R.H. Tawney claimed that ‘the sixteenth century lives in terror of the tramp’. He wrote that over a hundred years ago, but more recent research has largely confirmed Tawney’s contention that Tudor and early Stuart England was a society deeply anxious about the movements of the ‘masterless’ poor.
As a result, it is not difficult to find fearful, satirical or insulting depictions of ‘vagrants’ and ‘vagabonds’ from this period. However, just as it can be hard to find images of early modern working women, it is also rare to come across sympathetic pictures of the poor. Yet, we know that many people continued to see at least some beggars as victims who deserved compassion and charity.
The one particularly sympathetic portrayal of poverty that does appear repeatedly in early modern culture is the biblical story of Lazarus and Dives. In this parable, Jesus tells of a diseased beggar, Lazarus, who arrives at the door of a rich man, Dives, to beg for the crumbs off his table. Dives refuses and is condemned to hellfire while Lazarus dies and is carried to heaven by the angels.
In the later middle ages, this story proved popular with painters and illuminators. The images in the Spinola Book of Hours (above), painted c.1510 by an unnamed Flemish illuminator, provided a particularly powerful depiction of the tale. In it, we see clearly two of the central themes of the parable: the inevitability of judgement and the extremes of the afterlife. Most important of all, to my mind, is the illuminator’s emphasis on the reversal of fortunes between this life and the next. Luxury and comfort in one is exchanged for deprivation and pain in the other (and vice versa). Some specific and telling features stand out. In the first panel, Dives is surrounded by luxury – silver tableware, a lavish green canopy and even exotic animals. He actually embodies extravagance in his person, symbolised by his jowly face and corpulent body. The contrast with Lazarus is unmistakeable, for the beggar is dressed in the simplest of cloaks. The juxtaposition is extended to the afterlife where Lazarus’s garments remain plain, but here angels have exchanged the beggar’s cloak for a brilliantly white robe, suggestive of blessed innocence. Dives has, of course, been stripped of his finery and now wears only the chains and flames of hell. The primary message is clear: the simplicity of poverty is a virtue that will be rewarded in heaven, whereas extravagance and luxurious living is a sin will be punished with hellfire.
One might have thought that the Protestant Reformation that ripped through English religious culture in the sixteenth century, when combined with the growing social polarisation caused by ongoing economic changes, would do away with such warm portrayals of beggars. Yet the parable of Lazarus and Dives remained a popular subject for commentary and imagery for many years to come.
For example, a simpler version of this scene appeared in Stephen Batman’s Christall Glasse (1569) under the heading ‘Pride’. Here again we see a richly apparelled Dives ignoring the virtuous beggar. The pauper’s humility is embodied in his bended knee, his desperation attested by his ragged clothes, and his helplessness shown by a bandaged leg. In his text, Batman calls on the rich to avoid pride and covetousness – instead they must give liberally to the poorest of the poor. Similar imagery can be found in a later woodcut that was used to adorn the title page of Robert Johnson’s sermon on Dives and Lazarus (orig. 1620). It too mirrored the medieval image of a holy beggar and a ‘devilish’ rich man. As I discussed in my book, the woodcut printed for Johnson’s sermon showed a beggar who could not be more deserving of charity. Such images suggest that published Protestant representations of the parable were little different from those of their pre-Reformation forbearers.
The most striking portrayal of all, to my mind, comes from the hand-drawn miscellany of Thomas Trevelyon (1608). Its bright colours and humanising features immediately reminded me of the illuminations in the Spinola Book of Hours from a century earlier. Interestingly, the biblical verses that accompany it do not include any from the story of Lazarus and Dives, yet the beggar covered in sores and with an empty bowl clearly alludes to it. For Trevelyon, this man is exactly the sort of person who ought to be given the ‘mercy’ of generous alms, despite the fact that others might look upon such a solid-looking young man and see a dangerous ‘rogue’. In the middle of a period known for its harsh vagrancy laws and anxious complaints about false beggars, this drawing presents a wonderfully human portrait of poverty personified.
I have come across a few other such images in my research so far, but I’m certain that there are many more out there. I would be very grateful to hear if any of you have found visual representations of Lazarus the beggar.