The Roman de La Rose and the Right to Beg in the Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages, as today, there was considerable debate concerning who constituted the deserving poor. There was no state provision of poor relief, and so the poor were reduced to begging and the charity dispensed by the churches and monasteries. There was a criminal underworld of fake beggars, and so writers and theologians thus discussed, who the people, who truly deserved charity were, and who thus had the right to earn money from begging. This debate is part of the Roman de la Rose by Jean de Meung, one of the great works of French medieval literature. One of the characters, False-Seeming, severely condemns begging by the able-bodied, who would otherwise be able to support themselves by working. False-Seeming does, however, present a list of the type of people, who should be allowed to beg. The list appears to have been derived from that of the thirteenth century Paris teacher, William of St. Amour. The list states

‘If the man is such an animal that he has no knowledge of any trade and doesn’t want to remain ignorant, he can take to begging until he knows how to perform some trade by which he may legitimately earn his living without begging.

Or if he cannot work because of a sickness he has, or because of old age or dotage, he may turn to begging.

Or if by chance he has become accustomed by his upbringing to live very delicately, good men commonly should then have pity on him and, through friendship, allow him to beg for his bread rather than let him perish of hunger.

Or if he has the knowledge, the wish and the ability to work, and is ready to work well, but does not immediately find someone who may want to give him work at anything that he can do or is accustomed to do, then he may certainly obtain his needs by begging.

Or if he has the wages of his labour, but cannot live on them adequately on this earth, then he may indeed set out to ask for his bread and from day to day go about everywhere, obtaining what he lacks.

Or if he wants to undertake some knightly deed to defend the faith, either with alms, or by cultivation of his mind, or by some other suitable concern, and if he is weighed down by poverty, he may certainly, as I have said before, beg until he can work to obtain his needs…

In all these and similar cases, if you find any further cases that are reasonable, in addition to those that I have given you here, the man who wants to live by beggary may do so, and in no other cases, if the man from St. Amour does not live’.

(The Romance of the Rose, Charles Dahlberg trans., (Princeton 1971) 200-1).

With the exception of the case of the man, who has been brought up delicately, and the knight, these are all cases that apply today. Unfortunately, there were also the medieval equivalents of Atos and the present Tory government to tell them that they shouldn’t get any money because they were scroungers. Nevertheless this demonstrates that as far back as the Middle Ages, theologians and secular writers were prepared to defend the rights of the poor to charitable relief and support.


Andrew McCall, The Medieval Underworld (Stroud: Sutton 2004)

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One Response to “The Roman de La Rose and the Right to Beg in the Middle Ages”

  1. Samuel Miller (@Hephaestus7) Says:

    See also Benefit cheats: David Turner on ‘history of distrust of disability’

    Two related books of possible interest: “Stumbling Blocks Before the Blind: Medieval Constructions of a Disability” by Edward Wheatley (see review: and “The Blind in French Society from the Middle Ages to the Century of Louis Braille” by Zina Weygand (see review:

    Samuel Miller

    Blog: Hephaestus: Disability Studies
    Blog: My Disability Studies Blackboard
    (Montreal, Canada)

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