I recently came across the ‘Punkabbestia’ movement, a group of people who reject contemporary society and live a life of voluntary poverty. This is the Italian version of the ‘Gutter Punks’ that can be found on the streets of America. They reproduce an ‘aesthetic’ of poverty and live in a state of homelessness. But the performance of poverty by those from more affluent backgrounds is common to a more familiar element of contemporary culture: hipsters.
An article on the Thought Catalogue earlier this year delineated all the ways in which hipsters imitate stereotypes of the cultures, trends, and identities of poor white people. This includes dressing in a certain way, consuming cheaper drinks (most iconically PBR), and moving into historically poorer neighbourhoods, thereby producing gentrification. The Thought Catalogue provocatively asked: ‘so what’s the harm in having an entire class of people represented by higher-class individuals in a mocking, insincere, ignorant celebration of blatantly prejudicial imagery, while completely disregarding the historical plight and cultural barriers that have kept the poor mired in poverty for centuries?’
This is an important question, but the sub-culture of the voluntary performance of poverty is by no means new. In the thirteenth century, Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone – St Francis – established a movement based on the voluntary performance of poverty. The legends of St Francis describe how Francis rejected the wealth and authority and theatrically renounced not just the money of his parents, but even the clothes that his parents had bought him. The Franciscan chroniclers describe how he stripped naked, donned a poor habit, and went on to live a life of voluntary poverty. According to Franciscan legends, Francis became homeless and would only wear what poor people wore and eat what poor people ate.
His behaviour inspired a number of followers who joined him in his performance of voluntary poverty, and the young group of ‘Franciscans’ burgeoned. In short, Francis was cool. This change in circumstances did not please Francis, and at one stage he even tried to leave his own group, putting another Franciscan, Elias of Cortona, in charge of the Order. Francis decided that the way in which the Franciscans had started living in his home town of Assisi was not radical enough. He left the town with his first companions and went up into the Umbrian hills to live in caves, in order to live a more radical form of poverty.
The actions of St Francis are strikingly similar to the contemporary hipster movement. One of the earliest Franciscan chroniclers, Thomas of Celano, summarised the Franciscan position in the thirteenth century, explaining that the Franciscans needed to keep moving in order to maintain their condition of voluntary poverty. This is reminiscent of the contemporary hipster movement which tends to move in waves; they ‘discover’ a new way to play at poverty and then move on when the phenomenon or place becomes too popular.
Like hipsters today, the Franciscans were not out to end poverty. Instead, they put poverty on a pedestal as an ideal state. Although Franciscans were concerned with sharing the plight of the poor, they did not necessarily help alleviate poverty, and may even have worsened the lot of the poor by competing for alms such as donations of daily bread.
However, for all their negative connotations, the historic re-occurrence of performances of homelessness and voluntary poverty also raises a number of interesting questions about man (or woman – there was also a female branch of the Franciscans known as the Poor Clares), and his or her relationship with society. These groups may not alleviate (and may even intensify) the lot of the poor, but they nonetheless contribute to the visibility of the poor, and challenge the assumption that the present state of the rich is the most favourable condition.
Julia McClure completed her PhD at the University of Sheffield and is a Max Weber Fellow at the EUI. You can follow her on Twitter: @DrJuliaMcClure
For an alternative take on the hipster, see @SarahL_Kenny’s History Matters article.
Cover image: Assisi, photograph from author.