A Description of Elizabethan England. The Harvard Classics. 190914.
Of Provision Made for the Poor
[1577, Book III., Chapter 5; 1587, Book II., Chapter 10.]
THERE is no commonwealth at this day in Europe wherein there is not great store of poor people, and those necessarily to be relieved by the wealthier sort, which otherwise would starve and come to utter confusion. With us the poor is commonly divided into thr e sorts, so that some are poor by impotence, as the fatherless child, the aged, blind, and lame, and the diseased person that is judged to be incurable; the second are poor by casualty, as the wounded soldier, the decayed householder, and the sick person visited with grievous and painful diseases; the third consisteth of thriftless poor, as the rioter that hath consumed all, the vagabond that will abide nowhere, but runneth up and down from place to place (as it were seeking work and finding none), and finally the rogue and the strumpet, which are not possible to be divided in sunder, but run to and fro over all the realm, chiefly keeping the champaign soils in summer to avoid the scorching heat, and the woodland grounds in winter to eschew the blustering winds.
For the first two sorts (that is to say, the poor by impotence and poor by casualty, which are the true poor indeed, and for whom the Word doth bind us to make some daily provision), there is order taken throughout every parish in the realm that weekly collection shall be made for their help and sustentionto the end they shall not scatter abroad, and, by begging here and there, annoy both town and country. Authority also is given unto the justices in every county (and great penalties appointed for such as make default) to see that the intent of the statute in this behalf be truly executed according to the purpose and meaning of the same, so that these two sorts are sufficiently provided for; and such as can live within the limits of their allowance (as each one will do that is godly and well disposed) may well forbear to roam and range about. But if they refuse to be supported by this benefit of the law, and will rather endeavour by going to and fro to maintain their idle trades, then are they adjudged to be parcel of the third sort, and so, instead of courteous refreshing at home, are often corrected with sharp execution and whip of justice abroad. Many there are which, notwithstanding the rigour of the laws provided in that behalf, yield rather with this liberty (as they call it) to be daily under the fear and terror of the whip than, by abiding where they were born or bred, to be provided for by the devotion of the parishes. I found not long since a note of these latter sort, the effect whereof ensueth. Idle beggars are such either through other mens occasion or through their own defaultby other mens occasion (as one way for example) when some covetous man (such, I mean, as have the cast or right vein daily to make beggars enough whereby to pester the land, espying a further commodity in their commons, holds, and tenures) doth find such means as thereby to wipe many out of their occupyings and turn the same unto his private gains.1 Hereupon it followeth that, although the wise and better-minded do either forsake the realm for altogether, and seek to live in other countries, as France, Germany, Barbary, India, Muscovia, and very Calcutta, complaining of no room to be left for them at home, do so behave themselves that they are worthily to be accounted among the second sort, yet the greater part, commonly having nothing to stay upon, are wilful, and thereupon do either prove idle beggars or else continue stark thieves till the gallows do eat them up, which is a lamentable case. Certes in some mens judgment these things are but trifles, and not worthy the regarding. Some also do grudge at the great increase of people in these days, thinking a necessary brood of cattle far better than a superfluous augmentation of mankind. But I can liken such men best of all unto the pope and the devil, who practise the hindrance of the furniture of the number of the elect to their uttermost, to the end the authority of the one upon the earth, the deferring of the locking up of the other in everlasting chains, and the great gains of the first, may continue and endure the longer. But if it should come to pass that any foreign invasion should be madewhich the Lord God forbid for his mercies sake!then should these men find that a wall of men is far better than stacks of corn and bags of money, and complain of the want when it is too late to seek remedy. The like occasion caused the Romans to devise their law Agraria: but the rich, not liking of it, and the covetous, utterly condemning it as rigorous and unprofitable, never ceased to practise disturbance till it was quite abolished. But to proceed with my purpose.
Such as are idle beggars through their own default are of two sorts, and continue their estates either by casual or mere voluntary means: those that are such by casual means are in the beginning justly to be referred either to the first or second sort of poor afore-mentioned, but, degenerating into the thriftless sort, they do what they can to continue their misery, and, with such impediments as they have, to stray and wander about, as creatures abhorring all labour and every honest exercise. Certes I call these casual means, not in the respect of the original of all poverty, but of the continuance of the same, from whence they will not be delivered, such is their own ungracious lewdness and froward disposition. The voluntary means proceed from outward causes, as by making of corrosives, and applying the same to the more fleshy parts of their bodies, and also laying of ratsbane, spearwort, crowfoot, and such like unto their whole members, thereby to raise pitiful and odious sores, and move the hearts of the goers-by such places where they lie, to yearn at their misery, and thereupon bestow large alms upon them. How artificially they beg, what forcible speech, and how they select and choose out words of vehemence, whereby they do in manner conjure or adjure the goer-by to pity their cases, I pass over to remember, as judging the name of God and Christ to be more conversant in the mouths of none and yet the presence of the Heavenly Majesty further off from no men than from this ungracious company. Which maketh me to think that punishment is far meeter for them than liberality or alms, and sith Christ willeth us chiefly to have a regard to Himself and his poor members.
