A great many factors other than philanthropy influenced social policy in pre-Reformation England. Although political thinkers steadfastly acknowledged the importance of received tradition, especially the religious command to help the poor, many lawmakers were profoundly ambivalent about begging. Seen individually, beggars were pathetic and vulnerable, but if viewed collectively they were thought to be dangerous and willfully idle. Parliament's decision to regulate begging in the years after the first appearance of the Black Death (1349–50) compelled the king's subjects to rethink the claims of the needy, even though alms-giving had long seemed a positive aspect of community life. Obviously, by the close of the fourteenth century something had happened to broaden the story of casual relief, extending its boundaries beyond religious impulse to include the frustrations and passions that animated the political arena. Here contentious voices sounded, although parliamentary argument and debate were often tempered by the conviction that men of affairs could legislate a more orderly realm. Even so, efforts at social planning were by no means limited to statutory decree or confined to the late medieval world. In a certain sense, the design of social welfare was remarkably dependent on history. The options ordinary people had for a secure future were affected not only by how hard or long they worked but by historical events and circumstances. In a world where the vagaries of fate and nature could irrevocably alter the plans of many families, the sudden outbreak of pestilence or war left an imprint so profound as to require commentators to discuss poor relief in a way that reflected the conditions and needs of their times. Of course, periods of economic stress were just as much a concern to administrators and lords as to social critics, although none kept records noting the number of beggars living in villages and towns. The lack of census information notwithstanding, extant material about begging, alms-giving, and social policy is fairly detailed for the medieval world.
An etiquette for bringing beggars into the company of benefactors gradually evolved from the conventions and rituals of communal life. Organized religion led the way, and nowhere were beggars received with greater ceremony than at abbeys and monastic houses. Following a tradition centuries old, monks observed and re-created rituals that involved beggars in a small way in the communal life of the monastery. During Lent the religious services of Passion Week included the "Maundy of the poor," a ceremony commemorating the Last Supper at which Christ had washed his apostles' feet. By the tenth century, Benedictine communities marked the occasion with solemn song and prayer, assembling a group of poor men in precincts so that "each monk shall wash," kiss, or "touch with his forehead" the feet of a pauper. After the pedilavium, the brethren kissed the hands of the poor and gave them alms of food or small coins. When Lanfranc wrote his monastic constitutions in the eleventh century, he eloquently conveyed the sense of humility the Maundy evoked. "After Mass," Lanfranc noted, senior monks led younger brethren through the cloister and "in order of seniority" all stood before the beggars "allotted to them"; then, at a signal from the prior, the monks genuflected, bowed, and adored Christ in the poor (Knowles 1951: 32). When, in their daily liturgies, monastic houses adopted a simpler Maundy, the Regularis Concordia urged the brethren to include in the rite "three poor men" selected from those who are supported by the monastery: "and let the same food" which the brethren enjoy that day "be given to them" (Symons 1953: 39).If the customs of monasteries affirmed the place of paupers in Lenten rituals, so did the behaviour of bishop-monks. A prelate much involved in public affairs, Oswald Archbishop of
York(d. 992), spent his last days in Worcester, where every morning in Lent he washed the feet of 12 impoverished men, then humbly served them breakfast. A distant successor to his see, Wulfstan of Worcester (d. 1095) believed he honoured God most when he fed beggars and included paupers in his observations of Lent. On a Maundy Thursday, not long before his death, Wulfstan "told each of his reeves to provide from each of his manors full raiment for one man, shoes for ten men, and food for a hundred" (Farmer 1967: 173). Three times on that day he welcomed into the great hall so many poor people, a chronicler observed, that there was little room to move about; clerics and monks busied themselves washing the feet of the bishop's "guests," giving away clothes and distributing alms of money and shoes (Darlington 1928: 57–59). What dutiful bishops required of themselves, they expected of their peers; all must honour the rites of Lent by personally serving the poor. Although proud men might complain, snobbishly saying as Joinville did to his king, "never will I wash the feet of such peasants," the ritualized alms-giving of the monastic maundy reappeared under various guises in the secular world (Evans 1938: 8).Beyond the cloister, the rituals of giving had a temporal as well as a spiritual rhythm that by the 1200s regularly brought donors into contact with beggars. At Knaresborough in 1210, and Rochesterin 1213, England's King John solemnly commemorated the "Lord's Supper," giving 13 pence to each of 13 paupers (Johnstone 1929: 153; Kellet 1990). In later years pious ladies participated in the rite, though few enjoyed the stature of Eleanor of Castile, Edward I's queen, who observed Maundy Thursday by giving alms to 13 poor people and humbly washing their feet. Neither lords nor ladies thought it unusual to limit their alms to a symbolic number of paupers. While the number 13 called to memory the life of Christ and the 12 apostles, benefactors spoke too of honouring the 3 persons of the Trinity, the 5 joys of the Blessed Mary, the 5 wounds of Christ, the 7 works of mercy (Sharpe 1889, 2:275; see also Testamenta Eboracensia 1902 : 238). Of course in the world of kings, temporal criteria