The Monasteries and the Poor-laws-1651

United Kingdom


The view has often been taken that the dissolution of the monasteries was the cause of pauperism and the poor-laws. This view has been opposed by Hallam and Froude with great warmth, so that a clear statement of the case is needful. The monasteries in the Middle Ages, besides being centres of religion, art, learning, and popular instruction, fulfilled two important economical functions.

One of these was that as land-owners they were the best of “landlords,” so that their tenants had only to render moderate service or rents, were secure from inclosures and evictions, and in times of distress were not in danger of being compelled to part with their holdings, but would rather be helped to get over their ditficulties.

The second economical function of monasteries was to serve as houses of shelter for travellers, as hospitals for the sick, and as centres of relief for the poor. These were their functions all through the Middle Ages; but in the time immediately preceding the Reformation the office of relieving the poor assumed a new character and importance. The monasteries were the one source of refuge for the multitudes who had been chased out of house and home by inclosures and “expropriations;” they enabled the victims of oppression to drag on their existence, and by this existence to be living witnesses to the sin of the rich inclosers. Hallam and Froude are, after all, not very far from the truth.

The “blind eleemosynary spirit inculcated by the Romish Church” truly enough interfered with the operation of some of Malthus’ “positive checks” to population — death by starvation or frost — truly enough “encouraged” able-bodied beggars, by opening their hospitable doors to the ejected peasantry, whose homes and means of livelilwod had been seized by the rich, and enabling them to be able-bodied and to beg a httle longer. Naturally with the dissolution of the monasteries this resource failed, and, moreover, the number of impotent as well as of able-bodied poor was enormously increased by the fresh evictions of the peasantry from the lands that were seized from the Church.

Cold and hunger went hand in hand with busy hangmen and foreign mercenaries to clear off the “surplus population,” and free the rich plunderers from the odious presence of their victims. When this work was well advanced it became possible to deal with normal and ordinary poverty; and a poor-law, which before it would have been impossible to carry out, took the place of the old office of the monasteries. Instead of “God’s poor,” came parish paupers; instead of the “charity of the monasteries which relieved poverty for the love of God,” came (Mr. Froude notwithstanding) the “worldly harshness of a poor-law.” I have now given the main points in the history of the great wrong done to the English small proprietors and agricultural labourers under the Tudors, a wrong that preceded, accompanied, and was in close casual connection with outbreak and spread of heresy.

From James the First to the later years of George the Second there was an interval between two periods of colossal robbery and cruel oppression. In the seventeenth century there still remained a numerous class of small proprietors, and the yeomanry formed the strength of Crornwell’s army. The labourers, also, were well off. The woes of the hapless crowd that had been driven from their homes in the sixteenth’ century had ended in the grave.

Littell’s Living Age, Volume 128, Issue 1651

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