A 16th century “Bedlam beggar” pleads with a gentleman © Mary Evans Picture Library / Edwin Mullan Collection
The Black Death of 1348-9 led to a considerable shortage of labourers. In 1351, Edward III’s Statute of Labourers tried to establish a maximum wage and a legal distinction between those able to work and those unwilling to work:
“Because a great part of the people and especially of the workmen and servants has now died in that pestilence, some, seeing the straights of the masters and the scarcity of servants, are not willing to serve unless they receive excessive wages, and others, rather than through labour to gain their living, prefer to beg in idleness: we… have seen fit to ordain: that every man and woman of our kingdom of England, of whatever condition, whether bond or free, who is able bodied and below the age of sixty years… be sought after to serve in a suitable service… and he shall take only the wages, liveries, meed or salary which, in the places where he sought to serve, were accustomed to be paid in the twentieth year of our reign of England…
“If any man or woman, being thus sought after in service, will not do this… he shall be taken and sent to the next jail, and there he shall remain in strict custody until he shall find surety for serving in the aforesaid form.
“And because many sound beggars do refuse to labour so long as they can live from begging alms, giving themselves up to idleness and sins, and, at times, to robbery and other crimes, let no one, under the aforesaid pain of imprisonment presume, under colour of piety or alms to give anything to such as can very well labour, or to cherish them in their sloth, so that thus they may be compelled to labour for the necessaries of life.”
In 1567 Thomas Harman, a Kentish gentle-man, published A Caveat for Common Cursitors, an account of the vagabonds and “sturdy beggars” of Elizabethan England. In his dedication to the Countess of Shrewsbury he explained his purpose:
“As of ancient and long time there hath been, and is now at this present, many good, godly, profitable laws and acts made and set forth in this most noble and flourishing realm for the relief, succour, comfort and…