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 become beggars?

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.

(2) Various.

(3) The king.

(4) “Acts of God,” accidents.

(5) Fault.

(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.The reader was created for use in the World Civilization course at Washington State University, but material on this page may be used for educational purposes by permission of the editor-in-chief:

Paul Brians
Department of English
Washington State University
Pullman 99164-5020

This is just a sample of Reading About the World, Volume 2.

Reading About the World is now out of print. You can search for used copies using the following information:Paul Brians, et al. Reading About the World, Vol. 1, 3rd edition, Harcourt Brace College Publishing: ISBN 0-15-567425-0 or Paul Brians, et al. Reading About the World, Vol. 2, 3rd edition, Harcourt Brace College Publishing: ISBN 0-15-512826-4.

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