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Beggars and Begging Songs

ISSUE:  Winter 1928

“Let Fortune empty her whole quiver on me, I have a soul, that like an ample shield Can take in all, and verge enough for more.”

Casual tramps—”our leisured class,” as the American girl in “Punch” described them—may not exactly appeal to us at first sight as subjects of romance. But the community of the Needy Nomadic to which they belong, with all its many varieties — “Vagabonds, vagrants, strolling players, soothsayers, gipsies, wandering scholars, masterless men, quacks, fencers and bearleaders,” as they were classified by the stern Elizabethan law-makers—has as many aspects as it contains types. Pathos and drollery, poetry and humour, are as much a part of the stock-in-trade of these children of Fantasy-in-Idleness, as the sordidness of want and falsehood.

In the history of every trade, profession, or social movement, there comes the exact moment when influences, tendencies, and endeavors unite in working order, ready to be galvanized into coherent life. It is the moment when Custom becomes Common Law, when Codes supplant Fashion, when, briefly, Legislation confirms by superseding Individual Action.

The earliest social systems of which we have knowledge include provisions against destitution, poverty, idleness, and any vicious misuse of talents and time; but it is to Europe that belongs the distinction of having crystallized Mendicancy into a profession; to Germany, land of systems, the recognition of this professional status on paper. The compilation of the Liber Vagatorum, published and printed in Germany, somewhere about 1509, edited by Martin Luther in the year 1520, marks an epoch in the history of Beggary, which we might not inaptly call its professional birthday.

Ancient mythology gave poverty—pur et simple — a place amongst the gods, a deity to be honored. Slavery, ultimate form of destitution, even while firmly established in patriarchal times, was rigorously provided against under the Hebrew theocracy. The Jews looked upon beggary simply as the result of idleness, punishing it accordingly. Vagrancy was considered criminal by the ancient Egyptians; their “unemployed” had to accept work or die. Greece upheld similar principles. We learn that by the laws of Draco and Solon mendicancy was regarded as evidence of wilful poverty, its punishment death. Plato proposed to banish vagabonds as enemies to the State; the Romans kept censors on purpose to exterminate them, putting them to work on the public buildings, or in the mines. Tacitus tells us that the Teutons planted out their idlers and mendicants in bogs, and stoically left them there. No beggars are to be seen in China to this day; only persons physically or mentally incapable are maintained by the State. Europe alone has legitimatized a community of preying prowlers.

Schreiber, in his “Bettler-industrie” a book-pamphlet published about 1675, places the Golden Age of Mendicants between 1450 and 1650, or from the fall of Constantinople to the close of the Swedish War. The practical causes making this possible are naturally to be found in that general upheaval of society which marked the passing of mediaeval into modern conditions of life. We have the fall of the Eastern stronghold of Christianity, with the influx of Turkish traditions and the transference of Greek scholarship and science to Western Europe; the break-up of the monasteries and consequent break-down of the religious system upon which social life was based; the invention of printing, and the discovery of new continents. . . .

Let imagination but dwell for a few minutes upon that first landing of Columbus—visualizing the United States of today! Disintegration, movement, experiment, were in the air. And there was another curiously subtle change at work in the attitude taken towards life. The age of chivalry was merging into one whose aims were essentially utilitarian. The European nobility no longer warred as crusaders, but for aggrandizement, political or commercial. The voyages of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries combined the spirit of speculation with that of enterprise. Learning was become a competitive exercise, with rewards as a final goal; the scholars to attain renown had so much more to acquire, so many new universities to visit, that the quiet monastic search for knowledge presently resolved into schemes, well planned, for profitable and remunerative education.

It is a matter of common knowledge that the discarded fashions of any one class, whether of dress, manners, or habits of thought, always descend in the scale, suffering demoralization in the process. Poetry and romance, in the sixteenth century, began to filter down to the class of offshoots, the tribe of idle free-booters, free-thinkers, and general free-lances of society. Meantime, Christianity had sanctified distress. The mendicant friars, in all nobility, had taught how closely the diseases of the body are affiliated to those of the soul, and their methods were copied only too successfully, minus the morality. So-called “poor scholars” formed a thriving branch of begging-imposition.

Thus the stage was reached which gave birth to the Liber Vagatorum, first treatise extant upon the subject, and printed fifty years before anything of the kind appeared in England. The book itself is a compilation, made from the records kept by one Johann Knebel, Chaplain, of the proceedings of a great Court “to try numerous vagabonds” held at Basle in 1475. The version edited by Martin Luther is the best. It gives an edifying list of “Beggar-Orders,” neatly summed up with editorial notes as to how they should be treated.

