The Brotherhood of Beggars in Vilnius

In popular historical Lithuanian literature of the 17th and 18th century, there was a corporation of beggars that existed in Vilnius called the “beggars’ guild.” In pursuing historical exoticness and sensation, this name has been exploited in particular in the press lately. They do not discuss whether there is a foundation for using the name “guild” to call an organisation, the members of which (beggars) neither produce, sell, nor provide services, but lived from begging. The nature of the beggars’ activities is contrary to the essence of real guilds, which were organizations of artisans producing products during the Late Middle Ages and Early Renaissance. The social organisation of beggars in Vilnius was a specific social construct characteristic of the social map of Vilnius as well as Lithuania.

Medieval beggars – “the bankers of God”

The modern study of history devotes much attention to those that were oppressed in life, who experienced social exclusion – the various marginalized groups that researchers call “people on the fringes,” “outcasts,” and the like. It is thought there are about 200 of these kinds of groups. At the beginning of modern times, their number grew, because of the growing social differences, and scope of isolation and marginalization. The production of guilds, the crisis concerning the societal structure, wars and plagues greatly increased the number of “alien among one’s own (especially among beggars and vagrants). At the time they comprised about five to ten percent of society as a whole. This marginal number was greatly influenced by the time and place. Differently than vagrants, beggars were attributed to the category of honourable poor – the giving of alms to the poor in Catholic society – was an expression of Christian love to one’s neighbour. In following Christ’s example, the Church hierarchy would wash the feet of beggars on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. This ritual was also practiced by Vilnius bishops in earlier times.

Thus these marginalized people (beggars) that were viewed in a positive way were needed by society.

People became beggars due to several reasons, however most often it was due to poverty. It is no coincidence that they are also called “the poor” due to physical or psychological disability, domestic violence and old age. Due to their way of life (living in the streets and sometimes in shelters) and activities (asking for alms in public places, including near churches, in squares, and the street), beggars were the most noticeable figures of poverty in society. They came from both the countryside and the city, from various social groups, including the peasantry, city burghers and boiars, colourful in terms of their gender and age, however above all they clustered in the biggest cities. Thus Vilnius was also popular. It was where one had the largest alms, and best changes for receiving shelter, and lesser scope of oversight.  There were a number of funerals from the Church’s hierarchy, nobles or wealthy town citizens that took place in the city. And during each of these kinds of events, there were rather large sums given to beggars, done to redeem the sins of the deceased or garner prestige.

Advances in the fight against social maladies

Despite their marginalized status on the social map of the city, beggars were clearly visible. As a part of society became poorer, the number of beggars grew. Institutions of the Church, the state and cities’ governments came up against serious problems concerning begging. Though the Church carried out social relief, promoted loving kindness, and established shelters (hospitals), the problems did not decrease. Many European countries began to establish workhouses for beggars, while alms were allocated in a focused manner.

It is known that various societies, including those of marginalized people, created forms of self-rule.  For example, during the Middle Ages the existence of beggars was sanctioned by the founding of special societies, such as for the blind. According to some authors, there was a united organization of beggars that defended the interests of its members which operated in Rome until the end of the 18th century. It is only at the end of the 18th century that one can see change in decisions concerning the problems of begging in Poland and Lithuanian, when they began to understand that begging was influenced by the state of the country’s economy and unemployment. Up until that time, the cities’ bureaucrats first of all looked for ways to reduce the number of beggars, control them, and make begging more “civilized.” State and city governments strove to limit the number of beggars, protect “their own” and kick out “the alien.”

There was a unique beggars’ organization that was established in Vilnius, the biggest GDL city, in 1636 and operated until 1784, which reflected an original combination of the beggars’ self-rule and city government control. The corporation’s statute was adopted not by the beggars, but by the city government.

The privilege clearly states that as large disagreements among beggars were foreseen, the city government drew up a procedure in Polish and asked the head of state to approve it.

The city government asked the ruler to free up premises that were allocated for the beggars, premises that were exempt from obligations for the hosting of guests. One can only guess about the scale of begging in Vilnius during the first half of the 17th century, however the problem was acute. There were a number of wealthy, educated people that had seen the broader world in the city government at the time. Perhaps the idea came to a voigt that served for one year to provide some sort of self-rule to the beggars, leaving himself the right to monitor it, achieve greater order in begging and ensure the satisfaction of the beggars’ religious needs. At least at the beginning it was to operate under the supervision of the city government. This is shown by the fact that the society operated under the former hospital of the Church of St. Nicodemus and Joseph during the first stage of its activity. Both the church and the hospital were ruled by the city government – they appointed a provost, and the hospital’s apothecaries. The city officials that prepared the brotherhood’s statutes best understood the artisan and merchants’ guilds, which is why they created the beggars’ brotherhoods according to the same system, because it suited it very well. What’s more, the articles better reflected the trends of medieval self-rule that the growing repression of beggars which was characteristic of the new times.

Customs and traditions of the beggars

The poor that were inscribed in a list of beggars were to have a meeting once a month (and contribute one Polish grosz each time) at the home of a city resident. This house had a room, where one could find the corporation box containing the collected money. There was a “church elder” and “street elder” that had keys to the box. The landlord or owner of the house had to occupy first place in the meetings, acting as a judge. The landlord, together with the other elected elders, had to choose four beaters, who would drive healthy beggars out of the city, and punish licentious beggars. The brotherhood had someone literate in Latin – it was said that newcomers brought such documents. The landlord or owner of the house had to be under Magdeburg Law, in other words be under the jurisdiction of the city, and not that of the Church or land jurisdiction. This apparently was done in wanting to ensure that the brotherhood’s established meeting place would remain in the jurisdiction of the city. Beggars who had no place to stay were to be taken to the hospital of St. Joseph and St. Nicodemus. Two annual Masses were said for the living benefactors of the poor and also for the dead in St. John’s Church.

Do You Know?

A unique organization of beggars was established in Vilnius in 1636, and operated there until 1784. Its members had to meet once a month, elect four elders, and had a corporation box containing money. The duties of the whippers, who would drive those pretending to be beggars out of the city, were important.

There is no data as for now the articles of the brotherhood were implemented. One can assume that at the beginning they were followed, though it’s difficult to discipline such a recalcitrant element. A number of beggars (those pretending to be beggars) did not want to belong to the brotherhood and pay the fee. Based on data from the end of the 18th century, this organization was not able to cope with overseeing the growing number of beggars.

City representatives either did not understand or did not want to understand that the scope of begging had grown due to economic and social reasons, while they want to find solutions to these problems with punishment and forced work.

This organization, at the beginning of a secular nature, became more of a religious organization in the early part of the 18th century. This is reflected by the brotherhood’s subordination to the provost of St. John’s Church. However in its essence, the brotherhood of beggars in Vilnius was a specific form of the organization of a marginal social group of an urban society that can’t be equalled either to a guild or a religious brotherhood.

Literature: A. Ragauskas, Iš Vilniaus miesto socialinio žemėlapio XVII–XVIII a.: elgetų brolija, Istorija., 2007, t. 67, p. 15–2.

Aivas Ragauskas