How the Poor were treated in Elizabethan society

  1. Brian G Turner

    Brian G Turner He's a very naughty boy! Staff Member

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    Ann Swinfen recently posted about what her research into Elizabethan society - specifically, how were treated:

    Researching the Elizabethan Poor - Ann Swinfen

    Some interesting coverage, and especially the distinctions between the inform and "sturdy poor". And, additionally, the impact of the dissolution
     
  2. sknox

    sknox Well-Known Member

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    It's a good article. I would add that Elizabethan England was a period of extreme economic dislocation (Henry Kamen called it the Iron Century, 1550-1650), so what you're seeing there is an extreme. There is plenty of evidence that conditions were less harsh during the Middle Ages. In lots of ways, early modern Europe was a much grimmer place than was medieval Europe. Just as an example, the reason why beggars were being sent back to their parish (this was peculiar to England, btw) was because traditionally the parish could and did take care of their own poor. Part of the argument on the part of the reformers was that the parishes were partly to blame, not just the beggars. The law was forcing the parishes to take up their traditional responsibility. Of course, the law was utterly oblivious to the fact that the parishes were as hard-hit as anyone and for the most part could not take care of their own. We aren't yet to the point where people thought poverty was also the responsibility of a central government.

    The poor suffered differently on the Continent. For those interested, there's quite a large literature on poverty, the "common good" and the development of the community chest in Reformation towns.
     
  3. Dave

    Dave Wherever I Am, I'm There Staff Member

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    Brian, I'm unable to discuss this because of current forum restrictions discussing politics, but very little has changed in 500 years in the views of the 'haves' of the 'have nots.' You only need to read Twitter or letters pages of Newspapers. The very idea that the poor and the sick are poor and sick because it is their own fault, has returned. Even the UN has reported "grave" disability rights violations under recent UK reforms.

    Unlike today, every person then knew their place in the social order, The Tree of Commonwealth, and everyone had a place. If you read Richard Gough's account of parishioners of Myddle in Shropshire in 1701 he presents their social order positions based upon the position of their pews in the local church seating plan. Gentry at the front, cottagers at the rear. Terms of "sort" were used - the "common sort" or "meaner sort" as opposed to the "better sort" or "good sort."* Only later did a "middling sort" appear as social mobility increased as a result of new money, not based upon the possession of land, but upon commerce and trade and industry. (This shouldn't be confused with middle class though, which is a Victorian invention.)

    Those who couldn't support themselves were just thought of as a great inconvenience. They often weren't even counted in official figures. However, the idea that it is a new idea that the state should support the old and infirm rather than family, is debatable with plenty of evidence either way.

    *Read Keith Wrightson "Sorts of people in Tudor and Stuart England." I would also recommend his Yale lecture series available free from iTunes University.
     
  4. DelActivisto

    DelActivisto Hey I'm Mary Poppins, ya'll!

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    An interesting read. In many ways, quite similar to conditions seen today. It relates to another issue, that perceptions can be skewed, which leads to ignorance, which leads to intolerance. There's also evidence that Britain sent the poor and needy over to American colonies so that they no longer had to deal with them. It was a way to hopefully get them a job and support the motherland... the social elite was more than happy, for the most part, to stay home.

    Reality informs fiction. Fiction informs reality.
     
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  5. Foxbat

    Foxbat None The Wiser

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    It was even worse for the poor in Japan. The lowest group were the hinin (non-human or outcast). These people were treated extremely harshly and one account I read recently talks of the hinin being burnt to prevent the spread of disease. This was done whether they were dead or alive.
     
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  6. Montero

    Montero Senior Member

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    One of the encouraging things in the article was the training offered via Christ's Hospital. Drop in the ocean, but a constructive idea.

    Something not mentioned was that sometimes the rich of a parish would set up a brewery and use part of the profits to pay for the Poor Law requirements. (And part for profit). Which does then make me wonder about whether that put a few ale wives out of business.........