First come Bregers, whom Luther dismisses as the honest paupers. Standing second are Stabulcrs, or Saint-Beggars, who “hang themselves about with signs of the Saints”—probably images and medals—”as if under special protection”: these are “half bad, half good; to be helped at Discretion.” Loosners wore heavy chains, “pretending to have been kept in captivity by the Saracens for Faith’s sake, and having vowed when thus enslaved to give a pound of candles to some Saint if granted liberty, are now begging for means to fulfill the vow. Nought but deceivers; give nothing.”

Blenkners are described as “very, very blasphemous.” These sat at church doors in chains, impersonating some saint, and praying noisily. Dobissiers pretended to be friars collecting for some poor church; they also “touched for diseases.” Komme-sierers were runaway scholars, to whom “nothing is to be given, as the sooner they are forced to go home the better.” Vagrants and Strollers posed as sorcerers, wearing yellow garments. They patrolled the country, selling incantations to farmers for luck.

Wherever these words are said, No man shall suddenly fall dead, No murrain, mildew or other miserie Shall touch this ground to all eternitie

Gickesses were blind beggars; some “Providence-blind, some self-inflicted; many shamming.”

Voppers were sham demoniacs, who “chewed soap to feign madness” — mental weakness being considered a sacred condition in those times, as it is todav in certain coun-try places. Granthers claimed to have the falling sickness of the saints; Dutzcrs pleaded that they were on a pilgrimage collecting money for the fulfilment of a vow; Schlep-pers pretended to be priests outright. Dollingers did penance at church doors as—repentant hangmen! In fact, as an old beggar ditty of the sixteenth century runs: And of all occupations, Begging is the best, Whensoever he is weary, he may lay him down to rest; For howsoe’er the world goes, he never need take care, And whatsoe’er he begs or gets, he spends it in good fare.

Some fifty years after Luther’s exposition upon Continental vagrancy, Awdeley, writing about 1561, scheduled an amusing list of “Twenty-Fine Orders of Knaues” as legitimatized in England. Harrison, in his “Description of England in Shakespeare’s Time,” says that the beggar profession had first come into prominence some sixty years before, “now numbering 10,000.” The Act of 1530 shows it was then recognized as a social item to be dealt with by law. Harrison attributes mendicancy to “impotence, casualty, thriftlessness,” and “the covetousness of others in turning the poor out of their holdings, since they have thus only a choice between emigrating, thieving, and begging.” He alludes to the Enclosures Act of 1500, which may truthfully be said to have been the main cause for vagrancy in England.

The head of the begging-profession—law-maker, organizer, and wielding full authority over the tribe—went by the name of the Vpright man. He was known by his staff, the wand of office, and had an understudy in the Curtail, wielding oniy, a little less power than himself. To Luther’s List Awdeley adds the Prygmanstycke, whose special province was “to steale cloathes off the hedges,” and the quire, or gaolbird. Who has not as a child played at Old Soldier, alias the Ruffeler?

—Although i nere was farther Than Kentish Street in Southwark, Nor ere did see a Battery Made against any Bulwark, But with my Trolls and Deres Lay in some corner lurking, And ne’er went abroad But to beg on the road, And keep myself from working.

An Irishe Toyle, who sells lace in the streets, is a familiar figure in London today. The swyg-man, or pedlar trading stolen goods, suggests the derivation of the Australian bush term “swag.” Wiltners or Fawney beggars may still be met with. This form of trickeiy is to deposit quietly a sham gold ring in the street, ostentatiously pick it up, then for a “mere trifle” as “useless to me in my condition” proffer it to some passer-by credulous, or perhaps rogue himself enough to “jump at a bargain.” The Over-sdnzen-goers represented the beggars of better education and class, practising trade as begging-letter-writers. One type of itinerant who feigned madness, and so worked on sympathy, the Abraham-man, is genuinely interesting, as being the deliberate caricature of the Tom-o’-Bedlams. Edgar assumes the character of a Tom-o’-Bedlam in “King Lear.”

My face I’ll grime with filth;

Blanket my loins: elf all my hair in knots;

And with presented nakedness outface

The winds, and persecutions of the sky.

The country gives me proof and precedent

Of Bedlam beggars, who, with roaring voices,

Strike in their numb’d and mortified bare aims

Pins, wooden pricks, nails, sprigs of rosemary.

And with this horrible object, from low farms,

Poor pelting villages, sheepcotes and mills.

Sometimes with lunatick bans, sometimes with prayers,

Enforce their charity.

