Imágenes de páginas

they last dwelt for the space of three years, and there put themselves to labour.


It is probable, inconveniences arose from begging being authorized by the legislature; for, within five years, several material alterations were made in the laws respecting the impotent poor. In the 27th Hen. VIII. c. 25, we have a near approximation to the principles of the poor-rate; the preamble states that it had not been provided poor people and sturdy vagabonds should be ordered at their repaire and coming into their countries, nor how the inhabitants of every hundred should be charged for their reliefe, nor yet for the setting and keeping in worke and labour the said valiant beggars at their repaire into every hundred of this realme.” From these expressions, the legislature seems to have been convinced of the necessity of a compulsory maintenance; and although a regular tax for that purpose was not immediately imposed, yet it is clear, from the regulations of the statute, that the poor, even at this period, should be maintained by the public.

The act makes it obligatory, under a penalty of twenty shillings a month on the head officer and householder of every parish, to maintain by the collection of voluntary and charitable alms, the poor of their parish in such a way, that "none of them of very necessity be compelled to go openly on begging." The alms to be collected on Sundays, holidays, and festivals. Every minister in their sermons, collations, biddings of the beads, confessions, and at the making

of wills, are required to "exhort, move, stir, and provoke people to be liberal in contributions towards the comfort and relief of the poor, impotent, decrepid, indigent, and needy people, and for setting and keeping to work the able poor." Certain of the poor are directed twice or thrice every week to go round and collect from each householder his broken meat and refuse drink, for equal distribution among the indigent; but precautions are taken by fines and penalties, to guard against the embezzlement of the parochial alms and doles by constables and churchwardens.

Similar regulations, originating in similar causes, were about this period adopted on the continent respecting the poor. In 1531 the emperor Charles V. published a long edict in the Netherlands against vagrancy; wherein it was declared, that the trade of begging created idleness and led to bad courses; none, therefore, except mendicant friars and pilgrims, were permitted to beg under pain of imprisonment and whipping. All poor persons who had resided in the provinces a whole year, were directed to remain in the places where they were settled, and were to share in the alms that were ordered them. Col. lections for this purpose were to be made at poorhouses, brotherhoods, and hospitals; and the magistrates were to collect alms in the churches and private houses once or twice every week. Idlers and rogues were to be compelled to work. Poor women and orphan children were to be provided for, and the latter put to school and taught on Sundays and

holidays their paternoster, creed, and ten commandments; and, at a proper age, to be placed out in service or trade.*

Such were the laws enacted for the maintenance of the poor, the regulation of wages, and other matters immediately affecting the labouring classes; although they do not evince much knowledge of political economy in the legislature, they show a spirit of benevolence, and even of justice. The prominent evils which afflicted society after the decline of vassalage, were the vast increase in the number of those who were able, but unwilling, to work, and of those who were real objects of commiseration, and without claim on others, or the means of supporting themselves. Hence, the objects of legislation wer twofold-preventive and charitable; to coerce the idle vagrant into habits of industry, and to relieve the infirm, aged, and real unfortunate. The same objects have continued to engage attention from the fourteenth to the nineteenth century: the great object of our vagrant and poor-laws being to punish the idle, and relieve the necessitous; and the chiet difference between the two periods is, that in the latter the difficulty is not to subdue reckless vagabondage, but to find productive sources of employ


* Anderson's History of Commerce, vol. ii.

p. 55.


Influence of the Reformation on Property, and the Condition of the Labouring Classes Immense Wealth of the Religious Houses-Mistaken Notions on the Hospitality of the Conventual Bodies-Increase of Mendicity, and severe Laws for its Repression.

THE influence of the Reformation on the condition of the labouring classes has been greatly exaggerated or misunderstood. That great event affected much more the property than the industry of the community; by causing a transfer of a large portion of the soil of the kingdom from the spiritual corporations into the hands of lay individuals. The effect of this new disposition of ecclesiastical possessions has been variously represented by writers. Discontent is inseparable from the reform of every established practice and institution. Those who profit by abuses, and those who benefit by their removal, must view in different lights and hold forth different representations of measures by which they are oppositely affected. Of the favourable influence of the Reformation on the progress of national wealth no doubt can exist at this day; since every one is aware that incorporate bodies are little adapted to the successful pursuit of either commerce or agriculture; and it is evident from the Mortmain Act, passed in the reign of Henry VII., that government had become

fully sensible of the hurtful tendency of the vast accumulations of the religious houses. It is not so much the excellence of our political institutions as the Reformation, which, by severing the property of the community from an indolent priesthood, has enabled the people to take the lead of the nations of Europe in the career of wealth and intelligence. Had the vast possessions of the clergy remained tied up in their hands, it must have formed an insuperable obstacle to the development of the productive power of the country, and it would probably have presented no more distinguished spectacle of internal improvement than those states of the continent that continued for centuries later the victims of an impoverishing superstition.

The amount of revenue ingulfed by an insatiable priesthood cannot now be precisely ascertained. Of the annual value of 388 religious houses, we have no estimate; but computing the value of these in the same proportion, as of the 653 of which we have the returns, the total revenue of the 1041 houses in England and Wales was 273,1067.,

-a prodigious sum in those days if we consider the relative value of money, and the smallness of the national income. Incredible as this revenue is, it was only the reserved rents of manors and demesnes, without including the tithes of appropriations, fines, heriots, renewals, deodands, &c., which would probably have amounted to twice as much. Upon good authority it is stated the clergy were proprietors of seven-tenths of the whole kingdom; and,

« AnteriorContinuar »