The poor in the 17th century in France (II)

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoAt the time of Vincent de PaulLeave a Comment

Author: Santiago Azcárate, C.M. · Year of first publication: 2008 · Source: Third Asian Vincentian Institute (Mother House, Paris, September-December 2006).
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3. Types of poor

Precisely because the phenomenon of poverty in the 17th century was so universal, it is thus impossible to limit it to only one social segment. Poverty wore different faces and the groups that constituted it were varied. From a common context of mendicity, in­stability, banishment and misery, we can present these types:

a) The salaried workers in the city

If we start, in general, with the understanding that the poor are those who have nothing other than their work in order to live, we can understand why individuals who are salaried workers in the cities find themselves always threatened by poverty. The lists for the distribution of alms and food sometimes gave the profession of those assisted: non-specialised workers, humble artisans, apprentices…. This mass of salaried workers (more than half in the city of Amiens, more than one-third in Beauvais and very numerous in Lyon or Paris) over­crowded and hungry, oppressed by the socio-economic domination of the merchant bourgeoisie, lived in miserable suburbs and districts. Without land, without their own houses, with hardly any furniture, without clothes, their salary constituted their only means for survival. But it was always a salary which was uncertain and, many times, collected in advance, which made of them perpetual debtors.

LeNainPaysansEven with their salary, the more fortunate workers had diffi­culty in feeding their family with bread. Once unforeseen expenses came up (sickness of one of them or of a family member, a new child in the house…) the modest budget was thrown off balance and the family had to resort to charity. In this context, the less fortunate workers do not even have the possibility of being able to buy the bread necessary to feed them. If we add to this panorama a year of bad harvest with the subsequent price increase of wheat, we find ourselves faced with a terribly harsh reality that devastated workers and frustrated families.

b) The poor peasants

That frequent misery of the urban workers in the 17th century was less serious than the poverty of the peasants. Twenty times more numerous than urban workers, the peasants had to endure the in­clemency of nature and the corresponding fluctuations of the market.

Saint Vincent, who knew this world because of his birth and origin, would usually refer to a painful and tested fact: the peasants died of hunger, they endured suffering, they tolerated the hardships of war, they did not always reap what they had sown and found themselves forced to abandon their home and lands…. However, not all peasants lived the same situation. Among them can be found at least three different social types:

Three-fourths of the peasants (workers and owners of some small properties) hardly possessed one-tenth of the arable land and their economic situation oscillated between misery and poverty. Frequently, they had to seek other occupations in order to survive. The countryside workers were the most miserable. Together with the beggars, they constituted the lowest level of rural society and were the biggest group. They comprised the majority of the poor and died en masse as soon as a passing epidemic or repeated famine appeared. Continuously in debt, they worked a good part of the year in the farms of their creditors.

The simple peasants were very numerous in some regions of France. They owned small parcels of land and worked on others that they rented, at the same time that they raised a few animals. They were able to live thus although very poorly. In times of good harvests there was enough bread for the whole family. During the lean years they could not feed their own. And in bad times they had to ask for loans which they had difficulty in paying back. Thus, it was a life constantly threatened, in continual indebtedness and had difficulty surviving.

Above these two groups would be the average farmers (owning around ten hectares) and the rich farmers (having twenty to thirty hectares), which constituted the higher levels of rural society. Beyond these three types we have just pointed out we have the truly privileged ones of the rural area: the bourgeoisie, the clergy and the nobles. They ordinarily owned vast lands and rural rights. They obtained large interests from the rent of the land and from money lent. Through these, they reduced the small and even the average peasants to poverty.

c) The beggars

As opposed to the assessment of the “good poor” described by the spiritual authors of the 17th century and which was usually reflected in the faces of hardworking peasants, we also find at that time a reference to the “bad poor,” the one who refused to work, the beggar who enjoyed good health. In this century, mendicity lacked the moral and poetic halo of poverty. The beggar became for the well-known bishop J. P. Camus as “the one who is reduced to such level of misery that he cannot earn a living even if he so desires, prevented as he is by infirmity or lack of work even if he is in full health….”

Among beggars, the typology was somewhat similar to that of the poor. There was a good number of elderly, widows, sick and unemployed, including young people. Moreover there was a type of mendicity that involved children and adolescents, sometimes encour­aged by the parents themselves, which was widespread in French cities.

