By 1596 by a group of individuals who

By the
sixteenth century, poverty had become a ‘severe problem’ in England.1 The prevalence of poverty
in early modern English society makes it essential in the understanding of
social relations in this period. The period marked some of the most fundamental
changes in the way poverty was perceived and how the poor were handled
throughout the whole of English history; namely, the effect of the Reformation
on attitudes towards the poor and how poverty was to be remedied, as well as
the statutes put in place by the national government i.e. the Elizabethan Poor
Law and how these were implemented locally. The argument put forward in this
essay is that social relations towards poverty reflect wider ideas that pervade
the period; ideas of control, order and hierarchy. To emphasise this
hypothesis, three sources have been singled out to represent both specific
examples and subtle nuances to how poverty played a role in social relations. Firstly,
there will be an examination of the Swallowfield Articles, which show an
attempt at local leadership trying to address the issue of poverty in their
parish. Secondly, there will be an analysis of Thomas Hardman’s negative
portrayal of ‘vagabonds’, also referred to as ‘vagrants’ and how this sub-group
of the poor were treated in society. Finally, with the example of Gillis van
Tilborch’s Tichborne Dole painting, there will be an examination of charitable
giving as a persistent form of poor relief during this period, and how this too
played into social relations.

There was
an emergence of local governance in this period that solidified the development
of social relations between the self-proclaimed leaders of communities and the
poor during this period. The Swallowfield Articles, written in 1596 by a group
of individuals who came together with the intention to be leaders or
representatives of the parish, outline a set of resolutions that were to be
bestowed upon the community and amongst themselves. The articles are unusual in
the sense that they provide ‘extraordinary vividness and detail’ into the
emerging politics of the parish which remained fairly dormant in the rest of
the country at this time.2 The context surrounding the
articles is one rooted in a time of uncertainty due to immense social and
economic dislocation associated with the period. This notion of uncertainty, as
though the order of things was out of balance, may have then pushed members of
the community to form this ‘compayne’. The ‘compayne’ recognise the need to help
the ‘honest poore, the blynd, the syck, the lame & diseased persons’.3 This is not an atypical
attitude, since the sick were a group that were ‘viewed with…sympathy’ and
treated the most ‘generously’ compared to other groups of the poor nation-wide.4 More interestingly however
is the use of the word ‘honest’, which opens the discussion of the authors defined
‘honest’ as. The articles state that the poor need to be ‘warned to lyve &
behave them selves’, and that the poor were common ‘disturbers of peace & quyetnes’
(15).5 This language suggests
that the authors saw themselves as being above the poor, which undoubtedly shaped
the social relations they engaged in. The idea that the masses, which were
comprised largely of the poor, should be ‘subservient and well-behaved’ did have
a great influence over local management of the poor.6 Hindle, in his analysis of
the articles, made the assessment that the ‘compayne’ launched ‘a local
experiment in social regulation’.7 One example of this regulation
was to ‘stay the maryage’, or prohibit the marriage of, the poor.8 The idea that the ‘compayne’
felt it within their power to be able to do so emphasises how social relations between
themselves and the poor were generally one-sided and showed a lack of empathy. It
is important to recognise that the articles were only to be viewed by the ‘compayne’
themselves, which suggests why they were so open about this extreme example of
regulation. The articles also promote the idea of reverence on the Sabbath day.9 This gives insight into
the religious undertones that were present among the chief inhabitants of
Swallowfield; an undertone that promoted the idea of social order and worldliness
that would have permeated throughout their community. The interesting emphasis within
the opening articles on the chief inhabitants themselves conducting good
behaviour within their meetings shows that this idea of order applied even to
them.10 However, this pursuit of
social order ultimately shaped how they viewed the poor and effected social
relations within Swallowfield, and similar ideas existed in wider early modern
English society.

The treatment
faced by those who were deemed vagrants during this period is an illustrative
example of how the ideals of order in society shaped social relations. The
pamphlet produced by Thomas Hardman describes what should be done with vagrants
when they appear in local communities. The pamphlet was published in 1567, a
time in which the problem of vagrancy appeared to be prevalent. The Beggars Act
of 1547 exemplified societal concern about vagrants, describing the punishment
for individuals found who refused to work to be taken before the court and
branded with a V upon their chest and enslaved for two years; an act so outlandish
‘that there is no evidence in local records that it was ever enforced, and two
years later it was repealed’.11 Despite the repeal of
this act, negative treatment towards vagrancy still remained. Hardman details
some of the ways in which vagrants should be punished, referencing the ‘stockes’
and a ‘whyp’ to ‘whyll wrast out blood’.12 The author’s vindication
towards the ‘deceitful practices’ of vagrants is documented by the fact that
from him home in Kent he occasional took the licenses and money of those who
came to his door and redistributed it among those who he deemed the honest poor.13 Hardman may have felt as
though he was knowledge on the topic of vagrants due to the frequency of interactions
with them, which is unsurprising given that the south-east of England
experienced a high volume of migration, and therefore vagrant activity, due to
the area’s prosperity.14 The pamphlet was widely
circulated. For those who could read it, the use of story-telling rhyme would
have kept the pamphlet engaging and memorable. However, the inclusion
illustrations opened it up to a greater, largely illiterate audience, who could
identify with the images; this would have been crucial in influencing societal
views on vagrants. Though presumably standard procedure on publications of this
time, the inclusion of ‘vewed, examined and allowed, according unto the Queenes
Maiestyes injunctions’15 enhances the fact that
these views towards vagrants were held from the highest authority in society all
the way down to ‘honest’ poor. The fear of vagrants fed into the wider idea of
order during the period. Early modern England was dominated by the notion that
everyone had a place in society and a function to fulfil; the vagrant, who was
deemed idle by wider society and thus of no use, did not fit into this established
hierarchy and order.16

1 M. K. McIntosh, ‘Poverty, Charity
and Coercion in Elizabethan England’, The
Journal of Interdisciplinary History 35 (2005), pg. 459

2 S. Hindle, ‘Hierarchy and
Community in the Elizabethan Parish: The Swallowfield Articles of 1596’, The Historical Journal 42 (1999), pg. 844

3 Swallowfield Articles

4 J. Kent and S. King, ‘Changing
Patterns of Poor Relief in some English Rural Parishes circa 1650-1750’, Rural History 14 (2009), pg. 131

5 Swallowfield Articles

6 J. Kent and S. King, ‘Changing
Patterns of Poor Relief in some English Rural Parishes circa 1650-1750’, pg. 141

7 S. Hindle, ‘Hierarchy and
Community in the Elizabethan Parish: The Swallowfield Articles of 1596’, pg. 846

8 Swallowfield Articles

9 Swallowfield Articles

10 Swallowfield Articles

11 M. K. McIntosh, ‘Local responses
to the poor in late medieval and Tudor England’, Continuity and Change 3 (1988), pg. 229

12 Thomas Hardman Vagabonds

13 Oxford DNB

14 A. L. Beier, ‘Vagrants and the
Social Order in Elizabethan England’,
Past and Present 64 (1974), pg. 20

Thomas Hardman Vagabonds

16 A. L. Beier, ‘Vagrants and the
Social Order in Elizabethan England’, pg. 27