Responding to a Crisis: the Black Death, COVID-19, and Universal Basic Income

In this guest post, Professor Jane Whittle of the University of Exeter looks at the governmental response to the Black Death, and advocates a revolutionary new social policy for our own period of crisis. 

Jane Whittle

Unprecedented episodes of disease, such as the current outbreak of COVID-19, are moments of fluidity when parts of existing societies are laid bare as not fit for purpose. Wars create similar moments of flux. The Second World War created the consensus that allowed the founding of the NHS and the Welfare State. Could our current state of crisis lead to something positive and long lasting, amid all the disruption, trauma, and loss?

My research focuses on another such moment, the consequences of Black Death of the fourteenth century. In the midst of the Black Death the English government made the significant decision not to strengthen the institution of serfdom but instead to increase the regulation of waged labour with the Ordinance of Labourers of 1349.

The Black Death was an outbreak of bubonic plague that raged across Europe between 1347 and 1349 and killed an estimated 50% of the English population. Fortunately the mortality rate of COVID-19 looks to be closer to 1% of those infected (and thus lower for the total population). Yet in our highly interconnected modern society its impact is already shaping up to be enormous. Historians have long puzzled over the fact that the immediate social and economic impact of the Black Death appears to have been remarkably slight. Social, economic, and political structures remained in place. However, this is to overlook the innovation of the labour laws. The Ordinance of Labourers of 1349 was a revolutionary piece of legislation. It marked the end of serfdom and beginning of an economy dependent on wage labour, but it signalled that the government’s attitude to wage workers would be far from lenient. Although initially announced as an emergency measure by the monarchy, when Parliament next met in 1351 it was enthusiastically endorsed. The measures remained in force until the early nineteenth century. Continue reading

‘Clothes to go handsome in’: what did the seventeenth-century rural poor think about the clothes that they wore?

This guest post comes from Danae Tankard, a Senior Lecturer in Social and Cultural History at the University of Chichester. It follows on from Mark’s recent post on ‘Material Culture from Below’ and further demonstrates the potential of court depositions for examining the material culture of the lower orders in early modern England – here, their clothing. It provides an introduction to Danae’s broader body of work on the clothing of the rural poor in seventeenth-century England. You can follow Danae @morley1640.

Danae Tankard

Yet with that and such like words I made shift to buy me some clothes, and then I went to church on Sunday, which I never could do before for want of clothes to go handsome in.  My father being poor and in debt could not provide us with clothes fitting to go to church in (so we could not go to church) unless we would go in rags, which was not seemly.[1]

This passage is taken from the autobiographical writings of Edward Barlow, the son of an impoverished husbandman, born in Prestwich in Lancashire in 1642.  Written retrospectively when Barlow was a thirty-one year old seaman and had learned to read

Barlow leaving home

Barlow leaving home: in ‘rags’?

and write, it describes the period leading up to his first departure from home aged twelve or thirteen.  Since his father could not afford to indenture him as an apprentice, Barlow worked for his neighbours, harvesting and haymaking and carting coal from the local coal pits, for which he received ‘but small wages’ of about two or three pence a day.[2]  By making ‘shift’ he was able to buy himself some clothes to ‘go handsome in’ to replace the ‘rags’ that he had worn before.  The significance of these new clothes in Barlow’s account is that they allow him to attend church, something he could not do before ‘unless [he] would go in rags, which was not seemly’.  His description of his clothing as ‘rags’ may be an exaggeration but it enables Barlow to express his sense of shame at having nothing decent to wear to church.  However, Barlow does not want just any clothes: he wants clothes ‘to go handsome in’.  In other words, he wants to look good. Continue reading

‘At Christmas we banquet, the rich with the poor’: Christmas Dinner in Tudor & Stuart England

Mark Hailwood

screen-shot-2012-12-18-at-8-19-47-pmChristmas dinner is undoubtedly one of the most popular Yuletide rituals in Britain today – but what is its history? If you like, as any good historian would, to have a bit of historical context up your sleeve to bore your relatives with over the Christmas period, then I offer up to you the following morsels about the ritual meal’s sixteenth and seventeenth century character…

A cycle of midwinter celebration was established in Britain in the early part of the Middle Ages, so by the sixteenth century the Twelve Days of Christmas – running from 25th December to 5th January – had already been the focus of festivities for centuries. The holidays kicked off with Christmas Day itself, and after attending an early morning church service the attention quickly turned to feasting. From Advent Sunday, the fourth before Christmas Day, people were encouraged by the Church to restrict their diet, with Christmas Eve kept as a strict fast day on which meat, cheese and eggs were all forbidden. Come Christmas Day then, appetites had been sharpened for the first unrestricted meal in weeks.

