Academic journal article Western Folklore

Will Work for Food: Legend and Poverty Legislation in Nineteenth Century Denmark 1

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Will Work for Food: Legend and Poverty Legislation in Nineteenth Century Denmark 1

Article excerpt

Kristoffer Joenøww havde en Kammerat der hed Pjalt-Johan og h. boede i et Sted imellem Niehtrup og Hallendrup. Hans Kone kaldtes Kat-Ma-Elgaards. Ha gik omkring og samlede Messing tøj og Kobbertøj og Katte og Katteskind. De tog selv Kattene af. S. havde h. den Tanke, der boede en Mand ved Siden af ham, at h. gik hen og laante en Mark hver Mandag Morgen inden h. gik ud og handlede. Det var netop min Fader h. laante dem afog s. kom h. igien med den hver Søndag Morgen.

[Kristoffer Jenn0ww had a friend who was called Pjalt Johan, and he lived somewhere between Nielstrup and Hallendrup. His wife was called Kat-Ma-Elgârds. He went about and collected brass and copper and cats and cat skins. They killed the cats themselves. He had this belief, there was a man who lived next to him, and he came and borrowed a mark from him every Monday morning, before he went out to trade. It was my father he borrowed the mark from, and he brought it back again every Sunday morning.]2

Kirsten Marie Pedersdatter's story of rural poverty touches on only one aspect of a remarkably complex phenomenon.3 In her story, she celebrates individual initiative - even if it involves work that had been reserved for rakkere and natmandsfolk, the untouchables of rural society - and local charity (Hansen 1952: 39-40; Gaardboe 1968). As such, her story endorses an ideological stance that informed one side of the protracted debates concerning poverty assistance that were a mainstay of Danish political life up through the nineteenth century (j0rgensen 1940).

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the challenges of rural poverty were closely linked to the demographic pressures associated with rapid urbanization, the economic pressures that followed from fundamental changes in the organization of agricultural production, and the political pressures related to broadening approaches toward governance and taxation. Legislative strategies for how to combat poverty and provide assistance to those in need broke along newly forming party lines (J0rgensen 1940).4 Records of debate - from local parish boards up through parliament - along with legislative proposals provide insight into how decision makers viewed the problem, and how they developed solutions. These solutions often grew out of existing practice and were tempered by public opinion from all parts of the country. On the local level, storytelling played an important role in developing that public opinion, and also offered individuals a forum to comment on existing practice, both formal (legislated) and informal. Accordingly, the legends and personal experience narratives, such as those collected by Evald Tang Kristensen, provide critical insight into not only how community members viewed the problem but also the types of solutions that they felt would best address it.5

Since the problem of poverty was neither simple nor consistent across the country, the debate on all levels was complex. Proposals by one group to address an aspect of the problem invariably angered other groups, who in turn offered counter-proposals. Implementation of legislative decisions was gradual, and institutional mechanisms to guarantee local compliance and enforcement were applied inconsistently. In short, poverty assistance legislation up through the nineteenth century was inefficient.6 Although a consideration of efficiency alone cannot explain why Danish poverty assistance laws developed as they did, it can help reveal some of the difficulties that local parish boards, district commissions and parliament confronted while devising policy.7 Complicating matters further, democratic institutions and the open market economy were emerging phenomena throughout the nineteenth century, and legislators had to adjust to the demands of these new systems, at the same time as these new systems were fundamentally altering the nature of the problem. A significant challenge throughout the century was designing legislation that aligned with a fairly diverse array of ever-changing local practice and took into consideration the at times conflicting values of various constituencies. …

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