Beggars once exerted a ubiquitous and very noticeable presence in Breton society, particularly in the countryside, but their position was often ambivalent: they were feted as the most honoured guests at wedding feats but also feared for their purported ability to cast the evil eye that brought-on misfortune.
The author Gustave Flaubert toured Brittany with Maxime Du Camp in 1847 and, wrote in his account Par Les Champs et Par Les Grev̀es (1886): “As soon as you get somewhere, the beggars rush up to you and cling with the stubbornness of hunger. You give them, they stay; you give them more, their number increases, soon it is a crowd which besieges you. No matter how much you empty your pocket to the last farthing, they nevertheless remain fiercely on your side, busy reciting their prayers, which are unfortunately very long and fortunately unintelligible. If you park, they won’t move; if you go away, they follow you; nothing remedies it, neither speech nor pantomime. It looks like a bias to make you angry, their tenacity is irritating, implacable”.
Belonging to the most disadvantaged section of a still largely illiterate society, the beggars and vagrants of 18th and 19th century Brittany, as elsewhere, produced very few documents themselves. Indeed, unless brought before the magistrates, beggars left little traces to history that lived beyond local memories. A wonderfully notable exception being Jean-Marie Déguignet’s account of his “long lifetime of poverty, slavery and persecution” published as The Memoirs of a Breton Peasant (2004).
It was in the 19th century that the French government began to take a serious look at begging and vagrancy; both regarded as significant social problems that might, ultimately, pose serious risks to the state. However, the narrative surrounding the nature of the problem was predominantly framed by the state and solutions that might have seemed sagacious in the wealthy corridors of Paris were not necessarily practical or welcome in the remoter, rural parts of the country.
In order to pursue official measures designed to tackle beggars and begging, it was necessary to understand the nature and scope of the problem. To this end, the government organised national surveys and required local officials to submit regular reports for L’Extinction de la mendicite (The Eradication of Begging); we therefore have some good data to help us understand beggars and, by implication, poverty in the 19th century here. However, the strength of the information we might glean from this data is corrupted by the poor definitions of the three key terms: beggar, indigent and vagrant; classifications that are intricately linked and often confused by the various compilers due to the difficulties inherent in clearly differentiating between the three states.
The passage from poverty to indigence could be slight and the boundaries between this and begging was slender at best. Any difference in status was not necessarily linked to the degree of misery but to the fact that some desperate people reached out to ask for alms; begging being most often the last or the only means of survival. Indeed, begging was often the only way to stay alive for the families of poor peasants affected by some life-changing misfortune, such as a personal crisis, bad harvest or devastating fire.
Even slight changes in circumstances had major repercussions for those who were already living in extreme poverty. A blog post such as this cannot hope to begin to examine the root causes of poverty in 19th century Brittany but I will highlight a few areas worth noting. Firstly, apart from the hinterland of the three or four largest cities, the benefits of industrialisation were largely unknown in the region; people lived very much as they had done under the pre-Revolutionary Ancien Régime.
Most of the rural population were reliant on agriculture and were thus very exposed to vagaries such as the success or failure of farms and their crops. Farms in the province were small with the average size in western Brittany not exceeding fourteen acres but some were as small as two or three acres; the margins of success were therefore extremely thin. The farmers were generally poor and lived miserably but their wants were mostly satisfied; squalor and poverty were tolerated because they were traditional and familiar.
Generally, the inhabitants of each farm, consisting of the farmer’s family and a few labourers and as many female servants who lived with the family, sufficed for the general work. During harvest time, additional hands were employed and these were often people who worked for two or three months of the year and begged during the remainder. The conditions of the poorer farmers, daily labourers and beggars, were so near alike, that the passage from one state to another was quite frequent.
In coastal regions, fishermen and cannery workers generally worked when they could and begged or sent their children to beg when they could not. Such practices were even noted in the relatively wealthy port of Audierne at the turn of the century; the town “swarms with children who pester the visitor with begging” wrote Sabine Baring-Gould in his book, Brittany (1902). The collapse of the Breton sardine fishing industry in 1880-86 and again in 1902-03 had a devastating impact on local prospects; the latter saw about 40,000 fishermen and cannery workers without jobs. Begging in such a harsh economic climate really was the difference between survival and starvation.
Although disease did not discriminate between different social classes, it impacted on the poor most strongly. The consequences of poverty, such as a poor diet and miserable living conditions, increased susceptibility to infection and the onslaught of illness could rapidly propel an industrious and independent family into a life of dependency and even destitution. Diseases such as dysentery, smallpox, typhoid and cholera were endemic in 19th century Brittany, claiming tens of thousands of lives; smallpox claimed some 20,000 lives in 1871 alone. Unfortunately, the region was also no stranger to famine with those of 1814-15 and 1846-47, when over 20,000 people died, noted as being particularly severe.
Another factor worth noting is the increase in life expectancy that took place here throughout the 19th century. While life expectancy averaged around forty-two years in the middle of the century, the percentage of older people in the population increased markedly. Thus, more people reached the age of sixty with an expectation of living another ten years but with neither pension nor adequate welfare support; the poor elderly were ultimately doomed to poverty and to eke out their twilight years in begging. “The peasants were a hard, harsh race and pitiless in their dealings toward one another. Their treatment of their old people was terrible. If an old mother, past work, had no money, she was ruthlessly turned out to beg,” noted Anne Douglas Sedgwick in A Childhood in Brittany Eighty Years Ago (1919).