These singular mendicants were the harmless lunatics discharged from the Bethlehem Hospital—corrupted into Bedlam—with a licence to go a-begging. They wore a fantastic dress, bedecked with bits of paper, ribbons or cloth, and carried a long staff and a cow-horn. For a badge, they wore on the left arm an armilla, or iron ring, about four inches long, not removable. Many of their “mad”-songs are extant, full of a wandering, fanciful poetry.

The legislation for Beggars was discriminating. The Act of 1531 licensed persons in real want to beg within fixed bounds, each to have a letter sealed with the Seal of the Hundred, rape, wapentake, city, or borough, and subscribed by the justices. This was called a jarke, corresponding to more modern Lines: jarkesmen were beggars who stole or forged these credentials. Discharged soldiers were supposed to travel with a Chancellor’s licence. A survival of the custom was the badge which in William Ill’s time had to be worn by all persons receiving parish relief. This badge consisted of a piece of red or blue cloth pinned on to the sleeve and bearing the letter “P” = pauper, with the initial of the parish. Severe penalties were attached to the discarding of these badges, greatly hated by the unfortunate persons liable to carry them. In Liverpool, on May 13th, 1685, an order was issued that “all persons on the Poore Books should bear a pewter badge with the Towne’s arms engraved thereon.” A fortnight’s doles were to be forfeited if the badge was discarded.

But the same act provided sternly against unlicensed beggars. Any able-bodied mendicant was to be “tyde to the end of a carte naked, and beten with whyppes throughout the same Market Towne tyll the bodie be bloody by reason of such a whyppinge.” He was then to be sent back to his birthplace, or “where he had dwelt three yeares,” and was to “put himself to laboure lyke as a true man oweth to doo.” There were penalties for harbouring or helping beggars; the Act of 1536 forbade doles to be given by private persons at all: so late as December 10th, 1749, at Burton on Trent, one Robert Hinds was fined twenty-five shillings for giving alms.

Scholars and sailors were to be specially “liable to the Statute,” (1531) both professions lending themselves so peculiarly to fraud. For the first offence such counterfeiters were to be whipped like vagabonds; for the second scourged for two days, lose one ear, and be pilloried; for the third to lose the other ear, and be again scourged. Yet in 1569 there appeared to be 13,000 “masterless men.” The Second Poor Law decreed that vagrants should be “grievously whipt, and burnt through the gristle of the right ear,” unless someone would take them into service for a year. If within sixty days after punishment the offence was repeated, the penalty was to be a felon’s death, unless some “honest person having 10 worth of goods and forty shillings” would take the offender into service for two years, or be bond for 10.

The term vagabond was humorously comprehensive. It included all who “pretended to be proctors”; all who practised “unlawful games”—palmistry, physicking the sick, and so on: all able-bodied persons without a trade or master. Fencers, bear-leaders, common players in interludes, minstrels without a lord—strange fore-runners of the degrading system of art patronage which held throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—jugglers, pedlars, tinkers and petty chapmen were scheduled with able-bodied workmen who “refused to work at ordinary rates.” Counterfeiters of passports came next; then scholars of universities without a licence; while “shipmen pretending to have been wrecked” were coupled with “discharged prisoners without a licence from two justices.”

The two principles underlying these provisions were first, the enforcing of local responsibility for local distress, and secondly, the distinction between paupers and vagabonds. In 1572 the first Houses of Correction were established; while in 1597 the churchwardens were made responsible for the assessment of the poor rates in place of the justices. The 43rd of Elizabeth establishing these laws remained the groundwork of our poor-law system until quite recently. Nevertheless beggars increased. In 1614, owing to commercial crises, matters in London were so bad that the Lord Mayor specially legislated against the intolerable nuisance. Fetter Lane derives its name from having been a favored haunt of beggars, being originally known as Fewtor’s Lane —fewtor being the cant term for Mighty Beggar, and coming from the French word faitour, a defaulter. The English poor law did not apply to Ireland. Skelton tells us that in 1731 there were in this country 2,295 parishes with ten vagrants begging in each, the strolling beggars numbering 34,000 then, and increasing to 50,000 by ten years later.

Scottish beggars during the seventeenth century were proverbial, whilst on the other hand Burnaby tells us that when travelling through the American colonies, he made a journey of over 1,000 miles without meeting one vagrant.

