When did the Poor become Deserving or Undeserving?

Posted by Sara M. Butler; 20 February 2017.

The economic crisis that dominated the Tudor era was wrought by a combination of factors: explosive population growth (roughly 2.4 million in 1525, to 4.5 million in 1600),[1] increasing levels of inflation that far outstripped rising wages, escalating foreign demand for English wool and its sinister twin the enclosure movement, as well as the elimination of social welfare institutions with the Henrician government’s dissolution of the monasteries. Paul Slack’s categorization of poverty into “deep” and “shallow” offers a useful understanding of how dire the circumstances became: while deep poverty (the chronic nature of structural poverty leading to the multitude of paupers and vagrants) rose until about the year 1620, shallow poverty (that is, the numbers of those who temporarily succumb to deteriorating livelihoods, and often the more distressing sign of calamitous financial hardship) increased gradually from the early sixteenth century until around 1650.[2]  Evolving Christian dogma complicated society’s response to the mounting numbers of poverty-stricken individuals, with Reformist / Protestant thinkers touting that good works were no longer necessary for salvation, at a time when most families could stand to tighten their belts anyways. Thus, the poor were no longer to be pitied and uplifted, but reclassified as “idle” and “delinquent,” in what John Guy once described as a new penchant to see destitution as “culpable.”[3] The Tudor obsession with “masterless” men and women eventually resulted in the Elizabethan era’s criminalization of vagrancy, as well as the first government-run poverty assistance program in European society, although the process led to deep thinking about who, in fact, merited assistance.[4]  Early modern England’s attempt to sort its growing poor into “deserving” and “undeserving”  led to a host of creative legislation. The Badging Act of 1697 stands out as one of the more inventive, requiring all paupers who were in receipt of parish relief to wear badges on their clothes, prominently displaying the initials of their parishes followed by the letter P. [5]

The vilification of poverty in early modern England stands in stark contrast to the centrality of charity in the medieval era, in which Christ’s poverty and his exaltation of the poor acted as a model to all Christians. Indeed the seven acts of mercy, a staple in medieval English church painting, center on bringing aid to those in need: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, receive strangers to hospitality, cloth the naked, visit the sick and comfort the prisoners, bury the dead.[6] Charity only became more essential over the course of the period as individuals in the post-plague era, fearing that death was just around the corner, sought to “purchase paradise through charity.” [7] Nevertheless, with the Tudor era’s struggle to determine who qualified for assistance, one cannot help but wonder whether that ideal was birthed in the early modern era, or also has some medieval antecedents?

Tensions about charitable giving can be traced back as far as the thirteenth century. A newly prosperous society awash in the profits of the commercial revolution began to rethink the price of salvation. Was all almsgiving equal, or did some charitable acts hold more weight with God than others? The commodification of salvation, identified by Barbara Rosenwein and Lester Little, was heightened under the supervision of St Francis of Assisi and his Friars Minor.  Let loose on the streets of Europe’s burgeoning cities, the Franciscans translated the money economy into a means of salvation rather than a tool for sin.[8] Enthusiasm for the Franciscan ideal created other problems.  Within fifty years of its founding, Christendom was flooded with the sons of Europe’s elite now newly-turned mendicant.  This was a key phase in the development of ideas about charity. Tensions relating to poverty turned on the worthiness of the Franciscan poor:  is voluntary poverty more or less deserving than that of the usual multitude of vagabonds and paupers?  The crisis in poverty brought on by increased demands on the laity for charitable giving eventually led Pope John XXII to issue the papal bull Cum inter non-nullos in 1323, in which the church rejected whole-heartedly the Franciscan doctrine of Christ’s absolute poverty.  Henceforth, it was heretical to suggest that Christ did not own anything either privately or in common. The English cleric Richard FitzRalph made it clear just how ridiculous was the proposition: Christ could not be mendicant, because “he possessed dominion over the created world.”[9]  The Bible tells us that Christ was a carpenter, like his step-father Joseph.  Thus, he had a livelihood, as should all men after Adam, punished for his complicity in the fall with the pains of manual labor.

