Episode 17: Charity and Kindness

The main point of the episode is that despite tremendous poverty, from our perspective, there were quite serious and capable efforts to alleviate the worst poverty. At the local level. Interestingly, Puritans tended to be better and more motivated at helping the poor than standard Anglicans and Catholics. This would be consequential in the century to come because when the poor were finally included in important decisions during the Civil War they would have a lot of radical ideas.

We see superior elites in Britain and the United Provinces compared to France and Spain. And life for the poor could also be quite different.

We also need to understand the geographic mobility of the poor. The example of the study on the village of Terling demonstrates this dramatically. We need to understand that people generally left home to find work under the practice of “sending out.” Then they would try to establish themselves so they could marry and raise children. It was therefore very common that the aged poor did not have a child living with them to support them, even as early as the 16th century. We can only speculate about the time period before Cromwell orders parishes to keep these detailed records. The aged poor and others were kept alive with locally provided pensions. However, this was all very personal, even though their was what looked like an administrative structure. The personal element allowed for the inherently subjective determination of the “deserving poor.”

The kinds of discussions people had in the 16th century over who should get how much welfare, are very similar to discussions had today.

This form of welfare provision replaced the work of monasteries. It was also unique to England.

The Burghers of Calais.  The statute comes from a time before there was as much distinction between the French and English.    The French did have an active middle class, albeit a status obsessed one.  Their nobility was reluctant to take up commercial activity in a way that did not happen in Britain.

A poster responding to the Poor Laws.  This and the Wikipedia link are good examples of the limits of understanding English history by means of statute history.  In reality, local people did what they wanted, the further from London the more this was true.  Laws like the Poor Law were often codification of existing practices.

Artistic interpretations of the Luddites.  Not really meaning to defend the Luddites, just pointing to an active lower class with more complex ideas than they are normally given credit for.  Much received history of the poor during and before the industrial revolution has been seriously off base and politically motivated.  When they finally start speaking for themselves we get real insights into their situation.

Poor Law.

The Speenhamland System.

The Parish Administration in England during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Jon Elster’s book on France and the status obsession.