Changing attitudes to Poverty and Vagrancy c.1483-1603

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Changing Attitudes toward Poverty and Vagrancy c.1483-1603

Impoverished as Criminals

Criminals during this period would have been punished differently depending on their class. Sentences were very harsh- theft of anything worth more than 5p was punishable by death! Harsh punishments and tortures were inflicted on people suspected of crime, even if nothing had been proven! In most cases, this was in order to extract a confession, leading to many people confessing to crimes they did not commit in order to end their torment. Many punishments during this period involved mutilation, humiliation and irreversible, life-lasting disabilities. 

Punishments were often very harsh and disproportionate given the relative insignificance of the crime. They were also often obvious and visible ie. maiming, branding, in order for people to see and to be deterred from committing the same crime. Execution took place in public places for the same reasons. Deterrence supposedly meant that the government faces fewer significant threats. 

Poverty and Vagrancy were both considered to be crimes in the Tudor times. People were wary of strangers to their towns and didnt know who was trying to lead an honest life and who was living a life of debauchery and crime. At a time when murder rates were high and the fear of witch craft was rising, councils had to act fast to ensure that gypsies and vagrants were moved quickly out of the area so as not to cause widespread panic. They were afraid of insurrection and the people's disposition towards rebellion and dealt with these fears via repression. 

Indeed, there is much evidence to suggest that punishments increased when the authorities faced times of crisis. For example, the punishments laid out in the Poor Law Acts of both 1547 and 1572 carried the harshest sanctions and punishments and both were passed at times of crisis with 1547 being under the minority rule of Edward VI and 1572 being the Ridolfi plot and the excommunication of Elizabeth I. 

Many different types of itinerant beggars caused concerns for the governments of the period, in particular

  • healers
  • show people
  • military men
  • students
  • sturdy rogues
  • bawdy baskets
  • Romany people

These people were viewed with suspicion and dislike across the time period and were all associated with crime and social unrest. Many people saw them as problems that needed to be eradicated in order to restore peace to the land.  It was not just the vagrants who were treated badly. Poor people also were treated with disdain and it was the general consensus that they only had themselves to blame- it was thought that work was available and the poor were merely too lazy to go and find a job. 

Changes in Attitudes

Many different factors affected how poor people and vagrants came to be viewed. 

After the Ridolfi Plot in particular, the social, political and economic climate of 1572 led to a negative shift in peoples…

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