    Another Elizabethan period law was one limiting new houses/homesteads (which was semi-enforced). Basically the powers that be had noticed how yeoman (8 acres or more) were well fed strapping lads who made good soldiers, so they wanted more yeoman. So they passed laws saying you couldn't create a new holding that was smaller than 8 acres. Which outlawed people from putting up a little hut on a bit of waste land. (Also the parish didn't really want another house at the poor end of the scale.)

    Also wondering whether the practice of having letters of recommendation/introduction was around at this point. If you had a letter on you extolling your good character and working ability, would that see off the punishment? The article is interesting but I'd like to know a lot more on the workings of the system.
     
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  7. DelActivisto

    DelActivisto Hey I'm Mary Poppins, ya'll!

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    Your post helps highlight how we tend to, subconsciously and otherwise, reward the already privileged. There is something in our minds, possibly extending back to the tribal days when chiefs led their tribe around the countryside, told people what to do and people were largely happy with this arrangement. But it extends further and causes us to believe, automatically, that there's something wrong with people who are poor/less privileged, and that those who are privileged in some way, deserve it.

    That could be part of the reason why people tend to dislike people who've recently become accomplished in some way. The already accomplished find it annoying, and often seem to feel their new peer did it in a somehow less admirable manner, even though odds are good that their privilege is not entirely the result of honorable actions, either. And the accomplished person's previous peers now dislike him because to them, he now reinforces the idea that there's something wrong with them.

    We're very much surface analysts, most of us, and only rarely dig beneath.

    The Indian (country of India) caste system was pretty wretched as well. The lowest class was the "untouchables," known as another Indian-sounding name that I can't think of. They couldn't be touched by any other caste and were responsible for the lowest of tasks, such as hauling animal carcasses, cleaning latrines and man other highly mundane, repetitious, and grueling tasks. And it was by birth, which would seem to be the great injustice of the system. Whereas western philosophy tended to believe in not punishing children for what their parents did, this system did exactly that.

    Simply by indecent of who your parents were, you could be an untouchable, or a wealthy priest with lots of power and money.

    Wait, have we actually gotten past that system yet in actuality? Hmm...
     
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  8. Montero

    Montero Senior Member

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    Um. I really don't understand how my post highlights what you said it does. Could you expand?
     
  9. DelActivisto

    DelActivisto Hey I'm Mary Poppins, ya'll!

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    Now I can't remember. What probably happened was something you said triggered my thoughts, and so I made the connection in my post without there actually being one.
     
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  10. Montero

    Montero Senior Member

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    OK, thanks, you did have me rather puzzled.
     
  11. sknox

    sknox Well-Known Member

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    Isn't this part of larger trends that wound up putting a lot of cottagers off their property? A cottager (don't know if this is specifically England) was someone who had a house, but either little or no land. They worked for others. If that was taken away from them, they became homeless and would look for work elsewhere. It's been a long time since I did any English social history.

    Montero, or anyone, can you shed light on that?
     
  12. The Judge

    The Judge Truth. Order. Moderation. Staff Member

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    Are you thinking of enclosures, which really took off in the C17th and C18th? They did result in a lot of common land, which -- as the name suggests -- were used in common by the villagers, being subsumed into greater estates and enclosed, arguably for the benefit of agriculture generally and economies of scale etc, but certainly for the benefit of the landowners. Not only did it throw a lot of people off the land if they had put cottages up on or near it, but it also deprived the other villagers of somewhere to pasture their animals. I've not studied it, so Dave will be able to correct me if I've got it wrong, but I think the various Enclosure Acts (an Act of Parliament was necessary for the enclosures, ie for each one or at least group) required alternative land to be made available for the villagers, but if it was done, the new land was usually of inferior quality and/or not so accessible.

