Socially Marginalised People and their Control of Movement during Sixteenth-Century Germany

Keywords: Criminals, Beggars and Vagrants, Plague, Journeymen, Jews, Gypsies

The fortress-like walls that surrounded European cities built in the Middle Ages such as Nuremberg, which was protected by a double wall and trench, symbolised the dangers that lurked beyond (Strauss, 1976, p. 12). The wilderness in sixteenth-century Germany was associated with all things uncivilised and dangerous including, insanity and criminality (Bernheimer, 1952, p. 12). Many undesirables such as criminals, the insane, and beggars were banished from German cities during the sixteenth century. This was a common mode of dealing with criminals throughout Europe before the establishment of modern penitentiaries and workhouses (Coy, 2008, pp. 1-2). The city of Cologne, for example, banished 376 criminals and vagabonds between 1575 and 1588 (Coy, 2008, p. 2). Possibly as a result of this, sixteenth-century Germany was also a period where bandits and highway robbers were ubiquitous outside the protection of the walled cities. The criminality and violence beyond the walled cities would have only heightened apprehension of the external inhabitants (Ruff, 2001, pp. 31, 216, 218).

Beggars and Vagrants
As populations recovered during the late fifteenth century after the Black Death, pressure was placed on the already vulnerable classes as prices rose dramatically and greater competition for jobs increased (Wiltenburg, 2013, p. 6). The rise in capitalism and increased prices and rents, brought an increase in the visible poor (Wiesner-Hanks, 2006, p. 196-97). Poverty placed a financial burden on cities. However, the poor were also thought to be of low morale and were assumed to be involved in criminal activity such as stealing and cheating (Jütte, 1994, p. 158). Beggars and vagrants in Nuremberg, Frankfurt am Main, and Augsburg were already made to wear an identifying yellow badge from the fourteenth and fifteenth century. It placed them in the category of other marginalised groups who had to similarly wear identifying markers such as Jews, lepers, and prostitutes (Gestrich, 2013, p. 252; Jütte, 1994, p. 160). Begging and vagrancy became a crime in and of itself and a threat to the stability of society. Beggars would be arrested and found themselves cast beyond the walled cities like other criminals. Württemberg, for example, arrested people for ‘suspicious wandering’ from 1495. Augsburg outlawed begging in 1522, and Nuremberg and Strasbourg followed in 1523 (Jütte, 1994, pp. 146-47; Kamen, 2005, p. 180).

The continuous movement of people searching for work in the cities, which increased during times of war and famine, far exceeded their ability to absorb them (Scribner, 1988, p. 43; Friedrichs, 1995, pp. 215, 7). Large groups of people from the countryside moving into cities and towns and with them brought fear of poor, diseased foreigners of questionable morality (Cunningham and Grell, 2000, pp. 1-2). Many cities attempted to stem the flow (Wiesner-Hanks, 2006, p. 39). The poor were not tolerated at times of famine and in many German towns and cities’ people had to show proof of their wealth before being granted citizenship (Friedrichs, 1995, p. 225). Also, amongst the continuous outbreaks of the bubonic plague, cities in Germany held strict rules of quarantine to prevent the disease entering its city walls (Cunningham and Grell, 2000, p. 274; Wiesner-Hanks, 2006, p. 27).

The theme of the dangers that lurk on the outskirts of society was explored in a woodcut in Johann Geiler von Kaysersberg’s (1445-1510) Die Emeis (‘The Ant-Colony’) in 1516. In the woodcut, a journeyman who is central to its composition pulls back to one side with his arms raised in surprise as a large and ferocious wolf pounces on him with is front claws. This scene is witnessed by the city gate’s guardsman, or lansquenet, evident from his ornate clothing. The figures are scaled larger than the gate beside them, thereby emphasising the audience’s focus on the dramatic scene in the central foreground. However, the gate is important as it reminds the audience that the scene is unfolding just beyond the walled city. The unknown artist appears to convey the dangers that lurk on the other side of the walled city, as the wolf and the journeyman have merged from the depths of the forest.

Johannes Geiler of Kayserberg, Die Emeis, Strasbourg, Grüninger, 1516, XLIr
Bayerische StaatsBiblothek

Although it may have not been the intention by the artist to create a social critique of the traveller, the print in a way socially marginalises him as Other as he is part of the hidden dangers that lurked beyond the walled city. Richard J. Evans has stated that wandering journeymen, as opposed to vagrants, were accepted members of urban societies (Evans, 1988, p. 1). They were an important source of labour and to urban economies where recorded deaths were higher than births during the early modern period (De Munck and Anne Winter, 2012, pp. 1- 2). However, they were still regarded with suspicion, especially non-German speaking travellers who were continuously feared for engaging in espionage (Scribner, 1988, p. 43). These included gypsies who were banned from entering cities and we originally thought to be spies of the Turks as they migrated from the East. Gypsies’ nomadic lifestyle also associated them with vagrancy and thus criminality (Arnds, 2015, pp. 70-71).


Tensions surrounding religious and foreign Others was also illustrated in the rise of persecutions faced by Jews within German lands. Between 1492-96, Jews were expelled from German cities, and again in 1596-8, which saw the largest expulsion of Jews from German cities during the Renaissance (Pearlson, 1927, p. 127). While Jews were expelled from many German cities during the late fifteenth century, they were allowed to enter Strasbourg where Die Emeis was printed during the day to conduct business, but had to leave by night (Boes, 2007, p. 93. Ginzburg, 1991, p. 39). This gesture of tolerance could be at least in part due to the desire to convert them to Christianity (Waite, 2003, p. 96). However, later in his life, Martin Luther lost all tolerance for Jews, calling them to be expelled from all Christian lands (Boes, 2013, p. 11).

The sixteenth century marked a period of significant change, instability, and anxiety in Germany. For much of the early modern period, the wilderness was considered dangerous, where monsters and degenerate humans lurked. The emergence of the city-state provided the conditions to cast out undesirables and created a suspicion of difference.


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