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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

V. The Progress of Social Literature in Tudor Times

§ 12. Robert Crowley

Amid such disorder and suffering the modern spirit of competition was ushered into the world, and contemporary literature could see little but evil in the period of transition. It was especially the spectacle of men trampling on one another in the struggle for wealth which roused Robert Crowley from the production of controversial and religious tracts. Crowley was a printer, a puritan and a famous preacher. Most of his pamphlets, sermons and answers are composed for theologians; but the reading public was sufficiently large and the influence of the press sufficiently universal to make it worth his while to address the whole commons of the realm in five popular tracts. In 1550, he boldly exposed the more glaring social and moral abuses of the time in a series of short verse essays, arranged in alphabetical order and entitled The one and thirty epigrams. But, in spite of these devices, his standpoint remains that of a Hebrew prophet and his style that of a preacher. In The Voice of the Last Trumpet, which appeared in the same year, he shows even more clearly how far his sectarian training had unfitted him to handle problems of progress or social reform. The tract is a methodical appeal to the different classes to lay aside their peculiar sins; his view is still that of the Middle Ages, and God is supposed to have placed barriers between the classes which no individual can cross without sin. Crowley warns his readers not to stray from their class, but to let the gentry cultivate learning, the commons obedience, and all will be well. In 1550, he also printed The way to wealth, a graphic and searching enquiry into the mutual hatred and distrust which existed between the rich and the poor, showing how peasants attribute the late seditions to farmers, graziers, lawyers, merchants, gentlemen, knights and lords, while the upper classes—“the gredie cormerauntes”—point to the wealth and insolence of the peasantry. But he sternly warns the lower classes against disobedience and covetousness, bidding them be patient and not usurp the functions of their rulers. He rebukes the clergy—“the shephardes of thys church”—for their lust of wealth, but reserves his sharpest censure for the rich men who tyrannise over the commons. In the following year he produced Pleasure and pain, heaven and hell, an even more direct protest against competition or, as Crowley calls it, “the gredy rakeyng togyther of the treasures of this vayne worlde,” which was widening the gulf between rich and poor. Still writing for the large reading public, he couched his expostulation in the attractive form of a poem representing Christ’s address to the world on the Last Judgment Day. But the most interesting of Crowley’s tracts is the Informacion and Peticion agaynst the oppressours of the pore commons of this realme. In this address to the parliament of Edward VI, the preacher fulminates against the rich in the language of the Psalms and Isaiah. He draws a powerful picture of the misery caused by the aggressions of the wealthy: how poverty makes slaves of men and drudges or prostitutes of women, how youths are reduced to beggary and, in the end, “garnysh the galowe trees.”

Crowley had neither the intellectual equipment nor the literary talent necessary to illuminate the perplexity and suffering of his age. His five tracts simply give voice to the thoughts of those who looked backward and cried “order,” when they felt that the times were out of joint.

In these and similar pamphlets one thing particularly arrests the attention—the continual references to the ever increasing class of beggars and vagabonds. As early as 1528, Simon Fish begins his Supplication with these tremendous words:

  • Most lamentably compleyneth theyre wofull mysery unto youre highnes youre highnes youre poore daily bedemen, the wretched hidous monstres (on whome scarcely for horror any yie dare loke), the foule unhappy sorte of lepres and other sore people, nedy, impotent, blinde, lame and sike, that live onely by almesse, howe that theyre nombre is daily so sore encreased that all the almesse of all the weldisposed people of this youre realme is not halfe ynough for to susteine theim.