So, a big dinner was already central to Christmas Day ritual by the start of the sixteenth century, and by the first half of the seventeenth century we start to find evidence of certain foods having a close association with Christmas celebrations. The ‘minced pie’ – then a mixture of meat, fruit and spice baked in pastry case – appears in seventeenth century records. So too does ‘plum porridge’ – a beef broth with prunes, raisins and currants in it. For the main meat dish beef or brawn (meat from a pig or calf head), both stuck with rosemary, were the favoured options. Continue reading

Class conflict in Elizabethan Norfolk?

Brodie Waddell

In early March 1601, four men got into an argument in the small village of Wicklewood, about eleven miles west of Norwich. Although no blows were exchanged, one of the men uttered words that were dangerous enough to lead to a legal examination by a local magistrate. It is only thanks to this brief deposition – which I’ve transcribed at the end of this post – that we have any knowledge of what was said that day.

I came across this document last summer at the Norfolk Record Office when I was searching through the county quarter sessions files looking for something else. I’d completely forgotten about it until Mark put up a post last week that discussed the history of conflict hidden in England’s rural landscape. That post reminded me that the argument recorded in this deposition might provide some further illumination of this oft-debated aspect of early modern history.

The story, as recorded on this small slip of paper, goes like this. Roger Wells of Wicklewood had hired John Chibocke and Richard Hamond of the neighbouring village of Morley ‘to worke with him’. But Chibocke and Hamond arrived very late and Wells was angry. He declared that if he paid them the wages they really deserved, they wouldn’t be pleased. The two workmen replied that Wells and his ilk ‘Cared not thoughe poore men wrought the[i]re harts out’ and wished ‘that wee might have warres againe, [for] then we should have Corne Cheaper’. At this point, William Seaborne – presumably a partner or employee of Wells – stepped in. He rebuked Chibock and Hamond for their rash words, saying ‘these be matters you understand not’. Yet this just incensed Chibock further. ‘If a thowsand mysters were deade’, he said, ‘we poore men should farre the better’. Continue reading

The undeserving poor: ‘rich beggars’

Brodie Waddell

Fear and hatred of the ‘undeserving’ poor pollutes our thinking about poverty. The shadows of scroungers, fraudsters and cheats who falsely claim to need our help loom over every conversation about benefits and over every new welfare policy.

Rich beggar (2013) Evening StandardHeadlines about workshy swindlers march across the front pages of our papers almost every day. A quick online search reveals over 10,000 news stories on ‘benefit fraud’, reported both in the nation’s most popular newspapers and in local papers like the Bromley Times and Coventry Telegraph.

Such stories are part of our deep anxiety about those who get something for nothing. We worry that our taxes, our donations, our hard-earned money is being spent on people who don’t need it. The public believes that fraud accounts for over one in every four pounds in Britain’s welfare budget, when in fact it is well under one in a hundred. Such fear and fury are not confined to any particular class – they are common enough among the wealthy and educated as well as the working class. You have, I’m sure, occasionally heard examples of this from family and friends, just as I have. Sadly, if you pay careful attention, you’ll probably find it sometimes lurks in your own thoughts too. Continue reading

‘Sometimes in one place and sometimes in another’: Agnes Cooper in Southwark, 1619

Our next post in ‘The Voices of the People’ symposium (full programme here) is by Laura Gowing, Professor of Early Modern British History at King’s College London. Whereas the petitions and letters under consideration in recent posts often provide only tantalising details about the lives of the individuals behind them, our next batch of posts consider ‘ordinary’ individuals about whom we can say rather more. Here Laura is able to use depositional evidence to reconstruct the fascinating life story of Agnes Cooper of Southwark, but she leaves us with another crucial question to consider: was there anything empowering about the fact that Agnes was able to leave her life story to posterity?

Laura Gowing

In November of 1619, a fifty-eight year old woman found herself in a desperate position. Single and short of money and work, she had just been evicted from her lodging, and her Southwark parish, determined not to support her, drove her over the parish boundary to her birthplace near London Bridge. It was not an uncommon dilemma in early seventeenth-century England, where the poor law determined a ‘settlement’ for poor relief in the parish where a person had been born or had last spent a year. But Agnes Cooper was unusual in that her struggles left several pages of records, including this long and precise story of her working life.

