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  • Adrian J. Boas

On Poverty

Updated: Nov 12, 2018


Destitute children asleep in Naples, 1896 CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Like wealth, poverty is as much an attitude as a condition. For those who are poor, this attitude is so entrenched that to escape from it is like climbing a steep mountain. It seems an insurmountable task, which many simply do not have the courage to attempt.


Growing up in a middle class neighbourhood, poverty only loomed on the borders of my childhood. I do not recall seeing street beggars, and only the occasional drunk. My father had a man who helped him "fix" his car. He came over on Sundays and he and my father would spend hours hovering over the engine or lying on their backs underneath, until finally the machine purred to their satisfaction. Mr. Savage wore oil-stained rags, which I doubt were reserved for work alone, his fingernails were black and his fingers yellow from nicotine, his hair was unkempt, and he reeked of perspiration and beer. He had a peculiar walk and his appearance inevitably incited our little dog, until one day it made the grave mistake of attempting to bite his wooden leg. His own car was as dilapidated and filthy as he was himself. It had a sign on the dashboard that delighted us children - "The owner of this car is poor/So please don't slam the bl……. door".


Poverty is often considerably more severe than that which I assume Mr. Savage experienced, and in the Middle Ages it was a conspicuous feature of urban and rural life, in the Latin East. I recently published a brief paper on the topic, and in researching it, I was surprised to find how little interest it appears to have raised among historians.

Participants of the early crusades, soldiers and non-combatants alike, often suffered from appalling conditions due largely to poor organisation and the lack of supplies, and many people died from starvation on their way East. True, some crusaders became rich from the ransoming of captives and from taking spoils. But many others gained little during the crusade, and then found themselves in new surroundings with no means of returning home, few possessions and little knowledge of how to earn a living. This must have been particularly true of the many peasants, former serfs, that made up a substantial part of the army of the First Crusade. They would have found it difficult to acclimatise, and would have had to seek out whatever work they could find, such as the distasteful task of clearing the streets of Jerusalem of the bodies of thousands of dead after the massacre that followed the conquest in 1099. The continual arrival of pilgrims, many of whom were paupers, only added to poverty in the cities. Natural disasters such as disease, pestilence, drought, flooding and earthquakes, wiped out entire communities and could plunge many more people into a state of destitution.


Although we know that a substantial part of the urban populace experienced poverty, no reliable statistics have been preserved. An estimate based on the terms of surrender of the Jerusalem population to Saladin, suggests that there were well over 22,500 poor in the city. Out of a population that had possibly swollen to 100,000 Franks at the time of the siege (at least according to one contemporary Muslim historian), that would mean that in 1187 the poor of Jerusalem made up no less than 22.5% of the city's population. That might seem to us remarkably high. However, keeping in mind that what we define as poor might be quite different from what was considered poor in the twelfth century, today's poverty rate in Jerusalem (the poorest city in Israel due to the high rates of poverty in the Arab and ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities) is estimated at close to 50%!

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