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
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,
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
. 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