Proletarian or marginalised? Socio-historical perspectives on beggars and vagrants in the 19th century

The history of “vagabonds” in the 19th century
By Pierre Gaume

The crimes of vagrancy and begging were key instruments of law enforcement in the 19th century, and were used to justify the arrests of many individuals who were presumably destitute. This paper puts forward a sociology of the incriminated populations and behaviours, based on a corpus of judicial and administrative records, in order to qualify the image of marginality associated with beggars and vagrants. These records shed light on the intensity of geographic and professional mobility among workers and low-skilled labourers, as well as the economic insecurity that accompanied it. They also reveal the fragility of the family group, which only provided uncertain protection from the vulnerable situations to which many were exposed. In the end, vagrancy and begging thus make it possible to understand the living conditions of a whole fringe of the working classes, caught between precarious polyactivity and a “culture of just getting by”.

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