By Ben Utter
Paper given at the Vagantes: Medieval Graduate Student Conference, held at the University of Pittsburgh (2011)
The paper notes that in 14th century England poverty was rampant, caused by plague, famine and warfare, which led to an increase in the number of poor and beggars that could be seen on the streets of medieval cities. This period also saw the growth in the practice of beggars’ feasts and ritual foot-washing. The beggars feasts were held on Christian feast days, and would have wealthy persons (including town mayors or a noble) hosting twelve poor people for a sumptuous feast. The foot-washing ritual, known as pedilavium, was held on Holy Thursday (just before Easter) and would involved the wealthy person washing the feet of several poor individuals.
Utter notes that in the fourteenth-century there seems to have been some debate and different views on how these beggar’s feasts should be staged, in particular which kind of poor people should be invited. He goes on to note the symbolic and allegorical importance of these rituals. For the wealthy hosts, these events would be seen as acts of piousness, and as acts of penance to the greater group of needy. The Christian imagery can be clearly seen in the fact that twelve poor people were invited to these feasts – the same number of apostles who attended the Last Supper with Jesus Christ.
Utter also examines how the English writer William Langland thought of these practices in his work Piers Plowman. Although Langland does not directly address the issue of beggar’s feasts, his allegorical characters do deal with the topics of poverty and charity.