Unto this nest is another sort to be referred, more sturdy than the rest, which, having sound and perfect limbs, do yet notwithstanding sometime counterfeit the possession of all sorts of diseases. Divers times in their apparel also they will be like serving men or labourers: oftentimes they can play the mariners, and seek for ships which they never lost. But in fine they are all thieves and caterpillars in the commonwealth, and by the Word of God not permitted to eat, sith they do but lick the sweat from the true labourers brows, and bereave the godly poor of that which is due unto them, to maintain their excess, consuming the charity of well-disposed people bestowed upon them, after a most wicked and detestable manner.
It is not yet full threescore years since this trade began: but how it hath prospered since that time it is easy to judge, for they are now supposed, of one sex and another, to amount unto above 10,000 persons, as I have heard reported. Moreover, in counterfeiting the Egyptian rogues, they have devised a language among themselves, which they name Canting, but others, pedlers French, a speech compact thirty years since, of English and a great number of odd words of their own devising, without all order or reason, and yet such is it as none but themselves are able to understand. The first deviser thereof was hanged by the necka just reward, no doubt, for his deserts, and a common end to all of that profession.
A gentleman also of late hath taken great pains to search out the secret practices of this ungracious rabble. And among other things he setteth down and describeth three and twenty sorts of them, whose names it shall not be amiss to remember whereby each one may take occasion to read and know as also by his industry what wicked people they are, and what villainy remaineth in them.
The several disorders and degrees amongst our idle vagabonds.
The punishment that is ordained for this kind of people is very sharp, and yet it cannot restrain them from their gadding: wherefore the end must needs be martial law,2 to be exercised upon them, as upon thieves, robbers, despisers of all laws, and enemies to the commonwealth and welfare of the land. What notable robberies, pilferies, murders, rapes, and stealings of young children, burning, breaking, and disfiguring their limbs to make them pitiful in the sight of the people, I need not to rehearse; but for their idle rogueing about the country, the law ordaineth this manner of correction. The rogue being apprehended, committed to prison, and tried in the next assizes (whether they be of gaol delivery or sessions of the peace), if he happen to be convicted for a vagabond, either by inquest of office or the testimony of two honest and credible witnesses upon their oaths, he is then immediately adjudged to be grievously whipped and burned through the gristle of the right ear with a hot iron of the compass of an inch about, as a manifestation of his wicked life, and due punishment received for the same. And this judgment is to be executed upon him except some honest person worth five pounds in the queens books in goods, or twenty shillings in land, or some rich householder to be allowed by the justices, will be bound in recognisance to retain him in his service for one whole year. If he be taken the second time, and proved to have forsaken his said service, he shall then be whipped again, bored likewise through the other ear, and set to service: from whence if he depart before a year be expired, and happen afterwards to be attached again, he is condemned to suffer pains of death as a felon (except before excepted) without benefit of clergy or sanctuary, as by the statute doth appear. Among rogues and idle persons, finally, we find to be comprised all proctors that go up and down with counterfeit licences, cozeners, and such as gad about the country, using unlawful games, practisers of physiognomy and palmestry, tellers of fortunes, fencers, players, minstrels, jugglers, pedlers, tinkers, pretended scholars, shipmen, prisoners gathering for fees, and others so oft as they be taken without sufficient licence. From among which company our bearwards are not excepted, and just cause: for I have read that they have, either voluntarily or for want of power to master their savage beasts, been occasion of the death and devouration of many children in sundry countries by which they have passed, whose parents never knew what was become of them. And for that cause there is and have been many sharp laws made for bearwards in Germany, whereof you may read in other. But to our rogues. Each one also that harboureth or aideth them with meat or money is taxed and compelled to fine with the queens majesty for every time that he doth succour them as it shall please the justices of peace to assign, so that the taxation exceed not twenty, as I have been informed. And thus much of the poor and such provision as is appointed for them within the realm of England.