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9-08-2015, 15:51

Poverty and crime

The control of servants and journeymen was important to urban elites, but they were more worried about the large numbers of people who neither lived nor worked in households of responsible, tax-paying citizens. Tax records from early modern cities indicate that half or even more households did not own enough to pay any taxes at all. These were people – married, single, or widowed – who lived in attics and cellars, in rooms they shared, or in fl imsy housing just inside or just outside the city walls. They supported themselves any way they could. Men repaired houses and walls, dug ditches, and hauled goods from ships; women laundered clothing, spun wool, and cared for invalids; children carried messages or packages around the city or the surrounding countryside. The poor found work in city orphanages, infi rmaries, and hospitals, where the poor made up most of the patients as well as being the care-givers. They made and sold small simple items that were unregulated by guilds, such as wooden dishes, pins, or soap. They gathered nuts or fi rewood outside city walls, carried them through the gates, and sold them for a few pennies. They bought eggs from villagers, cooked them in a small pot on a charcoal brazier, and sold them as a quick meal. They bought and sold used clothing and household articles, or worked in taverns and inns. Sometimes they engaged in criminal activities, stealing merchandise from houses or wagons and then fencing it, or cutting the strings of money-pouches or purses. Or they did all of these at once, taking advantage of whatever opportunities they could. For women, and some men, selling sex for money – what later came to be called prostitution – could provide a living or augment other work. As discussed in chapter 2 , in 1450 most major cities in Europe and many of the smaller ones had an offi cial brothel or an area of the city in which selling sex was permitted, but over the following centuries such activities were restricted. Many cities set down strict rules for the women and their customers, and in the sixteenth century most Protestant and then Catholic cities in northern Europe closed their municipal brothels, arguing that the possible benefi ts they provided did not outweigh their moral detriments. Harsh punishments were set for prostitution, including public fl ogging and incarceration in prison or a syphilis hospital. Selling sex was couched in moral rather than economic terms, as simply one type of “whoredom,” a term that also included premarital sex, adultery, and other unacceptable sexual activities. Religious reformers such as Luther described women who sold sex in very negative terms, and also regarded “whore” as the worst epithet they could hurl at their theological opponents. Closing the offi cial brothels did not end the exchange of sex for money, of course, but simply reshaped it. Smaller, illegal brothels were established, or women moved to areas right outside city walls, such as Southwark and Bankside outside London. Police and other authorities were infl uenced or bribed to overlook such activities. For Italian city authorities, this fl uid situation was more worrisome, and they tended to favor regulation over suppression. They also viewed selling sex as a signifi cant source of municipal income. From 1559 until the mid-eighteenth century in Florence, for example, all women registered as prostitutes were required to contribute an annual tax based on their income which went to support a convent for those women who wished to give up prostitution; payment of extra taxes would allow a woman to live where she wished in the city and wear whatever type of clothes she chose. Hauling, day labor, peddling, stealing, selling sex, and other types of short-term work were often not enough to support an individual or a family, particularly when rising prices made bread and other foodstuffs increasingly expensive. By the late sixteenth century, three-quarters of a poor family’s income went for food, about half of that for rye bread, wheat bread being far too expensive. The only options were begging and charity, but attitudes toward beggars and toward the poor grew harsher in the sixteenth century. Cities passed laws prohibiting begging, and many opened workhouses where the able-bodied poor were put to work at simple tasks, such as spinning wool or beating hemp; London’s Bridewell opened in the 1550s, and Amsterdam’s workhouse in the 1590s. To make sure they did not decline into the sin of idleness, orphaned boys were apprenticed to learn a trade and orphaned girls sent into domestic service. Poor relief was handled by a combination of institutions: private philanthropic organizations, monasteries, voluntary charitable groups, city and village agencies, parish (and, in Catholic areas, episcopal) councils. Beginning in the 1520s, both Protestant and Catholic cities in western Europe tried to centralize and consolidate the dispensation of charity, control begging, and put everyone who could to work. They often established “common chests” or central collections of alms and gifts, and appointed men and women as overseers of the poor, to visit people in their homes and run almshouses. In Catholic areas, orders such as the Franciscans who survived by begging opposed the new poor laws, arguing that the poor had a right to beg and that begging allowed people to show their Christian charity. Most Catholic clergy and rulers did not have such misgivings, however; acts of mercy such as donating to the poor were certainly meritorious good deeds, but they were to be funneled through structures established and controlled by bishops. Franciscans and other mendicant orders were allowed to beg, but Catholic rulers preferred that they solicited contributions through personal appeals, not on the streets.

