Golden lion in inner court of Hampton Court, London
Golden lion in inner court of Hampton Court, London
Fix Homelessness How to rebuild human lives

Homelessness in 16th Century England, Pt. 2

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Two weeks ago I wrote about English homeless policy during the century before the Pilgrims voyaged to America. Here’s a little more examination of what we can learn from that period, starting in 1531 with the way Sir Thomas Elyot, an English diplomat, peered at homeless people through a coach window.

Elyot reacted like some of us respond to those holding at spotlights signs requesting cash: He called them “beasts brute and savage.” Pamphleteer Philip Stubbes countered with a compassionate approach: “God commandeth in his law that there be no miserable poor man, nor begger amongest us, but that everyone be provided for and maintained of that abundance which God hath blessed us withal.”

Stubbes scoffed at the stingy: “We thinke it a great matter if we geve them an old ragged coate …or els a penny or two… we thinke we are halfe way to heaven, and we need to do no more.” Those who were well off had a particularly hard time discerning what to do when they encountered the mentally ill.

Some were sympathetic to the “lunatic vagrants… wandering without money, over many wide countries, without understanding, but with no evil intent.” St. Mary of Bethlehem was the major English lunatic asylum in late medieval times, and the slang term for a man released or escaped from Bethlehem was a “Tom O’Bedlam men.”

Other terms for the homeless: “vagabond” or “cursetor.” Publications such as Highway to the Spital-house (1536) and Manifest Detection of the Most Vile and Detestable Use of Dice-Play (1555) referred to “demanders for glimmer” (homeless people who pretended their houses had burned down) and “walking morts” (a prostitute whose services might be deadly).

“Russlers” were thieves (the word eventually migrated to the American frontier) and “doxies” were homeless women. Use those words in a sentence? Sure: “The russler spent the winter night in a brick kiln with his doxy.” (Some of the usages surprised me. I thought “hooker” became popular during the U.S. Civil War when Union general Joe Hooker has a fondness for prostitutes, but in 1500s England “hookers” were those who stole shirts and pants by pulling them through an open window with a hooked stick.”)

Thoughtful analysts said the way to reduce future homelessness was to make sure children learned a trade and adults had job opportunities. Some churches set up schools for the poor. Some cities created new textile industries to enhance levels of employment.

All that, though, was long range. In the short run, authorities emphasized distinguishing those truly in need from “sturdy beggars” capable of work. That was doable when donors had personal knowledge of those looking for handouts. For example, homeowner John Groos had no doubt that an Alice who had “lost hir sight and is blynd” deserved shillings for “mete and drynk.” But it was hard to know about others, so London officials in 1517 distributed to the helpless homeless specially-made tokens: “metal of pure white tinne… to be sette upon their right shoulders…openly to be seene,”

Salisbury officials had similar thoughts: they handed out blue caps to homeless people they certified as legitimate, and argued by such measures “the cittie will be well cleansed of beggers, Rogues and idell people.” But in 1587 one resident, John Howes, called the measure unproductive: “The shame of this badge will make somme kept in,” instead of walking outside where they could receive alms to which they were entitled.

Some demanded harsher treatment. Henry VIII in 1531 said any sturdy homeless person who begged when he could have worked will be “stripped naked, from the privey partes of their bodies upwarde (men and women of great age or sexe, and women with childe onely excepted) and being so naked, to be bounden, and sharpely beaten and skourged.”

Second offenses brought harsher beatings so others would know “by the tokens on his body that he hath ben alredy scourged.” In 1604 a third strike might mean cruel branding “in the left sholder with a hot burning iron…. the letter ‘R’ … a perpetual mark upon such Rogue during his or her life.” In 1607, 1620, and thereafter, the homeless had an alternative: Go to America.