the 1890s, and in 1902 alone the figure topped 9,900. Prussia had an agreement with Russia to send vagrants and criminals to Siberian prisons. Hamburg sent criminals to Brazil. The Belgians constructed what was arguably western Europe's most draconian beggars' prison at Merxplas.

Repression toward the Sinti and Roma (or Gypsy) populations in central and eastern Europe was stepped up shortly before and during World War I. Europe's largest marginal group, at the end of the twentieth century with a population of up to 8 million scattered across the continent, the Sinti and Roma were repressed as a matter of state policy in several countries. Attempts were made to stamp out their itinerant culture, to force them to settle down. By 1906 Germany had bilateral agreements to "combat the Gypsy nuisance" with Austria-Hungary, Belgium, France, Italy, Russia, and several other nations. The Danes began to expel them beginning in the 1870s.

In an age of nationalism, an age which emphasized the need for a single unifying national culture within state boundaries, those who did not belong to the dominant ethnic group might be further marginalized. This was particularly the case in the Austro-Hungarian empire (with the Romanian minority population in Hungary, for instance) and above all in Russia, where a wave of brutal pogroms (public anti-Jewish campaigns of harassment and often extreme violence, including murder) was encouraged by authorities in the final decades of the nineteenth century. Russia's 5 million Jews were compelled to live in a region of western Russia and eastern Poland known as the Pale of Settlement. As repression increased beginning in the 1880s half a million Jews migrated to western Europe and North America. By 1900 foreign populations were being harassed out of or even expelled from several nations: the German government, for example, forced thousands of ethnic Poles across the German border into Russia in the 1880s and 1890s. In Russia, a state program of "Russification" attempted to wipe out the Ukrainian language. Poles in Russia were targeted for discrimination. Russification was paralleled by Magyarization, as Hungarians attempted to spread their language and root out minority languages in the portions of the Austro-Hungarian empire under their control.

Since World War I. In many ways World War I marks the beginning of a new era. It disrupted traditional seasonal migration patterns, as many marginals were drafted into the war effort. After the war, in France (and possibly elsewhere in the West) the population settled down and became more urban. During the 1920s and 1930s, workers in many countries made important gains—higher wages, better working conditions, paid vacations, more bargaining power, more stable work conditions, and so on. But the Depression turned the clock back again (especially in Germany and Britain), and marginal people suffered immensely. Post–World War II prosperity did not really materialize in western Europe until the mid-1950s, and cities like Paris and Turin were still encircled by squalid shanty towns into the 1950s, the result of the rural exodus, the influx of immigrants, and the deplorable and insufficient housing stocks of France and Italy. Here as elsewhere the urban poor lived, literally, on the margins of urban society, banished to the banlieu (suburb).

After the bloodshed and Holocaust of the 1940s, the golden age of prosperity which fell upon Europe during the 1950s and 1960s helped most people finally to join the economic mainstream—but not permanently. The bubble of prosperity burst in the mid-1970s. Unemployment inched up to as much as 13 percent in the European Community by the mid-1990s. Hard times affected all, but the marginals of the 1980s and 1990s were most likely to be young people: one-third of Italians under the age of thirty were unemployed, as were one-fourth of French youth, and almost one-half in Spain. Non-European immigrants—North Africans and French citizens of North African descent who live in the suburban ghettos of Paris, Lyon, Marseille, and other large French cities; Turkish "guest workers" in Germany; Africans in Italy; immigrants from the Caribbean in the United Kingdom; and so on—were also particularly vulnerable. They accounted for a disproportionate number of the long-term unemployed and were often the victims of racial violence and discrimination.

There were over one hundred suburban housing ghettos in France, containing hundreds of thousands of immigrants and their children. Complexes like Sarcelles and Les Tartarets were plagued by unemployment rates of over 30 or even 50 percent. In several European countries, including France, Italy, and Spain, the long-term unemployed (those without work for over one year) accounted for up to 40 percent of the unemployed at times in the 1990s. In Spain and Italy, the rate of female unemployment was markedly higher than the average. In the mid-1990s, the unemployment rate of Italian women under the age of thirty was over 43 percent. One-half of Arab youth in France (under age twenty-five) were unemployed.

The existence of marginal populations is of course nothing new. But there was a new dimension the situation of the late twentieth century. Before the twentieth century, most major western European cities would also have contained a marginalized immigrant community or communities, whether it was the Irish in Liverpool or London or, later, Jews and other migrants from eastern Europe. But the situation in the last decades of the twentieth century was in many ways different. Although historians once argued that migrants were, by definition, "uprooted" and alienated, research in the 1980s and 1990s showed that migrants to nineteenth-century cities were often welcomed into supportive networks by members of their community who had already put down roots in their new homes. Provincials and foreigners alike created "urban villages," crude mini–welfare states, providing the charity of the poor toward the poor, with a strong self-policing element as well.

This world was dying by the end of the twentieth century, especially in suburban ghetto housing complexes. The separation of home and work, the uprooting of younger generations from their parents and grandparents in vibrant, densely populated slums, and the advent of high-rise public housing units eroded sociability and support networks among the poor. Over the course of the twentieth century, as work became more structured, routine, and full-time, falling out of the job market acquired graver, more long-lasting consequences. The fine gradations of rank and status and the numerous types of footholds on the occupational treadmill that accompanied a more casual labor market disappeared. As Roy Porter stresses throughout London: A Social History, the widespread availability of casual work until the 1960s and 1970s facilitated the social and economic integration of most newcomers to the city. This process stopped, and in the 1990s the city was embarrassed by the sight of a shanty town erected by the homeless on Lincoln's Inn Fields.

Europe's marginals were, by the end of the twentieth century, a distinct minority, denied the fruits of consumerism and leisure which most people were able to enjoy, cut off geographically from the economic and social mainstream, often denied full citizenship rights, and shut out of a more stable and formalized labor market. The integration of economically marginal peoples into the mainstream of European society was surely one of the greatest challenges facing Europe at the century's end.

See alsoRoma: The Gypsies; Immigrants (volume 1);Migration (volume 2);Social Control (in this volume); and other articles in this section.


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