Lower-class Mobility:

Deviance and Vagabondage

The mobility of marginalized social groups, such as vagrants and itinerant beggars, was an important feature of everyday life, from the Middle Ages well into the nineteenth and even the twentieth centuries. Scholarly theorists argued that this traditional form of lower-class mobility was deviant in itself, and that political and juridical authorities had a duty to regulate and prevent such “vagabondage”. Suggestions for appropriate measures ranged from corporeal punishment and deterrence to forced labour and the internment in workhouses. The latter measure, part of Michel Foucault’s “Great Confinement”, is of particular significance, as it contrasts allegedly subversive spatial mobility with enforced settlement as a measure to achieve conformity.  

The stereotypical image of the “mighty beggar”, “der starke Bettler”, embodied all the negative characteristics commonly ascribed to vagrants by early modern elites: His “might” and “strength” indicated, on the one hand, that he was able-bodied and could have earned a living by working, if he wished so. On the other hand, being “mighty” also implied that he was boastful of his strength, and possibly intimidated, bullied and even robbed others. His socially acceptable opposite was the “meek poor”, “der verschämte Arme” or “Hausarme”, who enacted the timidity that was expected of him, often coupled with being sedentary. The mighty beggar, on the other hand, roamed freely, was spatially mobile and threatened to use his “might” for violence.

In this respect, particular attention needs to be paid to the gender aspects inherent to this discourse. Female vagrants and peddlers featured prominently in the debates on lower class mobility. Their allegedly unlawful – or at least unseemly – behaviour was denounced harshly, since it conflicted with common assumptions on “proper” female conduct. Alternatively, it could be used to confirm stereotypes of women’s inferiority and their general inclination to vice. Recent research has emphasised that female mobility was an important phenomenon in medieval and early modern society – ranging from women’s marriage migration to the daily move of peasant women with their produce to city markets, and their resulting role as mediators between rural and urban communities. The focus on women in the denigratory discourse on lower-class vagrancy can possibly be interpreted as an attempt to control and regulate these forms of independent female mobility.

Selected Literature:

A. L. Beier: Masterless Men. The Vagrancy Problem in England 1560–1640 (London / New York 1985).

Katherine M. Donato and Donna Gabaccia: Gender and International Migration. From the Slavery Era to the Global Age (New York 2015).

Bronisław Geremek: Les fils de Caïn. L'image des pauvres et des vagabonds dans la littérature européenne du XVe au XVIIe siècle (Paris 1991).

Karl Härter: Fahrende Leute. In: Handwörterbuch zur deutschen Rechtsgeschichte, Vol. I (Berlin 22008), pp. 1465–70.

Karl Otto Scherner: Arme und Bettler in der Rechtstheorie des 17. Jahrhunderts. Der „Tractatus de mendicantibus validis“ des Ahasver Fritsch. Zeitschrift für Neuere Rechtsgeschichte 10 (1988), pp. 129–50.