In the recuperation of the ‘voices of the people’, those of women are often hidden: by low levels of female literacy before the 18th century, but also by being elided into a broader sense of ‘family’. Agnes lost her birth family young, and, like a surprisingly high proportion of Tudor and Stuart women, never married; instead she moved from household to household, working where she could, until she could work no longer. Her story begins in the parish where she was born and spent most of her life.

Agnes Cooper was (she told the scribe):

about the age of 58 years born in the parish of St Olave, Horsleydown Lane daughter of William Cooper by trade an embroiderer.

St Olave’s ran by the river from London Bridge to Bermondsey; it was a large parish, full of multi-occupancy houses and textile workers. Agnes’s father was one of the more skilled.

She went on: Continue reading

Amplifying the Voices of the People

Our next post in ‘The Voices of the People’ symposium (full programme here) is by the many-headed monster’s very own Brodie Waddell, Lecturer in Early Modern History at Birkbeck, University of London. Brodie reinforces the message that has emerged from our last few posts: that the voices of the people do survive in abundance in the archives of the early modern period. They may do so in ways that are mediated or formalised, yes, but he argues that this should not blind us to the enormous importance of these valuable historical documents. Brodie finishes with a rallying cry that echoes that of Helmut Groser and Ann Tlusty: these documents are too significant to be allowed to remain buried in archival repositories, or worse to be lost altogether to the vagaries of record survival. Instead they should be digistised and made freely available as a matter of priority to promote the ongoing renaissance of history from below.  

Brodie Waddell

As a historian, digging up the dead is part of my job. I arrive at the archives as a grave-robber intent on plunder. I riffle through their clean, grey cardboard boxes searching for a peculiar treasure – tatty papers recording dead people’s words in stark black ink.

I’m privileged enough to have the time, the funds and the training necessary to make such plundering expeditions a routine part of my professional life. As a result, I regularly emerge from the archives with prizes like the letter below, which lay among dozens of other papers in a box labelled ‘QS/4 box 134’, carefully preserved in the storeroom of the Devon Heritage Centre.

The letter, written in 1693, was sent from a widow named Elizabeth Snow to the county magistrates:

To John Elwell Esquire & the rest of the Honourable Bench,

Most Honoured Gentell men I hope your worships will take this my humble pittishon [=petition] in Consideration that I being here Commited form [=from] the bare [=bar] to this prison and am not able to paye the fine but must here pireish [=perish] without your mercyfull Consideration to take of[f] my fine for I have not one penny in the world to helpe my selfe with out of the Cherryty [=charity] of good people to relefe me for I have maintaind a Crippell Childe this 16 yeares and never had but one penny a day towards it[.] this being in great malish [=malice] sworen against me undeserving I hope you will for the Lords sake pitty my miserable Consdishon and relefe me out of this misry which shall be bounde in dewty Ever to pray for you all most Honnerable gentellmen which am a poore distressed widdow

Elizabeth Snow

I don’t know why she was imprisoned and I don’t know whether she was successful in her petition for release. In fact, I don’t know anything about Elizabeth apart from the claims in this letter, though further digging in the archives would probably reveal more. Continue reading

Petitions of the People?

Our next post in ‘The Voices of the People’ symposium (full programme here) is by Jonathan Healey, University Lecturer in English Local and Social History at the Oxford University Department of Continuing Education. Focusing on petitions for poor relief, Jonathan further expands our discussion of early modern petitions and their value to practitioners of history ‘from below’, whilst at the same time raising crucial questions about their authorship and the extent to which they can really be considered the ‘authentic’ voices of the people.

Jonathan Healey

In 1699, Richard Tyldesley, a labourer from Little Hulton, Lancashire, presented at petition at Wigan Sessions.

It was on behalf of his neighbour Thomas Gerrard, and it described the latter man’s poverty in vivid terms.

‘Thomas Gerrard’, he wrote, ‘is now and hath lain sick in bed this five weekes, his wife is now in child bed, was allmost recovered, but now relapsed. The husband and new borne child lye in one poor bed the 3 children scarce recovered of sicknes. There is neither meat nor fire in the house.’

All they had received in poor relief was six shillings, ‘which will not pay and maintaine a person to looke after them’, and had not their neighbours offered their charity, ‘they had been all starved & miserably perished in the house before this’.

But charity had its limits, especially – though this was unsaid – at a time of high prices such as 1699, so ‘now their charity begins to slacken so that tis impossible they should any one of ‘em subsist 3 dayes longer but will miserably perish for want of releefe’.

