Home  »  Volume V: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part One  »  § 32. Treatment of the Poor, Vagabonds and Criminals

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XIV. Some Political and Social Aspects of the Later Elizabethan and Earlier Stewart Period

§ 32. Treatment of the Poor, Vagabonds and Criminals

We pass to a yet different stratum of the population. It is well known how the most important of the poor laws of Elizabeth, passed near the close of her reign (in 1601) and revived in the first year of James I, made provision for its poor compulsory upon every parish. The pressure of pauperism was felt throughout the whole of this period, and already at an early stage of the queen’s reign the principle of the “old Poor Law” had been affirmed by legislation, and it had become customary to hold weekly collections in each parish for the poor who had not demonstrably fallen into indigence by their own fault. But the evil continued, and was not diminished by the provisions against vagabonds, among whom, against the wish of the house of lords, common players and minstrels had been included in the act of 1572. In describing the great increase of poverty in the land, Harrison indignantly repudiates the proposed remedy of stopping the growth of the population by turning arable into pasture land—a process by which English rural prosperity had been impaired in a past too recent to be forgotten. The control of the spread of poverty and desolation attempted by the Elizabethan poor laws proved, on the whole, a failure; and things went on from bad to worse. Hundreds of hamlets were desolated, and the number of small occupiers steadily dwindled, till they were almost completely extinguished by the legislation of the reign of Charles II. From this all-important side of the social life of the country, the drama, as might be supposed, averts its eyes. On the other hand, the more or less vocal or picturesque phase of poverty which may be described as beggardom, with the nearly allied developments of vagabondage and roguery, forms one of the most glaring phenomena of the age; its griefs and self-advertisement crying aloud for notice. Harrison, who denounces idle beggars of all sorts as “thieves and caterpillars of the commonwealth,” reckons their total number in England at ten thousand, and, at the same time, dates the beginning of their trade as falling not yet fully sixty years back—which seems to point to the dissolution of the monasteries, though, as a matter of fact, Henry VIII’s act as to beggars and vagabonds was passed as early as 1531. Our guide then proceeds to comment on twenty-three kinds of vagabonds, and to discuss the various methods of punishment applied to them and to the army of “roges and idle persons” in general, including, as aforesaid, “plaiers” and “minstrells.” But there can be no necessity in this place for more than touching on a topic which has always had a fascination of its own for literary observers and enquirers, and which supplied abundant material to English comic dramatists, from the authors of Bartholomew Fayre and The Beggars Bush to their pupil or imitator, the author of A Joviall Crew.