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The English term vagabond derives from Latin and Anglo-Latin sources. The word literally meant to wander from bondage, but more idiomatically to escape from bondage. The etymology of bondage is also significant. Historically, forms of bondage in the West included slavery; serfdom, a system of partially unfree labor in rural societies; apprenticeship, which regulated entrance into and the practice of trades in towns; and systems of domestic service. To depart from any of these work situations without an employer’s permission was to risk charges of “vagabondage.” The Latin noun vagabundus appears in late medieval English manorial records, and according to the Oxford English Dictionary the English terms vagabond and vagrant date from the early 1400s. Since the fifteenth century, the same source shows, these words have been employed to describe anyone who was without fixed abode, unemployed, itinerant, or in an unlicensed trade. Of course, the terms vagabond and vagrant have also been used as terms of abuse, as have the synonyms beggar, bum, hobo, loafer, and tramp.
There are varying interpretations of vagabondage. One can be called the realist position, because it postulates that vagabondage reflected real economic and social causes, that the numbers of vagabonds were great and growing, that they were an underworld organized in gangs that engaged in professional crime, and that they posed genuine threats to the social and political order. A second interpretation emphasizes the power of the normative, especially notions about moralism and patriarchalism vis-a-vis dependents, including workers, which led to a growth of state intervention to enforce those norms. This position stressed the distinctions between the worthy and the unworthy poor and contained an impetus to reform the latter group. This normative interpretation, in turn, readily accommodates theories of law and criminality that maintain that some offenses, including vagrancy, are products of governmental initiatives leading to “status criminality” and “social control.” The third view of vagabondage, which is the one favored here, is that the phenomenon was a combination of the real and the normative.
At the core of the concept of vagabondage were two key elements—voluntary unemployment and itinerancy—both of which, historically, were connected with labor and residence obligations of medieval serfdom. It cannot be a coincidence that European governments first began acting against vagabonds in the 1350s after the Black Death severely cut the population and made it possible for laborers to reject the obligations of serfdom. When population levels recovered after 1500, western European governments continued to enforce policies against vagabondage, which they found were useful weapons in the control of a workforce now largely liberated from serfdom. To police the labor force, vagrancy laws, Bridewells (houses of correction), and later workhouses were instituted from the sixteenth through the eighteenth century. These institutions lasted into the nineteenth century and were exported overseas to European colonies.
The policies against vagabonds also reflected a normative shift that desanctified the poor. Before this change the prevalent notion of the poor, inspired by the powerful example of St. Francis, idealized them as representing holiness, and Christians were encouraged to live like them. But in the thirteenth century some canon lawyers began to question whether the voluntary poor should be given relief. After 1350, moreover, Renaissance humanists argued for the positive benefits of wealth, which they argued allowed one to be a benefactor to one’s community. They also attacked the notion that poverty was a holy condition, pointing to the sins, disorders, and diseases that it fostered. They derided the hypocrisy of friars living in luxury and pilgrims wallowing in dissipation and called for the moral reform of the undeserving poor through institutionalization, including punishment and work-regimes.
Homelessness is obviously a less value-laden term than vagabond and is appropriate in a society in which the poor without permanent residences are no longer quite so demonized as they once were, but we should remember that homeless is a neologism that, like vagabond, requires analysis. In this respect, the term vagabond is more historically relevant during the approximately six hundred years of world history when it was applied to a great variety of people leading itinerant lives. The significance of the word lies in its rhetorical power and its suggestion of subversion of the social order. Ultimately, its power is its explicitness about the fact that governments criminalized and punished itinerants, who faced a two-fold challenge—homelessness to be sure, but also official demonizing and harassment.
What of the vagabonds themselves? They were not the simple equivalent of the homeless poor of the twenty-first century. Rather they resembled the “underclass” in society, in part because the authorities believed they had a distinctive culture that was opposed to respectable society. There were elements of a counterculture among vagabonds, including their use of slang, or cant, and some of them took part in organized crime. But for the most part their key characteristics arose from the structure of the economy and the labor system, particularly high unemployment and underemployment. Not all vagabonds were unemployed and begging, however; many practiced trades that were banned or subject to licensing, including unlicensed actors, itinerant healers, musicians, peddlers, practitioners of white magic, and sailors and soldiers. Overall, the key element in the lives of vagabonds was insecurity, which Olwen Hufton neatly summed up as living in an “economy of makeshifts.” Like gangs in modern cities, they were overwhelmingly young males, which frightened governments wary of violence and disorder. While foreign-born Romanies or “gypsies” were sometimes singled out in anti-vagrancy laws, the overwhelming majority of vagabonds were native-born.
- Beier, A. L. 1985. Masterless Men: The Vagrancy Problem in England, 1560–1640. London: Methuen.
- Hufton, Olwen H. 1974. The Poor of Eighteenth-Century France, 1750–1789. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Jutte, Robert. 1994. Poverty and Deviance in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Mollat, Michel. 1986. The Poor in the Middle Ages: An Essay in Social History. Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. New Haven andLondon: Yale University Press. Originally published as Les pauvres au Moyen Age (Paris: Hachette, 1978).
- Oxford English Dictionary. 1989. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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