All these beggars depended on and lived from the rest of the society. They did not inspire any consideration from their contem­poraries. They were always suspected of coming from infected areas and of spreading diseases and epidemics. Society marginalized them. In this situation and by a simple instinct for survival, they sometimes turned into numerous bands; bands that can group together miserable persons in dire need and plain bandits. Mendicity then concealed criminal actions and was practiced on a large-scale basis. Above all, this type of poor appeared once the wars were over and big armies of soldiers became dispersed. In this way, the unfavourable social opinion regarding beggars was strengthened and their marginalized situation worsened.

d) The vagabonds

The meaning of the term “vagabond” was more limited and varied throughout the century. Until 1660, the vagabond was a wan­dering person, one who had no address; according to the definition of the jurist, Simon de Mereville (1624) “one who has abandoned his ordinary place of residence in order to steal and live from banditry, a lazy person more inclined to do bad than good, which goes against good customs….” An edict of 1666 regarding security in the city of Paris defined it even more precisely: “Those who do not have any profession or trade or goods to live; those who are not able to vouch for their honest life and good customs; are declared as vagabonds and desolate….”

The judicial and parish registers of this period outlined the figure of the vagabond. They were men between fifteen to fifty years of age. Among them could be found wanderers who had perfectly simulated sores and wounds, writing masters, wandering musicians, false pilgrims, gypsies, ex-soldiers….

However, agricultural workers formed the greater number of vagabonds. The phenomenon which we already have pointed out, such as frequent wars or high taxes or concentration of properties en­couraged the abandonment of the farms and the formation of groups of wanderers. Generally, these people moved from the countryside to the cities, where assistance coming from convents or municipalities was more habitual. But the situation got so much out of control, thus giving rise to frequent ordinances and norms-setting limits to the assistance (Paris in 1611, Beauvais in 1631, Amiens in 1652).

e) Other types of poor

Together with all those groups of poor already mentioned and which comprise the majority sector of French society in the 17th century, we can also allude to some more specific types which have a concrete relation to Vincent de Paul: the foundlings, the galley slaves, the humiliated poor.

We keep alive in our memory the image of Saint Vincent hold­ing a child in his arms and letting another one lean on the warmth of his cassock. There was an abundance of abandoned children during that period and, without a doubt, this reality constituted one of the greatest wounds of the world of the poor. Some were left by their single mothers on the thoroughfare; some were left by big families who could not feed any more mouths; on other occasions it was wicked­ness or vice which brought children to the streets. Above all, there were two causes of this abandonment: the obsession for daily bread among the poor (especially during times of scarcity) and illegitimate births. Whatever the case, hundreds of children appeared each year at the doors of the churches of Paris or in the tomos (turning cradles) of convents. Public charity (called “Cradle” in Paris) barely took care of them and not in a human way at all; thus, this was a pressing situation that struck many consciences. Also, the fate of these children would always be miserable: non-specialized workers, laborers, beggars or vagabonds.

The situation of those condemned to prison constituted another type of poor that was truly distressing at that time. What was especially difficult was the situation of thousands of men condemned to waste their life in the galleys. The policy of naval expansion followed by Richelieu increased the number of those condemned and lengthened their sentences. The situation was absolutely inhuman: frequently chained to their seat and to the oar, lack of hygiene, poorly fed, forced to do great efforts, without hope. They, too, by their misery, would impose on the charity of Saint Vincent.

The frequent wars within France (from 1636 to 1643 and from 1648 to 1653) caused the habitual misery of the population and the incessant increase of the number of poor. There were a great number of persons displaced and exiled. In this situation appeared a group of needy to whom Vincent de Paul also offered help: the humiliated poor.

This referred to nobles who had gone bankrupt because of the war, whose condition prevented them, by their dignity, to ask for public assistance. Although subjected to extreme necessity, they did not dare, however, to manifest their poverty. Nevertheless, Saint Vincent was able to creatively devise ways to alleviate their suffering.

The situation described above and the groups enumerated give us an idea as to how poverty was really a generalized condition in 17th century France. Life was hard and misery imposed itself on majority of the population. What reactions did this fact provoke from society? What attitudes were manifested and lived in relation to poverty and the poor?

4. Conditions of life

In his work, The France of Richelieu (Paris, 1984), Professor Michel Carmona, when speaking of the peasants, posed this question: “Are those who live in the countryside really human beings?” and he responded categorically by saying that “some doctors of Sorbonne are not far from responding negatively.” The “good society” tended to consider the peasants as beasts. This author said that Vincent de Paul himself, a member of a rural family of Landes, spoke of his people as “savage bands.”