Over 40,000 beggars were recorded in the far western Départment of Finistère in 1830 – a staggering eight per cent of the population – and as many in neighbouring Côtes-du-Nord some ten years later. A report of 1840 noted that the latter Départment contained a commune of 8,000 people, of which 6,000 were classed as beggars. The problems appear to have been so acute that a third of the activity of the police and the gendarmerie were reputedly devoted to vagrants. However, official measures to eradicate the problem of beggars and begging in France, such as dedicated hospitals, charitable offices and public assistance programmes, met with some resistance in Brittany; mainly due to the repressive measures that also formed part of the policy.
The Penal Code of 1810 effectively conflates vagrancy and begging, noting that: “Every person found begging, in a place for which there shall exist a public institution organized for the purpose of obviating mendicity, shall be punished with an imprisonment of from three to six months”. Another article states that: “In places where any such institution does not yet exist, habitual beggars shall be punished with an imprisonment of one to three months”.
Repression was therefore inseparable from assistance since the absence of public assistance arrangements prevented complete repression. In practice, vagrants here often obtained a little relief from the local mayor out of parish funds, generally a loaf of bread and a “Passeport d’Indigent” to some distant town. This passport entitled the bearer to a relief of 15 centimes per league, payable at each commune passed-through. Beggars arriving in towns were tolerated to beg for two or three days, during which they were supposed to collect sufficient money to enable them to go elsewhere; they were then required to leave the town. The only beggars allowed to stay in town were paupers belonging to the parish, who had to identify themselves by wearing a tin badge; all others were treated as vagrants.
What the Penal Code called an offence did not appear to Bretons as aberrant behaviour. Government policy was completely at odds with local attitudes and community leaders found themselves in the difficult position of trying to balance demands from the centre against deeply-held beliefs that considered beggars as the “poor of God”. Some argued that to accept the measures of assistance was to allow for the measures of repression that made the beggar an outcast from society and that if the beggar was to remain in society then it was necessary to oppose repression and thus oppose the assistance which necessarily promoted it.
The key difference between the lawmakers in Paris and those who administered it in Brittany was their attitude to the relationship between the beggar and the rest of society. Here, begging was not considered disgraceful; farmers and fishermen allowed their children to beg along the roads or among the neighbourhood farms. Charity and hospitality were considered solemn religious duties and even those with the least to spare happily gave alms. Far from being rejected and persecuted, beggars played an important role at the heart of Breton society where they were regarded as privileged intercessors between the less deprived and God.
Indeed, it was not unusual for beggars to offer prayers for the living or the dead in exchange for alms or to take-on the role of surrogate pilgrim for those too ill or occupied to travel to receive a particular’s saint’s pardon. Attended by thousands of worshippers, the Pardons of the 19th century also attracted beggars seeking alms in large numbers. Thomas Adolphus Trollope in his A Summer in Brittany (1840) attended the Pardon at Saint-Jean-du-Doigt and provides a most colourful description of the beggars there:
“Just outside the moving circle thus formed, and constituting a sort of division between it and the rest of the crowd, were a row of mendicants, whose united appearance was something far more horrible than I have any hope of conveying any idea of to the reader. Let him combine every image that his imagination can conceive of hideous deformity and frightful mutilation; of loathsome filth and squalid, vermin-breeding corruption; of festering wounds and leprous, putrefying sores; and let him suppose all this exposed in the broad light of day, and arranged carefully and skilfully by the wretched creatures whose stock in trade this mass of horrors constitutes, so as to produce the utmost possible amount of loathsomeness and sickening disgust; and when he has done this to the extent of his imagination, I feel convinced that he will have but an imperfect idea of what met my eyes.”
The situation seemed little changed over 65 years later when Francis Miltoun noted in her Rambles in Brittany (1905): “beggars, deformed or ill with incurable disease, crippled or what not, all expectant of reaping a thriving harvest from the simple-minded frequenters of the shrine. Whether deserving or not, all of them appear to receive liberal alms, for the custom of giving alms is as much a component part of the event as any of the other observances, nor is it ever frowned upon or curtailed by the religious or civic authorities.”
Other community celebrations like weddings also attracted large numbers of beggars who often travelled considerable distances to attend. In western Brittany, beggars were treated as honoured guests and the third day of the wedding celebration was often set-aside specifically for feeding the beggars, after which the bride and groom danced with the doyen of the beggars present.
Beggars often travelled far afield; a report from the Pays de la Loire in 1865 complained that most of the region’s beggars were from “the depths of Brittany”. Whether they travelled outside the province or simply around the neighbouring communes, beggars were important carriers of news and gossip to, sometimes, very isolated communities.
In the 19th century, attitudes towards beggars here were also widely influenced by superstition and superstitions pervaded the daily life of most rural Bretons. Beggars were among the characters that were frequently associated with the supernatural; they were thought able to cast the evil eye and to throw curses on cattle and crops, even to stop butter churning. In eastern Brittany, it was said that beggars possessed the power to attract or repel rats, at will, to and from wherever they pleased. Some beggars likely nourished such superstitions and many households no doubt gave alms to prevent some disaster befalling them as much as out of charity.
Court records show that intimidation and fraud were sometimes used by beggars to solicit alms or against those who refused them; crop damage and arson seemingly having been the resort of most spite. Perhaps a more sinister aspect to begging is hinted at in the sketchy records relating to a brotherhood of beggars known as the Truands. The origins of this mysterious Breton gang are unclear but it was said that in the middle of the 19th century bands of beggars would meet annually under a single leader known as Le Grand Coesre. In 1858, Bonaparte’s niece, Princess Elisa Napoléone Baciocchi, is reported to have driven them away from her estate near Colpo in southern Brittany but little is really known of them after that.
While many French accounts depicted the beggar as a deviant figure, in Brittany beggars were regarded as unremarkable. They were simply an ever-present part of daily life, as much a part of the local community as the butcher or baker and as beloved by God as the most innocent child; objects of neither denigration nor romanticisation who slowly faded from the scene in the 20th century.