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Social Science History 26.3 (2002) 447-473
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Institutional and Legal Responses to Begging in Medieval England
A great many factors other than philanthrophy influenced social policy in England during the Middle Ages. Although political thinkers steadfastly acknowledged the importance of received tradition, especially the religious command to help the poor, many lawmakers were profoundly ambivalent about begging. It is true that the opinion of the nineteenth century implied that medieval almsgiving was so "reckless" that English "beggars had an easy life," but more recent research has challenged this perspective, bringing the [End Page 447] parameters of medieval mendicancy into sharper focus. 1 Seen individually, beggars were pathetic and vulnerable, but if viewed collectively they were thought to be dangerous and willfully idle. Parliament's decision to regulate begging in the years after the first appearance of the Black Death (1349–50) compelled the king's subjects to rethink the claims of the needy, even though almsgiving had long seemed a positive aspect of community life. Obviously by the close of the fourteenth century something had happened to broaden the story of casual relief, extending its boundaries beyond religious impulse to include the frustrations and passions that animated the political arena. Here contentious voices sounded, although parliamentary argument and debate were often tempered by the conviction that men of affairs could legislate a more orderly realm. Even so, efforts at social planning were by no means limited to statutory decree or confined to the late medieval world.
In a certain sense the design of social welfare was remarkably dependent on history. The options ordinary people had for a secure future were affected not only by how hard or long they worked but by historical events and circumstances. In a world where the vagaries of fate and nature could irrevocably alter the plans of many families, the sudden outbreak of pestilence or war left an imprint so profound as to require commentators to discuss poor relief in a way that reflected the conditions and needs of their times. Of course, periods of economic stress were just as much a concern to administrators and lords as to social critics, although none kept records noting the number of beggars living in villages and towns. The lack of census information notwithstanding, extant material about begging, almsgiving, and social policy is fairly detailed for the medieval world. The material sampled here, originating between the eighth century and the twelfth, is of three kinds: ecclesiastical thinking about the doctrine of almsgiving; expressions of generosity in communal ritual and ceremony; and contemporary opinion about individual behavior and social order. For the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the evidence covers traditions of local responsibility in governance as well as the testimony of the clergy, lawmakers, and employers of labor.
To review this source material is to see that stories about begging had a distinct chronology and involved a narrative of many parts. From the viewpoint of the early Middle Ages, it was a graciously told narrative of the conventions and rituals that afforded the poor acceptance and a share in the resources of the larger world. But during the fourteenth century, it became a cautionary [End Page 448] tale that was, in turn, judgmental, sympathetic yet suspicious, always questioning, but finally a brief for denying alms to vagrants, laborers, and strangers. This perspective evolved from earlier tradition and at the same time challenged it by emphasizing differences in long-held values and norms. If the beggar of twelfth-century literature called to mind the pitiful face of poverty, beggars in the fourteenth century appeared malevolent and were linked to jobless drifters and fugitive serfs. Suspicious of the undeserving poor, anxious officials restricted almsgiving in the later 1300s and advocated the regulation of labor. Although intrusive, this regulation was novel only in its range and urgency. Regulatory norms and a pronounced concern with discriminating charity were recurrent features of medieval life. Of course, there still was change of the kind elicited by the rhetoric and political counsel of judges and lords. During the later fourteenth century, men...