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Vagabonds in the Kingdom: 18th Century Spanish Social Assistance and Anti-Idleness Policy

The following is a guest post by Jake Neuberger, who served as a spring 2021 remote intern transcribing and researching documents in the Herencia: Centuries of Spanish Legal Documents crowdsourcing campaign at the Law Library of Congress.

The Herencia collection contains various documents that shed light onto political, economic, and socio-cultural themes in Spain throughout the 15th and 19th centuries. One such document which perhaps merits special attention is the Royal Order of July 25, 1751 punishing vagabonds in the Kingdom. “Vagabundos,” directly translated as vagabonds, was a frequently used term in Spain during this time and is a prominent theme featured in numerous other collection documents. It would seem that, especially during the 18th century, whether regarding the army, public works, or anything in between, “vagabundos” were an issue of sustained social and political concern. This royal order of 1751 mandates judges to follow previous and current decrees of the crown regarding “vagabundos, gente ociosa, mal-entretenida, olvidadas, ò tratados con mucho descuido”; that’s to say, vagabonds, idle people, those “forgotten,” not-cared for, etc.

In this specific order’s case, anyone over the age of 12 matching the above categories was to be enlisted in “the service of arms” for a period of four years. Other documents within the collection establish how this practice of military enlistment for vagabundos became so great that there were entire battalions named “los terceros” formed as a result. The order provides that those unable to serve in the military shall work instead in the arsenal or, if unable to participate in either of these ways, through public works as discerned by the judge. This order also applies to deserters and cautions the community from protecting these groups, noting it would result in community members being enlisted into military service as well. The piece closes by stating that judges shall send testimonies from the cases they preside over to the “Secretary of the Dispatch of War” to verify the decisions are in alignment with the current royal orders.

But what does this all mean? This was clearly a topic that the crown felt was important to address and it seems from the imploring of judges to apply such orders, that there were complexities involved in terms of the communities it was imposed upon. Fortunately, there is historical context that can help to clarify this matter. During this time Spain was dealing with a mercantilist system which introduced class fragmentation, with less focus on social assistance and the presence of what was considered an idle population, the militia and public works were proposed as possible remedies. Mercantilism brought an influx of precious metals, such as silver, from former colonies, such as Peru, and provided a sense of prosperity that led to the contempt of vagabondage, yet it also foreshadowed greater economic strife and decadence through the exhaustion of resources under an inefficient system.

Taking into account that the 18th century comprises the Enlightenment, the influx of economic, political, and technological innovation and ideas seems to have spurred Spain to try to confront what the crown considered a serious problem. Moreover, scholarship such as La figura del vago en la España ilustrada by Ana Hontanilla expound upon how the classification of productive work and labor is codified as part of national honor and civic/political obligations. In this push for full employment, prominent economists in Spain during this period, such as Bernardo Ward and Gerónimo de Uztáriz, critique certain nobility as well for idleness and lack of contribution. In fact, this order also provides for monetary rewards for apprehending and turning in “vagabundos,” creating its own incentive structure. In this way, the term “vagabundo” applied to various swathes of Spanish society and had a much more polysemic connotation socio-historically that is highly temporal and situational. By the same token, this seems to have led to disconnect between the judicial and royal orders, in many ways formulating a broader discussion surrounding the power of the crown during this time and how these turbulent economic and social factors influenced political and governance-based affairs.

Taking this context and the document itself into account, royal orders about the treatment of vagabundos go further than simple social policy. Rather, these span to extensive notions of economic reform and evolution, juridical/legal imposition, as well as political dynamics. Be sure to check out this document and the rest of the collection to gain a greater understanding of juridical imprints upon social assistance and policy during the time of the Enlightenment.

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