    The enclosures were bitterly unpopular, hence the rhyme (from memory, so might not be 100%) -- They hang the man and flog the woman/Who steals the goose from off the common/But let the greater villain loose/Who steals the common from the goose.


    As to the treatment of the poor, in one respect a greater sense of religiosity might have helped the poorest before the Reformation, since it was obvious that God had put everyone in their station in life -- a man was poor because God had seen fit to make him so, and therefore in a sense it wasn't his fault. Protestantism rather skewed that in a way I don't think earlier Catholicism did, since evidently God must have had a reason to punish someone by making him poor, so it was his fault, albeit indirectly. Of course, though, the "God put you there" argument meant that anyone who did strive to better himself was not only elevating himself above his neighbours but also attempting to thwart God's will.
     
    Last edited: Sep 10, 2017
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  13. sknox

    sknox Well-Known Member

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    Thanks, Judge. No, I wasn't thinking enclosures, which dispossessed even the Sturdy Yeoman, but rather was wondering if that minimum property size did not leave cottagers vulnerable. Not a big deal.

    The question of the effect of reform ideas on social structures is much debated, as I'm sure you know. To put a weight on the other side of the scale, the reformers were also responsible for the development of the community chest. Once they had removed the poor relief provided by the Catholic Church, towns (which now had Protestant councilors) quickly developed their own poor relief, under the general rubric of the Gemeindenuetz (commonwealth). I've always viewed that as the first step toward public welfare systems, though it was more of a precedent that a clear lineal ancestor.
     
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  14. Dave

    Dave Wherever I Am, I'm There Staff Member

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    I agree with what has been said, except that very few people owned any land. Land was owned by the Church and by Lords. There was common land with grazing rights, and some people were entitled to farm too. Before crop rotation you didn't have a plot, you just had a strip or part of a strip next to everyone else. You grew what you needed and to be entitled to farm that land your also grew on behalf of the Lord in his own strips. You wouldn't have anything left over to sell, so money never entered into it. However, the soil became unproductive with that intensive farming without any rest. Crop rotation between different fields allowed much higher productivity but it saw an end to that old system.

    There are lots of reasons for the increase in poverty. There was an enormous population explosion that started around the 1600's. After the Black Death, there had actually been a shortage of people. Some farms fell into disuse back then because there was no one left to work them. After that the population had stagnated. Now crop rotation and other modern agricultural practises like using lime and fertiliser increased productivity, so there was more food, but those bigger farms didn't require as many agricultural workers (though in perspective, people working in agriculture was still huge compared to today.) Those people without work went to the towns and worked in industries, which in turn drove the industrial revolution.
     
  15. Wiglaf

    Wiglaf Well-Known Member

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    What happened to the third and fourth sons of the yeomen? Under James, the elder sons got the first parcels, but after a few sons you ran out of hundreds. The solution was to kill some natives, chop some trees, and create a new plot. What did they do a generation earlier without a continent to plunder?
     
  16. Dave

    Dave Wherever I Am, I'm There Staff Member

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    One joined the Army, another became a priest. :)
     
  17. Montero

    Montero Senior Member

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    @Wiglaf They were busy settling Ireland trying to turn it Protestant - that was the key place for colonisation at that period much more so than the Americas.
    I was told for social background on the English Civil War in 1642, that if someone of that period referred to the colonies, they meant Ireland not Virginia. One of the triggers for the English Civil War was Irish uprisings - the King wanted troops to sort that out, asked Parliament for the money to pay for them, they didn't trust him not to turn the army on his enemies at home.
    They could also be off with Raleigh and Drake, plundering Spanish possessions and merchantmen.

    And then there was the eighty years war Eighty Years' War - Wikipedia
    A lot of English went off to fight for the Protestant cause and money. They provided professional backbone to the armies of both sides in the English Civil War.
    And later than the Elizabethan period, starting in 1618, there was also the Thirty Years' War - Wikipedia

    Busy, busy, busy.
     
    Last edited: Sep 11, 2017
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