Thus, there was not a positive opinion of the poor at that time, in such a way that they were referred to as persons who counted for nothing in the social order. They certainly formed part of society as Loyseau commented in his Traite des Ordres (Paris, 1666) but he assigned to them the lowest place: in the Third State, below the mer­chants are all persons with a trade, “who are the most vile,” tenant farmers, peasants, artisans or persons with a trade, unskilled laborers or mercenaries, real beggars, vagabonds and tramps.

From that derogatory description, it is not strange that the poor were despised and perceived as the cause of the social problems that regularly provoked fear among the middle and rich classes. Also, they are those who have left written testimony about them. Testimo­nies that come up when one feels that the poor are a threat, whether it is because they are accused of propagating epidemics, or because they participate in riots due to scarcity or because they are always present in the great revolts of the 17th century. In other occasions, these testimonies were oriented by immediate concerns of the privileged class: concerns such as charity, assistance or maintenance of public order. In any case, the poor appeared as marginalized beings that society placed outside of their interests.

The intellectual level of the poor further reinforced their mar­ginalization. Illiteracy or poor alphabetization, religious practices strongly marked by magic or superstitions, unbalanced nutrition (too much cereal and bad wine), no hygiene, frequent “fevers,” high epi­demic mortality, hypersensibility to rumours that ended up causing panic, violence and brief local riots.

According to a study made by Goubert in “The Old Regime: The Society” (Paris, 1969), 78.7% of the French people (86% among women) in 1685 were illiterate and even the learned and literate were averse to instructing the population (Voltaire, further on, wanted “servants and labourers”).

It seems “normal” that, in that situation of ignorance and des­pite the worthy efforts of clergy and laypersons responsive to Catholic reform, Christianity was mixed with practices that were later judged to be dubious. Beliefs were lived in a concoction of accepted principles (creed, passion, sacraments) and superstitious practices (amulets, astrology, inverted prayer, etc.). It was common to express the faith in collective events such as pilgrimages, processions, guilds, shrines…. Countless saints, Lucifer and his bad spirits, the world of witchcraft and that of magic were strangely and extensively mingled. While it is true that there was no lack of other manifestations of piety marked by donations, bequeaths for Masses, foundations and a holy life, yet that did not prevent a complex vision of religiosity as a totality.

At bottom of this whole reality, we see some converging points that reveal the popular culture of that time: determinism of the human being, who is a prisoner of his passions, whose origins are astrological… obscurantism in the face of nature, received as a set of secrets whose possession would be the only thing capable of dominating it… sub­mission to the Divine Will, omniscient and omnipresent… passive acceptance of society just as it is (a-critical conformism).

On the other hand, neither did daily life count with many incentives or means. Inventories made after death gave free entry through the door of the poor to know their painful reality. One single room was the only lot of many of them. Sometimes one got in to that only room by passing through rooms occupied by others. In this sys­tem, overpopulation in the houses of the poor was never-ending. Frequently if more than one room was occupied it was because family and professional activities were combined: kitchen and workroom, for example. With regard to objects, they were almost always the same: “tableware” of tin and even of wood, a bed, the cabinet or pine chest for their shabby clothes and rags but very rarely for their money.

Curiously and in contrast to what usually happens today, social differentiation then was not according to districts/neighbourhoods as much as by the location in the interior of the building. The more fortunate usually occupied the first floor while the poor lived in the upper floors or in the “attic.” This facilitated a certain familiarity among those who were wealthy and the poor. By the end of the 17th century, there was already a differentiation by districts/neighbour­hood, which resulted in a very significant fact: it came to parallel the great “enclosure” of the poor and the separation of social districts in cities.

To know the life of the poor, it would likewise be interesting to know the types of social problems which were punishable. The appeals of sentences made at the Parliament of Paris toward the middle of the 17th century showed that the most common crimes were simple theft (clothes, vegetables, wood, grain) and these were severe­ly punished. Other crimes were murder, physical or verbal abuse against the representatives of the Crown (collectors, police agents, etc.), women who have aborted and indecent or insolent beggars. To this we would need to add the relatively frequent crimes “against divine majesty” such as blasphemies, perjuries or theft of sacred objects.

It was not then an easy life for the poor. Neither their material condition nor the rigid social order promoted their humanization. Up to this time, they counted with at least a positive religious vision that took them into consideration. But, from the middle half of the 16th century, they had to confront a change of mental attitudes which worsened their condition. It would be best for us to know these attitudes in order to better understand the lot of the poor in the 17th century and the role of Saint Vincent in that context.

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