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A History of Spain by Charles E. Chapman

Sidenote Causes of vagabondage


[Sidenote: Statistics of population.]

[Sidenote: Prevalence of vagabondage.]

The economic status of Spain in this era could be more clearly set forth if it were possible to have fairly reliable data as to population. In the middle of the sixteenth century there may have been about six and three quarter millions of people in Spain. By the end of the century some estimates hold that the numbers had increased to perhaps eight and a half millions, but there is ground for doubting these assertions. Figures for the seventeenth century are even more uncertain, but there is a general agreement that the population declined. One estimate makes the population of Spain 5,700,000 at the end of the era. Misery, idleness, and vagabondage were characteristic of Spanish life in the late sixteenth and throughout the seventeenth century; it has been estimated that there were 150,000 vagabonds at the close of the sixteenth century whose principal occupations were begging, thieving, and prostitution. It is true that a like state of affairs existed in other countries, and that many foreigners were included in this element in the peninsula, but conditions were probably worse in Spain than elsewhere in western Europe.

[Sidenote: Causes of vagabondage.]

Much has been written about the causes of vagabondage in Spain. The principal causes undoubtedly were economic. Foreign writers have charged it to Spanish pride and scorn of manual labor as well as to a certain native laziness. These allegations are true to some extent, flowing naturally from the circumstances of the history of Spain. Slavery had been perhaps more general and long-continuing in the peninsula than in other parts of Europe, and the slaves had usually been Moslem in faith; thus Spaniards might naturally be disinclined to do the work of slaves and infidels, and the same spirit would be present on its religious side to make them object to working in company with the questionably orthodox Moriscos. The general desire of Spaniards to be regarded as of noble blood also tended to make manual labor unpopular, since there was a strong class prejudice that nobles should not engage in such work. Finally, the ease of entry into religious orders had rendered escape from toil possible for a great number, and had increased the sentiment against laboring with one's hands. The only way out for a great many was the life of a vagabond. The sudden wealth acquired by individuals in the Americas reacted psychologically to make the necessarily slow accretions of property in Spain an irksome prospect. The exaltation of military glory had the same general effect, but as the Spanish armies were small this occupation was not open to everybody, and its perils and irregularities in pay made not a few hesitate to enter it. Furthermore, there were many contemporary writers, Cervantes among them, who pointed out that the life of a vagabond had a certain appeal for many Spaniards; young men of good family not infrequently joined bands of gypsies.

[Sidenote: Inability of the government to cope with the situation.]

The poverty of Spain was general by the middle of the seventeenth century, and the state of the country got steadily worse thereafter. Bread riots frequently served as a reminder to the authorities, who indeed made many attempts to remedy the situation. Their measures to attack the root of the evil were worse than useless, however, being based on economic misconceptions or being discontinued (when they might have proved beneficial) if they ran counter to governmental policies. Direct legislation against vagabondage was frequent, but was evaded as often as enacted. When people were forbidden to remain in the country without working, the vagabonds made a showing of becoming porters or of engaging in other like occupations, under the guise of which they continued their loose practices. When these occupations were limited they were to be found as theoretically in the service of the noble or wealthy, whom social pride induced to have as many in their following as possible. When this custom was attacked direct evasion of the laws was rendered possible through charitable institutions, especially through the free soup-kitchens of the religious orders. On the benevolent side the problem was also approached through the founding of poor-houses, although this method was not yet greatly developed, and through the conversion of the former public granaries (_p?sitos_), in which stores of grain were kept to guard against the possibility of famine, into pious institutions for the gift or loan of food supplies to the poor.


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