played a part as well. To honour his son's 14th birthday, Edward I fed fourteen hundred needy folk; and in 1300, when the younger Edward turned 17, his father marked the occasion with alms to seventeen hundred people. Later monarchs utilized the familiar standard of their own age, as did Edward III, who distributed shoes to 50 poor men in 1361 to celebrate his 50th birthday (Kellet 1990: 38).Gift giving was so much a part of medieval ceremonial life that the charity of kings and commoners inevitably came to be measured and symbolized by their manner of dispensing alms and sharing food with the poor. Aristocratic and royal families traditionally distributed food at New Year (feast of the Circumcision), Easter, and Christmas, all long-established feast days that included worship and prayer as well as banquets that celebrated the pride and bounty of noble households. While honoured guests were warmly welcomed, the humble awaited meals out of doors. Yet sharing food with beggars in such a manner was seldom an empty gesture. By the fourteenth century, an elaborate code of conduct governed the protocol of noble banquets, requiring lords and ladies to pause between courses and place bread and meat in an alms dish to feed people in need (Halliwell 1965 : 3, 28; Chambers (1937 ): 12–13; Furnivall 1868: 322–26). Great merchant companies followed this custom as well and at banquets offered the beggars who gathered outside of halls the "residue" of communal feasts (Walford 1879: 192–200). In villages and towns at the annual celebrations of parish gilds, members usually did more, not only sharing food with beggars but also openly including paupers as guests at festive meals.Equally noticeable but more often remarked upon was the presence of beggars at funerals and memorial rites. Whether services were held in cathedrals or parish churches, the bereaved often distributed funerary doles, inviting the poor to join families and friends in honouring and burying the dead. The grander the funeral, the more bountiful the alms-giving and the more frequently that mourners arranged for paupers to stand by the bier, each holding a torch and solemnly clad in black or white, men as well as women, praying for the soul of the deceased. Medieval death was so seldom private that even the funerals of obscure villagers attracted beggars to rural cemeteries and churches; and in few places were poor mourners unexpected. Bereaved families tolerated beggars at funerals, believing as the clergy did that the poor played a part, indeed a crucial part, in bearing witness to the almsgiving that spared the dead from eternal unrest.Whether at funerals or celebratory feasts, the ritualized charity of the medieval world involved benefactors from all walks of life. Few, if any, disputed the obligation to give, although many wondered how to behave when resources were insufficient to help all those in need. The religious command to "do good" by helping the poor reflected a way of thinking that went back to the Church Fathers—to John Chrysostom, Augustine, and Ambrose—but still posed problems for benefactors of limited means. In the world of the fifth century, religious thinkers had devised guidelines for almsgiving that canon lawyers cited in the twelfth century and that spokesmen for the English church repeated with slight variation until the fourteenth century. In keeping with the admonition of Decretists in the 1140s, that "we should not show our liberality" indiscriminately to all who beg, ecclesiastical authorities counselled benefactors to practice discretion, looking to whom they might benefit and giving "to the good not to the shrew or the sinner." A complementary rule from the Remorse of Conscience called for a standard of conduct informed by "kindliness" and grounded in courtesy, reminding donors not to speak "largely and proudly" to the poor or accompany their alms with "upraidings" (Morris 1895 : 194). Time and again moralists told the public to give alms "willingly and without pomp" and advised the poor themselves to offer beggars "the comfort of thy mouth . . . thy heart and compassion" (Brandeis 1900: 310; Ross 1960 : 42). So important was the "manner of giving" to Bishop Brinton in the later fourteenth century, that he exhorted his congregation never to despise "involuntary paupers" or to forget the charitable impulse that led him to say: "I preach this against certain rich men and against the ingratitude of wealthy folk who, if they give a pittance to the poor, first criticize them with speeches, then condemn them, so that it would be better for the poor to go without than to receive alms with so much scorn" (Devlin 1954: 196). This Episcopal admonition reflected and reinforced an etiquette of alms-giving, initially formulated by monks, that urged the public to remember that "true" charity involved alms given "gladly, gently," and with the understanding that even paupers were "made in the image of God" (Morris 1895 : 194).But if paupers were "God's children" and mendicants were "angels" in disguise, and if almoners called the poor "master" and Knights Hospitallers addressed them as "Sir," why were some beggars the object of personal reprimand? (Ryan and Ripperger 1941: 118; Morill 1898: 42–44; Weatherly 1936: 38; Barnum 1980: 319). To ask the question is to learn that public opinion held that the poor were not all alike, neither all patiently submissive nor all sullen and bold; everywhere behaviour mattered, as did the ethics of begging and work. Moreover, the church taught that the corporal works of mercy had a spiritual dimension that called the faithful to "chastise and correct the delinquent with sharp words . . . or else with deeds" (Holmstedt 1933: 44). Insofar as beggars came under scrutiny, the delinquency that moralists deplored was linked to the vice of sloth. Although the rhetoric of critics denouncing idlers as sinners became increasingly harsh over time, it never left any doubt that beggars, if able-bodied, should be admonished to work.Throughout the later fourteenth century, parliamentary statutes, petitions, and royal decrees