TO THE MODERN READER, begging appears an unmanly act. The association of modern manliness, and indeed the modern individual, with independence, self-sufficiency, ‘breadwinning’ or ‘provision’, and equality and fraternity locates the dependency of the beggar in unmasculine, even feminine, territory. Relying on another, the beggar is placed as unable to help himself, affirming his ‘lack’ and his subordinate place in the social hierarchy. Such a positioning of the self is challenging for modern historians who, as individuals, resist dependency, seeing it as a threat to autonomous selfhood. While feminist and postmodernist scholars challenge such discourses of autonomy, celebrating the benefits of embracing the other to our sense of identity and to understanding historical selves, we still find it difficult to apply such analysis to deeply hierarchical relationships, where one self appears so vulnerable, so reliant on the benevolence – the exercise of power – of the powerful. As feminists, we resist the implication that dependency (so closely tied to femininity) is ‘negative’, that reliance on the other makes us less; yet we seem drawn to place more emphasis on agency, on resistance, on negotiation, than on the ways in which dependency shapes the self.
Reflecting this, the history of beggars has not viewed them as entirely helpless. Begging has been located amongst a range of strategies that men and women used to make ends meet, to survive in times of economic downturn, or to further their families’ social mobility. As Tim Hitchcock notes, begging in the eighteenth century was an acknowledged social practice that located beggars within the community and endowed them with particular rights. In this framework, begging was less a form of debasement of the self than a method of negotiation within particular power structures.
Understanding begging as a social practice is useful for a study of early modern and modernising Britain, where social and political equality was far from the idealised social structure.