In 1742 the cost of the poor law to England amounted to six hundred thousand pounds, or in the ratio of six times to the increase of the population. In 1784 it had reached the sum of two millions. Arthur Young, however, attributed this to—excessive tea-drinking! Certainly the beggars throve in jollity, if it is true that the moral history of a race is to be read within its ballads. There are divers “Beggar-Songs” extant from the sixteenth century onwards, all teeming either with a sense of “superiority,” unabashed content, or that roving fantastical spirit of poetry which characterizes the true “children of the open air.” Here is a song from a quaint collection called “Beggars and Ballad Singers” :

There’s a difference between a beggar and a queen, And I’ll tell the reason why: The Queen she cannot swagger, Half so happy as I.

Of All the Trades in London The Beggar-Trade’s the best, Since Bob allows us that Trade, Who misses all the rest?

From Kings and Queens and Courtiers It takes away the bell, For who would be a King, When a beggar lives so well?

A King may strut and bluster Amongst his nobles all, But a Beggar looks as big When in Council at Guildhall.

A King, tho’ he’s no Conjuror May think himself full wise, But the Beggar still outwits him Who pays him no excise!

According to the philosophy of the genuine beggar-tribe, we are all “tarred with the same brush.”

Great Britain is a curious place of high renown, For people go a-begging in Country and in Town, So if you list to me, I will not keep you long, And I’ll try and sing to you a little begging-song:

For we’re all Beggars, beg, beg, beggars,

We are all Beggars, right throughout the world.

The Poor Law Dons are Beggars, with hearts as hard as slates,

And they well know the like when they go and beg for rates; But if you are hard up, and for reliefment try, They beg you’ll come into the House, or stop vou out, and die!

The policemen are all beggars, according to my song, For if they see a mob collect they beg you will move on, The landlord is a beggar, and on begging always bent, When on Monday with his note-book he comes to beg the rent.

It is the philosophy of failure, a modern record of sad experiences !

There is a series of exquisite songs of the early, seventeenth century, relating to the Tom-o’-Bedlam tribe, of very different calibre. A ring of true poetry runs through them.

. . . I know more than Apollo, For oft when he lies sleeping

I behold the stars

At mortal wars And the rounded welkin weeping; The moon embraces her shepherd, And the Queen of Love her Warrior,

While the first doth horn

The stars of the morn, And the next the heavenly Farrier.

With a heart of furious fancies Whereof I am Commander;

With a burning spear,

And a house of air To the wilderness I wander: With a knight of ghosts and shadows I summoned am to Tournev:

The Leagues beyond

The wide world’s end— Methinks it is no journey!

It is a “putting into words” of the Call which haunts the “Lavengro” race of genuine wanderers—gipsies, travellers, pioneers, explorers. Compare it with this Cant-song of the same date—

“The Cunning Northern Beggar” I am a lusty Beggar, and live by others’ giving,

I scorn to work,

But by the highway lurke And beg to get my living.

I lie i’ th’wind and weather, and weare all ragged garments, Yet though I’m bare, I’m free from care—

A fig for high preferments! For still will I cry: good your worship, good Sir, Bestow one poore Denier, Sir, Which when I’ve got, At the pipe and pot, I soone will it cashier, Sir.

What though I cannot laboure, shall I e’en pine with hunger?

No, neither will I, Nor starve where I lye, I’ll beg of the money-monger. No tricks at all shall ‘scape me,

But I will by my maunding Get some reliefe to ease my griefe, When by the Highway standing. ‘Tis better to be a Beggar, and aske of kinde good fellows, And honestly have What we doe crave, Than steale and goe to the gallowes.

A reference to the Bethlehem Hospital leads naturally to a consideration of the other charitable institutions in mediaeval England for the relief of mendicants. Originally a royal palace, Bridewell owes its foundation to Edward VI, as “a spital for ramblers, dissolute and sturdy beggars.” In 1329 one William Elsing, a mercer, set up the Elsing spital in Gay Spar Lane for “100 blind men.”

The Black and Grey Friars had, in 1456. what was called a “papey” near Camomile Street, for poor priests: while the Convent of Holy Trinity, in the Minories, was specially converted to the use of the poor and sick. It is not generally known that Christ’s Hospital was originally founded for “the Innocent and fatherless—the Beggar’s Childe,” wherein “poor children are trained to the exercise of virtue and overthrow of Beggary.”

Within that last sentence lies the kernel of the problem. For if beggars are the outcome of a certain scheme of civilization that needs reform, they, by “being ever-present” prevent sore places being ignored.

A tag, surely with something of pathos in it, winds up one of the best-known old English beggar-songs:

Then since the sturdy Beggars Have opened all our eyes, May we never want a King Who such beggars won’t despise.


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