medieval europe
Historical recreation of a European medieval town square market with crowds of people buying and trading spices imported from the middle east. Spice market in the middle ages with antique shops.
Painting licensed via Adobe Stock
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Homelessness in 16th Century England

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In July and August I wrote four columns about homelessness in ancient and medieval times. With Thanksgiving less than two weeks away it’s time to start explaining why the Pilgrims were ready to leave England and head to America. Much of the reason was theological, but economics also played a part.

Let’s start in the rocky century that preceded stepping onto Plymouth Rock. During Henry VIII’s reign (1509-1547) landowners enclosed acreage they had previously shared with poor plowmen and reapers. Against long-standing custom, they stocked their property with sheep to meet market demands for wool.

The result was reduced employment, more poverty, more homeless people (called “placeless” in those days. According to historian A. L. Beier, they “camped almost everywhere — in fields and farm buildings; in city streets and suburban hovels; even on the doorsteps of Parliament and the monarch’s court.”

The enclosure movement brought about wandering men and abandoned women, but it had big-picture financial justification. Historians Catharina Lis and Hugo Soly write that enclosure “undoubtedly favored economic growth in England by promoting changes in agrarian structure which brought along greater efficiency and specialization.”

That’s like free trade today, but here’s a consideration then and now: “These technological improvements were to the cost of small farmers and rural labourers…. the enclosure movement… turned many small farmers into beggars…. In all areas where a systemic shift from arable to pasture took place the demand for labour dropped drastically.”

What to do? The British government wandered back and forth. Parliament in 1531 said vagabonds should be whipped, with the disabled licensed to beg by local authorities. In 1536, able vagabonds should be forced to work, with homeowners not allowed to hand out coins: they were to donate for the disabled every week at church. A 1547 law was vicious: vagabonds should be enslaved for two years. Parliament soon reconsidered, and in 1550 reinstituted whipping.

What about the disabled? In 1552 they were not to beg: Instead, they would receive governmental welfare. In 1555 they were to beg, wearing government-instituted badges. In 1563 residents who did not donate for the disabled had to pay the equivalent in taxes. Then in 1572 Parliament repealed all the previous statutes and declared that the able homeless could become servants, and if they didn’t they would be whipped and have their ears burned.

Parliament in 1576 also said that the able would be put to work in county houses of correction unless they found other jobs. The unable-to-work poor could be on welfare, but officials would make “views and searches” to make sure they are truly needy. That law lasted until the end of the century, with a proviso that residents who did not pay their taxes to support the disabled would have their property seized.

Probably the best estimate of the number of “vagabonds” or “placeless” beggars in London — those were the common terms then — came in 1594 from Lord Mayor John Spenser: 12,000 in a total population of 200,000. Others estimated higher, but compare even Spenser’s number with the 80,000 New York City homeless in a population of eight million: Proportionally, London’s problem was six times worse.

Westminster is now a posh area of London, but in the 1580s it was home not only to Parliament and an abbey, but to “Rose Gawaine, a poor wench that lay in the street…. Elizabeth Whalley, a strumpet great with child and lying nightly abroad in the streets… Isabel Byrd, a poor diseased woman lying nightly in the streets,” and many others.)

Did anything work? Not really. Pamphleteer Phillip Stubbes in 1583 reported, “Thee poor lie in the streets upon pallets of straw, and well if they have that too, or else in the mire and dirt.”

It was good news that some Londoners took in the most desperate and received governmental compensation for their expenses: the equivalent of $20 today went “to Joyce Bradford for the taking into her house one Margaret Bateman, great with child.” Pastor John Downame capped the era of uncertainty by emphasizing, in The Plea of the Poore (1616), the need to see suffering close-up: “It would be a notable means to make us more compassionate, when as we should see their small provision, hungrie fare, thinne cloathes.”

Four years later, Pilgrims came to America. More about that next week.