Who are the Poor? Introductory paragraphs to an essay in progress
Who are the Poor?
My interest is in looking at history from ‘the underside’. I want to understand ‘The Poor’ from their own point of view, and that presents difficulties. Throughout most of history, the poor were unable to write, and those who could write had little interest in them. To make things more complicated, from the point of view of the ruling, and literate, classes, the term ‘poverty’ had a variety of meanings, and where there was interest in them, some of those meaning were more interesting that others.
As an example, in later English history, an ‘impoverished gentlewoman’ would have been considered to be ‘poor’, in spite of a lifestyle by definition vastly better than that of the class from which her servants would have been drawn. For although she might be very limited as to the number of servants she could employ, she would still have had servants, or one servant at least. At a time when the upper classes could expect to change their clothes several times a day, with garb suitable for a variety of different occupations, our impoverished gentlewoman might only have a small range of clothes and simply wear them all day. But would still have enough to be tidy and clean, with something for ‘best’. If this is ‘poverty’ then there would be very little to be concerned about, since a person in such a position might not be able to live up to the standards considered suitable for the upper class, but can survive in some reasonable comfort.
But of course, there was a different kind of poverty. A poverty which led to starvation, a poverty where to have any kind of garment, sufficient for decency and to keep out the cold, was something to be achieved – let alone to have spare so garments can be washed. And it is here that there is sufficient desperation to survive that a servant’s wage and life of subservience was an acceptable solution. The existence of people in this situation can be assumed from the fact that our ‘impoverished gentlewoman’ can afford servants. These are the people who are hard to find in history, of little interest to the literate and the powerful.
There are a number of points in history when the poor presented a problem to the ruling class, and it is at these periods when we get a window of opportunity to look at their circumstances. But in doing so, we must remember that the view we are given is rarely from their own point of view, we might at times get a view which is deeply sympathetic to their situation, but more often they are perceived as a ‘problem to be dealt with’. Even so, we must use the information we have and extrapolate from it. That may at times lead us into speculation, and so it is necessary to be clear as to what is actually known and what is possible or likely.
The first period which is of interest occurs in response to the ‘Black Death’ in the fourteenth century. A time when the resulting shortage of labour for work on the land led the poor to the beginnings of recognition of power. This disrupted the feudal relations which had controlled the lives of the poor since the Norman conquest and led to a perceived need to exert some new methods of control. And so, laws began to be passed which tried to achieve that. And in those laws we can see something of the situation which was emerging. When a law is passed to ‘control vagrancy’ then we can assume that something which could simply be described as ‘wandering about’ was so disturbing to the ruling class that it was felt necessary to make it criminal. And so the term ‘vagrancy’ which really only holds the meaning ‘a tendency to wander’ came to mean ‘criminal wandering’. So who were these people who ‘wandered’, and why did the ruling class object to it? This period ends with the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, and there are some important questions to be asked about who was involved in that revolt, what can that revolt tell us about what was happening?
The next window into the circumstances of the poor comes in the time of Elizabeth I, with the passing of a new vagrancy law, immediately followed by the first of the Poor Laws which continued, with variations, to provide a system which was supposed to ensure against serious suffering among the poor right up until the twentieth century. Again, we can ask, ‘what were the true circumstances of the poor, that resulted in a perceived need to make laws to deal with them?’ And how did the system created by those laws impact upon them?
Because the Poor Law required some effort on the part of the Parishes, from here on we have some record-keeping of what that effort entailed, and so there is rather more history to look at, but again, that history is recorded by people who have a responsibility to ‘control a problem’ considered to be presented by the poor, rather than the poor themselves.
Although from here on the existence of Parish records gives a more continuous history there are still periods when the poor stand out, and indeed, we begin to get records of their own point of view. The next window of opportunity is during the English Civil War. Although this is generally perceived as a war of religion, there was a civil war within the Civil War, when once Kingless rule had been achieved, the poor turned on the newly established status quo, and clearly stated ‘not good enough!’ From this period we have the Levellers and the Diggers and some of these people wrote their own pamphlets from which we can see that their arguments, which while having a religious dimension, were definitely focussed on socio-economic issues. The Quakers too, were originally quite a revolutionary sect, and again, we have some of their own writings.
From the eighteenth-century onwards there are far more records. Not only do Parish records become much more complete but there are also descriptions of the early industrial processes and how they made use of the poor for the work, and there are some records of the views of the poor themselves. By the nineteenth-century there is the beginnings of the sort of collective action which eventually gave rise to the politicisation of the poor, with the development of unions and the Labour Party. And finally up to today, where it is possible to actually go and ask people.