William Marshall: Draft of a Poor Law (1536)
Inflation and population pressures plagued sixteenth-century Europe. This introduction to a
"Poor Law," produced in England in 1536, shows how the governments of the time
tried to solve some of their most pressing problems.
According to this document, how (or why) do people become beggars? How would you describe
the government's attitude towards the poor? What reasons are given here to explain how people
Forasmuch as the king's majesty has full and perfect notice that there be within this his realm as
well a right great multitude of strong valiant beggars, (1)
vagabonds and idle persons of both kinds,
men and women, which though they might well labor for their living if they would will not yet
put themselves to it as divers other of his true and faithful subjects do, but give themselves to
live idly by begging and procuring of alms of the people, to the high displeasure of Almighty God,
hurt of their own souls, evil example of others, and to the great hurt of the commonwealth of
this realm; as also divers (2) others old, sick, lame, feeble and impotent persons not able to labor
for their living but are driven of necessity to procure the alms and charity of the people. And his
highness (3) has perfect knowledge that some of them have fallen into such poverty only of the
visitation of God (4)
through sickness and other casualties, and some through their own default, (5)
whereby they have come finally to that point that they could not labor for any part of their living
but of necessity are driven to live wholly by the charity of the people. And some have fallen to
such misery through the default of their masters which have put them out of
service (6) in time of sickness and left them wholly without relief and comfort. And some be fallen thereto through
default of their friends which in youth have brought them up in overmuch pleasure and
idleness, and instructed them not in anything wherewith they might in age get their living. And
some have set such as have been under their rule to procure their living by open begging even
from childhood, so that they never knew any other way of living but only by begging. And so for
lack of good oversight in youth many live in great misery in age. And some have come to such
misery through their own default, as through sloth, pride, negligence, falsehood and such other
ungraciousness, whereby their masters, lovers and friends have been driven to forsake them and
finally no man would take them to any service; whereby they have in process of time lain in the
open streets and fallen to utter desolation. And divers other occasions have brought many to
such poverty which were very long to rehearse here. But whatsoever the occasion be, charity
requires that some way be taken to help and succor them that be in such necessity and also to
prevent that others shall not hereafter fall into like misery. Therefore his highness, of his most
blessed and godly disposition, like a virtuous prince and gracious head regarding as well the
maintenance of the commonwealth of his realm, the body, as the relief of the poor, wretched and
miserable people whereof be a great multitude in this his realm, and the redress and avoiding of
all valiant beggars and idle persons within the same . . . has by the advice of the lords spiritual
and temporary (7) and the commons in this present Parliament assembled . . . provided certain
remedies as well for the help and relief of such idle, valiant beggars as has been before
remembered, as of such poor and miserable people as be before rehearsed, in manner and form
following. . . .
(1) As opposed to handicapped beggars, who are unable to work.
(3) The king.
( 4) "Acts of God," accidents.
(6) Fired them from jobs as servants.
(7) High officials of church and state.
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This is an excerpt from Reading
About the World, Volume 2, edited by Paul Brians, Mary Gallwey, Douglas Hughes, Azfar Hussain, Richard Law, Michael Myers, Michael Neville, Roger Schlesinger, Alice Spitzer, and Susan Swan and published by Harcourt Brace Custom Books.
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