¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 The tale of the vagrant Jewish hordes probably began in the Middle Ages, when religious students used to move from one yeshiva to another. Jews had always valued education highly. After the eviction of Jews from the large German cities, Jewish students had to travel far from their small, scattered rural communities to reputable institutions of higher Jewish learning.4 Public transportation did not exist, so most youth had to walk hundreds of miles, often supporting themselves by begging and surviving without adult supervision. Frequently, social graces wore thin.5
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Although migrating students were common in the Middle Ages, Jewish students represented a disproportionately high number among them.6 Since wandering students in general tended to come from the upper strata of society, impecunious young Jews represented a minority among the general, more wealthy German student population.7 Nevertheless, despite their poverty, wandering students were the rule rather than the exception among Jewish learners.8 Once students finished or broke off their studies, they often had to take to the road again to find work; the benefit of modern newspaper advertisements and employment agencies did not exist. Graduates had to wander from town to town, village to village, in search of someone willing to hire them.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 With the subsequent eviction of Jews from midsized towns and the institution of general settlement restrictions, the number of vagrants who could not find localities prepared to accept them swelled massively. As they roamed the land, men, women, and children who did not migrate to Eastern Europe were quickly reduced to begging or crime to avoid starvation. Pillage and destruction resulting from the Thirty Years’ War added gentile paupers to the mix. Army deserters and discharged soldiers introduced weapons and violence. Poverty was not limited to the Jewish population in the seventeenth century: it was endemic.9 But whereas the gentile poor could eventually settle down again when the political and economic circumstances improved, Jews were trapped, with their options seriously limited. These lawless, vagrant hordes gradually evolved into a subculture with its own customs, norms, and a language called “Rotwelsch (cant).10 The jargon contains a large proportion of Yiddish-origin words, thus providing evidence for the significant contribution of Jewish vagrants to its development.11 Musicians, jugglers, and acrobats, while also travelling with the crowd, were able to support themselves without necessarily resorting to begging or crime.
5Glanz, “Geschichte des niederen jüdischen Volkes,”” p. 132.
6Miethke, “Die Studenten,”
7Schwinges, “Studenten und Gelehrte,” 292.
8Kanarfogel, “Jewish Education,” 49–53.
9Hippel, “Armut, Unterschichten, Randgruppen,”
10Wikipedia, s.v. “Rotwelsch.”
11Glanz, “Geschichte des niederen jüdischen Volkes, 227–60.