reached when by the laws of Edward VI. and Elizabeth the “rogue, vagabond or sturdy beggar” was branded with an R on the shoulder and handed over as a bondman for a period to any one who would take him. On the other hand, it was desired that relief should be a means of preventing migration. In any time of general pressure there is a desire to organize mendicity, to prevent the wandering of beggars, to create a kind of settled poor, distinguished from the rest as infirm and not able-bodied, and to keep these at least at home sufficiently supported by local and parochial relief; and this, in its simpler form all the world over, has in the past been by response to public begging. The argument may be summed up thus: We cannot have begging, which implies that the beggar is cared for by no one, belongs to no one, and therefore throws himself on the world at large. Therefore, if he is able-bodied he must be punished as unsocial, for it is his fault that he belongs to no one; or we must make him some one’s dependant, and so keep him; or if he is infirm, and therefore of no service to any one—if no one will keep him—we must organize his mendicity, for such mendicity is justified. If he cannot dig for the man to whom he does or should belong, he must beg. Then out of the failure to organize mendicity—for relief of itself is no remedy, least of all casual relief—a poor-law springs up, which, afterwards associated with the provision of employment, will, it is hoped, make relief in some measure remedial by increasing its quantity by means of compulsory levies. This argument, which combined statutory wage control and statutory poor relief, seems to have been firmly bedded in the English legislative mind for more than two centuries, from 1351 till after 1600; and until 1834 these two series of laws effectually reduced the English labourer to a new industrial dependence. To people imbued with ideas of feudalism the way of escape from villenage seemed to be not independence, but a new reversion to it.
Many elements produced the social and economic catastrophe of the 16th century, for the condition into which the country fell can hardly be considered less than a catastrophe. With the growing independence of the people there was created after the 13thThe decadence. century an unsettled “masterless” class, a residue of failure resulting from social changes, which was large and important enough to call for legislation. In the 15th century, “the golden age of the English labourer,” the towns increased and flourished. Both town and country did well. At the end of the century came the decadence. The measure of the strain, when perhaps it had reached its lowest level, is indicated by the following comparison: “The cost of a peasant’s family of four in the early part of the 14th century was £3:4:9; after 1540 it was £8” (Rogers, Hist, of Agric. and Prices, iv. 756).
The cause of this has now been fairly investigated. The value of land in the 13th century generally depended chiefly on “the head of labour” retained upon it. Its fertility depended on mainoeuvre (manure). To keep labour upon it was therefore the aim of the lord or owner. The enclosing of lands for sheep began early, and in the time of Edward III., in the great days of the woolstaple, must have been extensive. So long as the demand for the exportation of wool, and then for its consumption at home in the cloth trade, continued, the towns prospered, and the enclosures did not become a grievance. Even before the reign of Henry VII., with the decay of trade, the towns decayed, and their population in some cases diminished extraordinarily. This reacted on the country, where the great families had already become impoverished, and were hardly able to support their retainers. In Henry VIII.’s time the lands of the religious houses were confiscated. Worked on old lines, the custom of tillage remained in force on them. Accordingly, when these estates fell into private hands they were transferred subject to the condition that they should be tilled as heretofore. The condition was evaded by the new owners, and the disbandment of farm labourers went on apace. In England and Wales these changes, it is said, affected a third of the country, more than 12,000,000 acres, if the estimates be correct, or rather a third of the best land in the kingdom. With towns decaying, the effect of this must have been terrible. What were really “latifundia” were created, “great landes,” “enclosures of a mile or two or thereabouts ... destroying thereby not only the farms and cottages within the same circuits, but also the towns and villages adjoining.” A herdsman and his wife took the place of eighteen to twenty-four farm hands. The people thus set wandering could only join the wanderers from the decaying towns. At the same time the economic difficulty was aggravated by a new patrician or commercial greed; and once more the land question—the absorption of property into a few hands instead of its free exchange—led to lasting social demoralization. A few years after the alienation of the monasteries the coinage (1543) was debased. By this means prices were arbitrarily raised, and wages were increased nominally; but nevertheless the price of necessaries was “so enhanced” that neither “the poor labourers can live with their wages that is limited by your grace’s laws, nor the artificers can make, much less sell, their wares at any reasonable price” (Lamond, The Commonweal of this Realm of England, p. xlvii). No social reformation, such as the charitable instincts of Wycliffe, More, Hales, Latimer and other men suggested, was attempted, or at least persistently carried out. In towns the organization of labour had become restrictive, exclusive and inadaptable, or, judged from the moral standpoint, uncharitable. There had been a time of plenty and extravagance, of which in high quarters the famous “field of the cloth of gold” was typical; and probably, in accordance with the frequently observed law of social economics, as the advance in wages and their purchasing power in the earlier part of the 15th century had not been accompanied by a simultaneous advance in self-discipline and intelligent expenditure, it resulted in part in lessened competence and industrial ability on the part of the workmen, and thus in the end produced pauperism.
The poverty of the country was very great in the reigns of Edward VI. and Elizabeth. Adversity then taught the people new manners, and households became more simple and thrifty. In the reign of James I., with enforced economy and thrift, a “slow but substantial improvement in agriculture” took place, and a new growth of commercial enterprise. The vigour of the municipalities had abated, so that in Henry VIII.’s time they had become the very humble servants of the government; and the government, on the other hand, had become strongly centralized—in itself a sign of the general withdrawal of self-sustaining activity in all administration, in the administration of charitable relief no less than in other departments. A system of endowed charities had been built up, supported chiefly by rents from landed property. These now had disappeared, and thus the means of relief, which Edward VI. and Queen Elizabeth might have utilized at a time of general distress, had been dissipated by the acts of their predecessors. The civil independence of the monasteries and religious houses might have been justified, possibly, when they were engaged in missionary work and were instilling into the people the precepts of a higher moral law than that which was in force around them. But afterwards, as the ability and intelligence of the community increased, their privileges became more and more antagonistic to charity, and tended to create a non-social and even anti-social ecclesiastical democracy actuated by aims and interests in which the general good of the people had little or no place. There was a growing alienation between religious tradition and secular opinion, as Lollardism slowly permeated the thought of the people and led the way to the Reformation. While this alienation existed no national system of charity, civic and yet religious, could be created. But worse than all, the ideal of charity had been degraded. A self-regarding system of relief had superseded charity, and it was productive of nothing but alms, large or small, isolated and unmethodic, given with a wrong bias, and thus almost inevitably with evil results. Out of this could spring no vigorous co-operative charity. Charity—not relief—indeed seemed to have left the world. The larger issues were overlooked. Then the property of the hospitals and the gilds was wantonly confiscated, though the poor had already lost that share in the revenues of the church to which at one time they were admitted to have a just claim. A new beginning had to be made. The obligations of charity had to be revived. A new organization of charitable relief had to be created, and that with an empty exchequer and after a vast waste of charitable resources. There were signs of a new congregational and parochial energy, yet the task could not be entrusted to the religious bodies, divided and disunited as they were. In their stead it could be imposed only on some authority which represented the general community, such as municipalities; and in spite of the centralization of the government there seemed some hope of creating a system of relief in connexion with them. They were tried, and, very naturally, failed. In the poverty of the time it seemed that the poor could be relieved only by a