increasingly framed political discourse, creating a sense of urgency that closely paralleled the anxious concern of employers to prohibit begging as an alternative to work. By launching a war of words that portrayed labourers as transgressors, and employers as victims, the government defined the problem of the "begging poor" as a problem of justice; able-bodied beggars were in the wrong and should be punished. This kind of rhetoric blurred distinctions between migrant labourers, shirkers, and cheats, leaving the impression that all rejected the work ethic of honest, common folk. Although long in use, the label "undeserving poor" had acquired a behavioural connotation and was applied indiscriminately to all manner of people: drifters, the homeless, petty thieves, prostitutes, masterless servants, the seasonally unemployed. Knowing this, politically minded critics used pejorative phrases to stigmatize unemployed labourers and imply that vagrants and beggars were so unwilling to help themselves that they, and not statutory law, needed reforming.Although social commentators reiterated parliamentary law, few ignored the plight of victims of natural disasters, disability, and disease. The difficult lives of the sick and infirm made them worthy of charity, since they were powerless to "help themselves" (Barnum 1980: 214). None of the deserving poor should be forced to ask for help, John Wycliffe (d. 1384) believed; instead, people who have much should offer alms to those in want so that they never needed to beg. By the fourteenth century, pastoral handbooks emphasized this counsel and claimed: "Blessed are they who give to the poor and needy without delay and without solicitation" (Morris 1895 : 197). When, in the later fourteenth century, better-off folk wondered "what conditions" led men and women to beg, the clerical response was simply made: the want of "housing, clothing, and food" (Ross 1960 : 165–66). Nevertheless moralists cautioned the public that unless the poor were infirm, they must "get their living" by their own efforts; failing this, benefactors might deny alms to beggars, and masters withhold food from servants, in order to compel the idle "to mend" their ways (Morris 1966 : 1567; Brandeis 1900: 310). Even as eloquent a defender of the poor as Bishop Thomas Brinton looked suspiciously at the unemployed. Linking charity to an ethos of work, he denounced "miserable idlers who [were] not usefully occupied in digging, plowing, sowing, reaping, and labouring with their hands" (Devlin 1954: 83). Many learned contemporaries felt much the same and tried, as Brinton did, to bring issues of hierarchy and social rank to bear on discussions of the importance of work.Therefore, alms-giving was not an exclusively economic concern, neither were all the poor homeless and unemployed. Keeping this in mind, certain conclusions can be drawn, if not for every social ill, at least for the complex relationship of welfare to work. One, the capacity to labour became so significant a criterion in determining charitable aid that during the thirteenth and the fourteenth centuries, the eligibility to receive alms largely depended on a beggar's relationship to the labour market. Two, if, as parliament complained, there was a disturbing increase in the number of people begging alms in the later 1300s, the increase was in a certain sense the government's doing. In fact, some would say that this dramatic increase was illusionary, that it was a political fiction rather than a social reality, since the government had deliberately broadened the definition of beggar to include not only migrant workers asking shelter and food but also servants and labourers asking for higher wages. Three, these servants and labourers bore the brunt of an ideological stereotype that labelled them as beggars and then labelled beggars as "traitors," "kidnappers," "sham-cripples," and "shameless" thieves (Brandeis 1900: 134; Barnum 1980: 51; Ryan and Ripperger 1941: 142; Riley 1868: 368, 445, 479–80, 584; Hingeston 1858: 316; Workman 1966 : 54; Williamson 1965: 49–50). Blurring the boundaries between "labourer" and "beggar," legislators and image makers crafted a standard against which to judge men and women who rejected the maximum wage rates and fixed salaries of employers. Four, under the circumstances the problem of the "begging poor" ultimately became an issue that corresponded to political opinion and debate. In assemblies and administrative counsels, lawmakers closed ranks with the "employing class" and held themselves aloof from the humbler folk whose activities they sought to restrict, alter, or rigidly dictate. As the voices of legislators and employers grew harsher, haranguing everybody else to make a sacrifice and shoulder the burdens of a changing economy, labourers and beggars heard the rhetoric of prescription politics defining social policy.
By the close of the fourteenth century, economic pressures had driven many previously well-to-do groups into poverty, and there were stirrings of protests against an unjust society and economy. The Peasants Revolt was perhaps an example of this frustration, with John Ball's question Wham Adam delved and Eve span, where then was the gentleman? ("when Adam was digging and Eve spinning, where was the noble by birth?"). Perhaps the most enduring example of this social protest, however, was Steven Langland's poem Piers Ploughman, a protest against fourteenth-century English society written by a cleric living at the very edge of poverty. The number of poor and homeless stabilized at about 20% of the population. They were increasingly regulated and guarded, and institutional assurances erected that they would not better their condition. Poverty became institutionalized by the early modern period and remained so until the European empires could raise living standards generally by exploiting their colonies. Now that the colonial system has collapsed, there are signs of the reappearance of a permanent underclass even in the industrialized nations.
Sources: Extracts from Elaine Clark Social Science History 26.3 (2002) 447-473.