19 August 2019
Jonny Keen provides an introduction to the use of beggars' badges in Scotland, exploring their distribution and use and looking at whether they protected or discriminated against those to whom they were issued.
In the early part of the 15th century, Europe’s population was booming. Following the ravages of the black death, birth rates were on the rise and death rates had tailed off. The economy was unable to support the overwhelming numbers of people reaching working age, unemployment and destitution were rife.
Towns and cities were overrun with poverty, and beggars thronged the streets, accosting members of the public as they went about their lawful business. The authorities of the day were alarmed by this state of affairs, and in 1425 an act of Scottish parliament declared that all beggars in the country “sall have a takin to land of the schera and in bwrowis off the aldirmen and baylyheis”. In other words, each beggar had to be issued with a badge if they wished to continue begging legally.
The badge system gave the authorities a degree of control over vagrants and beggars, who were often free of many of society’s moral and legal restrictions, moving about without ties to any particular place. Badging meant that councils and church authorities could prevent beggars from moving out of the parish, as well as exerting a degree of control over them. Before the badges were introduced, beggars had occupied a niche in society, unrestricted by church and state. Now, they could have their livelihoods taken away if they dared make a stand against authority.
The uses of beggars' badges
Beggars’ badges represented the first Scottish poor laws. Ostensibly, they ensured that only those who could find no legitimate work were allowed to beg. The public were assured that “lazy” or “immoral” people could not make their living through begging if they were capable of honest work. In reality, these measures were draconian.
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Orphans, widows and disabled people could be denied badges simply for non-adherence to Christian morals. A widow who, in desperation, had turned to prostitution in order to feed her family would be denied the chance to beg in future.
Like many policies of the time, the distribution of badges was an act which both discriminated against and provided some protection to the poorest people of the land. On the one hand, those lucky enough to acquire a badge were given a sort of status, their badges reflecting that society had judged them worthy of receiving alms and allowing them to prove their honesty to the general public. For them, begging became almost a legitimate, government sanctioned trade.
But the badges also marginalised huge numbers of poor people. As beggars were dependent on the whims of a local panel of councillors, anyone could be denied badges on arbitrary personal grounds, making it a crime for them to beg for help. The church courts, called kirk-sessions, were often the authorities responsible for issuing badges, and their panels could decide that certain beggars were not eligible for badges on the grounds of “immorality or “laziness”.
Badges also deprived authorised beggars of their privacy, forcing themselves to publicly identify as beggars wherever they went; those not displaying their badges prominently could face punishment. Additionally, beggars were forced to stay in one small area, as their badges only allowed them to beg in the borough in which they were issued.
Wearing a beggars' badge
The badges inspired a range of reactions in those issued them. Some wore their badges prominently on the breast, along with a blue gown, belted at the waist, which helped to identify them as professional, state-sanctioned beggars. But many women were reported to be ashamed of their badges, with some sewing a hood into their clothes which could be pulled down to conceal the badge.
The badges themselves could be made from any number of materials, including cloth and leather, but most surviving examples are of metal. Lead was the most commonly used material, its low value offering little resale potential for the beggar looking to make some quick cash. Badges were made in the style of coins and whilst they varied greatly in design, they normally featured inscriptions bearing the name of the parish in which they were issued, as well as the name of the beggar who held it and sometimes an identifying serial number. Alongside this information, there were often stylised images such as churches, sailing ships and animals. These images mirrored the insignia of issuing churches or parishes and cemented the badges as objects of great value.
The church and government of the time branded beggars as immoral, depicting their poverty as a result of laziness. One medieval proclamation claimed that many beggars “may get their living by labour and will not labour”. The hysteria grew so strong that even labourers arriving in towns looking for work could be punished for alleged vagrancy, and there was one case of a rich family’s servant being imprisoned for begging after he arrived in a strange town on his master’s business.
But the view of beggars as workshy fraudsters was by no means universal. In fact, vagrants were often held in some esteem by the common folk, as their nomadic lifestyle made them a source of news from distant places. They were often skilled too, in craftsmanship, music or storytelling, and served as bards and minstrels. Sir Walter Scott summed up the popular attitude to beggars in his character, Edie Ochiltree, a badged beggar appearing in The Antiquary, as “the news-carrier, the minstrel and sometimes the historian of the district”.
Beggars also fulfilled an important religious function those plagued by a guilty conscience could supposedly erase their sins by giving alms to beggars. Still, it was in the interest of the powers that were to turn commoners against beggars, and the badges helped to demonise large sections of the poor, although it’s likely the traditional sympathies of common people allowed unlicensed beggars to eke out a living.
Beggars were by no means a minority in medieval society. Some historians believe more than 20% of the European population was destitute during the Medieval era. Moral judgement weighed heavily on the life of a medieval beggar. As the church was responsible for assisting the poor, both in the form of providing direct relief, as well as issuing badges, those considered to be “immoral” were often left without any means of supporting themselves.
Any beggar hoping for support from the state would have been disappointed. When beggars’ badges were first introduced, the government offered practically no help for the poor, even those dying in the street. The first workhouses were not built in Scotland until more than 200 years after the introduction of the badges.
Those beggars unable to obtain badges could face harsh punishment. Records show that authorities conducted regular sweeps of Edinburgh in order to root out unlicensed beggars, and those found guilty could be subject to branding, imprisonment or banishment. Legislation introduced in the 1500s even allowed the death penalty for repeat offenders.
For those without a badge, begging gained a new element of danger. Simply taking alms from a stranger or entering cities could now be a criminal offence. But for those outcasts of society with no hope of ever finding employment, they had only two choices: break the poor laws and beg anyway, or languish without help from those in power and die of starvation.
Scottish Beggars’ Badges, Country Life (1950), E. R. H Dicken
Ulster Beggars’ Badges, Ulster Journal of Archaeology (1970), W. A. Seaby, T. G. F. Paterson
Of Beggars Badges with Notes on Licensed Mendicants of Scotland, (Vol. IX - New): Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (1887), J. B. Paul
About the author
(images beggars courtesy of British Library, Keith badge copyright Geni, Old Aberdeen badge copyright Ray Oaks)