What indications are there that the medieval English were beginning to refine their appreciation of the deserving poor?  As early as 1248, common law required vagrants to carry certificates of good character with them at all times. While no statute exists to attest to any change in social morals prompting this expectation, justices in eyre for that year record five vagrants, arrested in Essex although hailing from various places across England from Barnard Castle in Durham to Canterbury. They were acquitted on charges of theft but forbidden to return to the county unless they brought with them their “testimonial[s] of trustworthiness.”[10] Another case from Sussex in 1261-62 recounts how an accused horse thief begged permission from the bailiff of East Grinstead to retrieve his testimonial of trustworthiness; however, he failed to return with the testimonial after his release.[11] Without the testimonials themselves, we cannot determine precisely their purpose, but it seems clear that these letters painted their holders as acceptable targets of charitable giving.  It is also a potent reminder that Elizabeth’s policy of badges for the deserving poor had a healthy medieval foundation

Anxiety about poverty increased noticeably during the post-plague era, when nobles, eager to maintain the status quo of their pre-plague affluence, hoped to deter the peasantry from realizing how significantly the value of its labor had improved in the midst of a manpower crisis. While much of the Ordinance (1349) and the Statute of Laborers (1351) focused on wage rises and price fixing, the Ordinance of Laborers addressed also the “undeserving” poor, noting:

Item, because that many strong (validi) beggars, as long as they may live of begging, do refuse to labour, giving themselves to idleness and vice, and sometimes to theft and other abominations; none upon the said pain of imprisonment shall under the colour of pity or alms, give any thing to such, which may labour, or presume to favour them [towards their desires] so that thereby they may be compelled to labour for their necessary living.[12]

The 1351 statute went further to criminalize unemployment, by threatening imprisonment to the able-bodied poor who through their “malice” preferred to remain idle. Richard II’s reign was particularly fruitful in terms of legislating the poor.  A 1383 statute commanded that sheriffs, justices of assize in their sessions, and justices of the peace have the power to arrest vagabonds and compel them to find surety of their good behavior.  If they could not, they were to be imprisoned until the next gaol delivery for the king’s justices to determine their fates at that time.[13] Finally, the 1388 Statute of Cambridge returned to an insistence on Letters Testimonial for all able-bodied beggars. The solution for the disabled poor was reiterated also: the needy who were incapable of laboring, were permitted to beg for alms, but only in their own communities.[14]

The difference of course between medieval and early modern perceptions is their impact. The medieval Church was prepared to make up for whatever almsgiving its parishioners failed to make; after the dissolution of the monasteries (which included hospitals, poorhouses, chantries), the early modern church no longer had the necessary tools to address the problem.

Featured image:  “The Beggars’ Dole,” from Rotha Mary Clay, The Mediaeval Hospitals of England (London: Methuen & Co., Ltd., 1909), p. 170. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library, London: L0003034.

[1] Robert Bucholz and Newton Key, Early Modern England 1485-1714: A Narrative History, 2nd ed. (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), p. 104.

[2] See Paul Slack, Poverty and Policy in Tudor and Stuart England (London, 1988), and The English Poor Law 1531-1782 (Basingstoke, 1990).

[3] John Guy, Tudor England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

[4] Marjorie K. McIntosh, “Poverty, Charity, and Coercion in Elizabethan England,” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 35.3 (2005): 457-79.

[5] Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker, “London Lives 1690-1800:  Crime, Poverty and Social Policy in the Metropolis,” Humanities Research Institute at the University of Sheffield and Higher Education Digitisation Service at the University of Hertfordshire,  https://www.londonlives.org/static/PoorLawOverview.jsp (accessed 20 February 2017).

[6] J.V. Bullard and H. Chalmer Bell, eds., Lyndwood’s Provinciale: The Text of the Canons Therein Contained, Reprinted from the Translation made in 1534 (London: Faith Press, 1929), p. 24.

[7] Judith M. Bennett, “Conviviality and Charity in Medieval and Early Modern England,” Past and Present 134 (1992), 22.

[8] Barbara H. Rosenwein and Lester K. Little, “Social Meaning in the Monastic and Mendicant Spiritualities,” Past and Present 63 (1974): 4-32.

[9] Kate Crassons, The Claims of Poverty: Literature, Culture, and Ideology in Late Medieval England (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010), p. 143.

[10] The National Archives (Kew, Surrey), JUST 1/912A, m. 40, as discussed in M.T. Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record: England 1066-1307, 3rd ed. (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), p. 50.

[11] Clanchy, p. 50.

[12] Statutes of the Realm, v. 1, p. 308: 23 Edw. III, c. 7.

[13] Statutes of the Realm, v. 2, p. 32: 7 Rich. II, c. 5.

[14] Statutes of the Realm, v. 2, p. 58: 12 Rich. II, c. 7.


  1. If I might suggest a further added reading for those interested in learning more, I find Steve Hindle’s ‘Dearth, Fasting and Alms: The Campaign for General Hospitality in Late Elizabethan England’ in Past and Present (2001) helpful for understanding personal motivations of those who’d rather not spend their money helping others.

    The issue of deserving/undeserving course gets much more entrenched in the 1660s with the Laws of Settlement, which was about protecting finite local resources.


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