Tyldesely’s petition, which was successful, is one of thousands of similar ones that survive in the Lancashire Archives. They begin in 1626, and cover the period of up to around 1710. It’s part of an elaborate process: the one by which poor relief – in what was the first national system of tax-funded poor relief in the world – was allocated. In the discussions about who was deserving or help – as Steve Hindle has eloquently argued – petitions like these show that the poor themselves were part of the conversation. They were active. They appealed. They negotiated. The Lancashire petitions give us a window onto these processes, and these negotiations.

They are, in many ways, quite simple documents. They asked for relief, gave some reason for why it was needed, and – sometimes – gave snippets of other information. Something about how the petitioner had tried to ‘make shift’, for example, or something about their bad treatment at the hands of the authorities.

Ostensibly, they are an ‘authentic’ voice of the poor. And yet, peel back the layers, and some considerable complications emerge. Continue reading

The beggar and the rich man: picturing the holy poor in Tudor and early Stuart England

Brodie Waddell

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.

Anon, Lazarus and Dives, Spinola Book of Hours (c1510) Continue reading

Measuring misery?

Brodie Waddell

In the late sixteenth century, the famed Elizabethan poor laws commanded every parish in the kingdom to relieve their poor residents though local taxation rather than private charity. By around 1800, England’s parishes were spending more than £4 million per year on poor relief.

One of my current research projects is an attempt to examine the nature of this massive expansion in formal, institutional support for the most vulnerable members of the community – that is to say, the rise of the so-called ‘parish welfare state’. I’ve been doing this by looking at the amounts spent by local officers – the overseers of the poor – in a set of sample parishes from across the country. Jonathan Healey at Oxford has been doing much the same, and we have recently decided to work together, combine our data and attempt to come up with a new analysis of this oft-noted development.

I will be discussing some of the early findings from this project at a talk on Friday, February 28th, at the Institute for Historical Research in London, so please do come along if you are interested. However, I thought I might offer one image from the talk here as I think it raises some potentially interesting questions.

Poor relief spending, 1600-1750 (81 parishes, 24-02-14)What you see above is an estimate for national annual spending on poor relief based on my sample of 81 parishes. There are some significant methodological problems with these estimates – especially for the first few decades – that I will discuss in my talk. But, for the sake of argument, if we assume that this is actually an accurate measure of relief spending in England, the question then becomes: What does this tell us?

It seems to tell us that there was not simply steady growth in relief in the 17th and 18th centuries. Instead, we see periods of extraordinary expansion, of stability and of retrenchment. We also seem to see a shift in the trajectory of the rise sometime in the decades around 1700, when growth seems to have accelerated markedly.

Yet, this graph is also extremely opaque. There is much that it does not tell us.

For example, what about non-parochial poor relief, such as formal charitable bequests or informal personal giving? Did this follow a similar pattern? Or was it working in the opposite direction?

What, too, about regional differences? Was there similar growth in sleepy country villages as in booming industrial towns?

Even more significantly, this graph tells us little about why parish welfare was expanding in this period. Although we can speculate based what we know about the periods of greatest expansion, the raw numbers in themselves cannot reveal short-term economic pressures or changing legal contexts.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this bare line may obscure the nature of relief, which was after all a relationship between human beings who normally knew each other – not simply an anonymous financial transaction.

Did those who received relief actively demand it or passively accept it? Did those who distributed it do so gladly, grudgingly or fearfully – as an act of Christian charity, or out of mere legal obligation, or to stave of the threat of disorder? Was such relief considered the poor’s rightful entitlement? Or was it conditional upon their obedience and reputation for morality?

In other words, whilst this chart may offer a useful bird’s eye view of the emergence of perhaps the world’s first nation-wide welfare system, its lack of a human dimension may also actively mislead us about the nature of this system. For that, we must look to records in which real individuals – such as Mary Stevens, the 101-year-old vagrant – step out of the page to meet us.


The 81 sample parishes upon which the chart is based include 24 whose totals were generously provided by other historians. I am therefore very grateful to the late Joan Kent via Steve King (for 9 parishes), Henry French (7 parishes), Jeremy Boulton (3 parishes), Tim Hitchcock & Bob Shoemaker (2 parishes), John Broad (2 parishes) and Steve Hindle (1 parish). If you or any of your colleagues have data on parish poor relief before 1834 that you are willing to share, please get in touch!