SOURCE 17 Act calling for the punishment of vagabonds and beggars

Local, regional, and national governments in the sixteenth century enacted a variety of “poor laws” in an attempt to solve the problems of poverty. Most of these called on villages and towns to care for their own “worthy poor,” such as orphans and blind people, and ordered ablebodied poor to be set to work. The following is a typical law, passed in England in 1536, during the reign of Henry VIII. Along with distinguishing between the “worthy” and “unworthy” poor, the act prohibits people from giving to the poor outside of the offi cial government “dole” in order to centralize poor relief and prevent what in recent times has been labeled “welfare fraud.” Laws such as this were motivated both by increases in the actual numbers of the poor, and by changes in attitudes toward them, as fi rst Protestant and then many Catholic authorities came to regard beggars not as opportunities to show one’s Christian charity, but as dangerous vagrants to be expelled or locked up. An act for punishment of sturdy vagabonds and beggars… it is therefore now ordained and established and enacted … that all the governors and ministers of … cities, shires, towns, …hamlets, and parishes, as well within liberties as without, shall not only succour, fi nd, and keep all and every of the same poor people by way of voluntary and charitable alms … , in such wise as none of them of very necessity shall be compelled to wander idly and go openly in begging to ask alms in any of the same cities, shires, towns, and parishes, but also to cause and to compel all and every the said sturdy vagabonds and valiant beggars to be set and kept to continual labour, in such wise as by their said labours they and every of them may get their own livings with the continual labour of their own hands… Item, it is ordained and enacted … that all and every the mayors, governors, and head offi cers of every city, borough, and town corporate and the churchwardens or two others of every parish of this realm shall in good and charitable wise take such discreet and convenient order, by gathering and procuring of such charitable and voluntary alms of the good Christian people within the same with boxes every Sunday, holy day, and other festival day or otherwise among themselves, in such good and discreet wise as the poor, impotent, lame, feeble, sick, and diseased people, being not able to work, may be provided, helped, and relieved; so that in no wise they nor none of them be suffered to go openly in begging, and that such as be lusty, or having their limbs strong enough to labour, may be daily kept in continual labour, whereby every one of them may get their own substance and living with their own hands… And for the avoiding of all such inconveniences and infections as oftentime have and daily do chance amongst the people by common and open doles, and that most commonly unto such doles many persons do resort which have no need of the same, it is therefore enacted … that no manner of person or persons shall make or cause to be made any such common or open doles, or shall give any ready money in alms, otherwise than to the common boxes and common gatherings … , to and for the putting in … due execution … this present act, upon pain to … forfeit ten times the value of all such ready money as shall be given in alms contrary to the tenor and purport of the same; and that every person or persons of this realm, bodies politic corporate, and others that be bound or charged yearly, monthly, or weekly to give or to distribute any ready money, bread, victual, or other sustentation to poor people in any place within this realm, shall … give and distribute the same money or the value of all such bread, victual, or sustentation unto such common boxes, to the intent the same may be employed towards the relieving of the said poor, needy, sick, sore, and indigent persons, and also towards the setting in work of the said sturdy and idle vagabonds and valiant beggars… (27 Henry VIII, c. 25) In both Catholic and Protestant areas, authorities hoped that voluntary contributions would provide enough money for poor relief, but they also recognized that compulsory contributions might be necessary, especially during times of famine or epidemic diseases. Poor people could only collect support in their home parish or town, however, not in other cities where they may have migrated to look for work. Poor laws in many places made sharp distinctions between the “worthy poor” – orphans, widows, the elderly, working families with many children, those whom illness or accidents had incapacitated, respectable people who had fallen on hard times – and the “unworthy poor” – vagrants and idlers who came from somewhere else. The worthy poor were to be taken care of in their own homes or in municipal hospitals, and the unworthy poor sent to workhouses, where they were often joined by debtors and people awaiting sentences. Workhouses and jails could never hold all of the poor, and other sorts of punishments were used as well, particularly for those who combined begging and vagrancy with other criminalized activities. Flogging, branding, and bodily mutilation – such as slitting nostrils, slicing cheeks, amputating ears or noses – were common punishments imposed throughout Europe into the eighteenth century. Repeat offenses or more serious crimes might merit execution, most commonly by hanging, but also by more grisly means such as burial alive, burning at the stake, or breaking at the wheel. Executions were public ceremonies, in which the convicts were marched through city streets on busy market days to a permanent gallows, accompanied by armed guards and clergy. Particularly notorious or famous criminals would draw a huge crowd, and their penitent speeches from the gallows would be recorded, printed, and sold as cheap broadsheets. The executions of even everyday criminals offered the possibility of a good speech and a grisly spectacle, so were popular forms of entertainment. At the middle of these events was the public executioner, who also carried out fl oggings and other corporal punishments. He was often well paid (and strong-armed), but was considered socially dishonorable; executioners were often required to live outside city walls, and their children could not enter craft guilds or marry those from honorable occupations. Banishment and penal servitude were other punishment options for vagrants and criminals. Beggars and thieves might be fl ogged, and then ordered to leave a city and its territory for a specifi ed period of years. In the late fi fteenth and sixteenth centuries, France, Spain, and the Italian city-states began to sentence men to galley service – rowing in the increasingly large military ships; by the seventeenth century galley labor was the most common punishment for male convicts in France. Galleys were particularly important in naval battles in the Mediterranean, though they were less signifi cant in the Atlantic. Ship design and naval technology changed signifi cantly in the eighteenth century, and galleys were no longer effective, leading France and Spain to abolish galley service in 1748. During its heyday, galley service provided a model for land-based penal servitude, when convicts were sentenced to work in mines and dockyards, or on plantations. Such sentences removed convicts not only from their home city, but from Europe itself, as colonial empires provided fi rst Spain and then England with a new means of ridding themselves of those considered undesirable. The transportation of convicts also brought a profi t to governments, as mine and plantation owners paid more for workers than it cost to transport them.