Home  »  Volume III: English RENASCENCE AND REFORMATION  »  § 13. The Hye Way to the Spyttel Hous

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

§ 13. The Hye Way to the Spyttel Hous

The historic class of outlaws, vagabonds and pilgrims had been enormously increased by the victims of falling prices and decaying guilds. The phenomenon forces itself on the attention of Robert Copland, who printed and probably composed The Hye Way to the Spyttel Hous, after 1531. No work more clearly illustrates the transitional state of English literature. Copland describes himself as taking shelter from the rain in the porch of a spyttel house and interrogates the porter on the inmates. The author really wishes to describe the different types of fools and knaves; but, instead of grouping them under a fraternity, boat or testament, he chooses the spyttel house to serve as a frame, the picture containing those who knock for entrance. Under this heading, nearly all the lower types of humanity are classed, not only the idle and the lascivious, but busybodies and those who refuse to forgive their neighbours or discipline their servants; even idle and domineering wives are also among those who visit the hospital. Thus, in its main conception, the book belongs to the general body of early sixteenth century satire. But the tract is profoundly coloured by the element of beggary. A hospital would not have been chosen as a substitute for the traditional background unless poverty was a very general curse, and we have a ghastly picture of the destitute wretches who crave admission. In the first part of the dialogue, the porter gives some amusing and graphic anecdotes of the tricks of sham beggars, thus showing that Copland had caught a glimpse of the boundless fields of comedy and humour which form part of the realm of roguery.

Such was the state of the poor while the religious houses still stood, but the suppression of the monasteries added to the army of the unemployed and, at the same time, deprived the destitute of the alms which had been expressly given in trust for them. Those who had formerly looked to the religious houses for help were now thrown upon society; mendicancy became a recognised fact; and legislation, while suppressing vagabondism, instituted compulsory relief for the poor and needy. Such a system, badly administered in a time of social disorganisation, led to inevitable abuse. Pauperism became a profession exercised by ingenious impostors, who perverted the administration of charity and, when occasion offered, robbed travellers, stole horses out of pastures and hooked linen out of house windows.