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By the sixteenth century, poverty
had become a ‘severe problem’ in England.1 The prevalence of poverty
in early modern English society makes it essential in the understanding of
social relations in this period. The period marked some of the most fundamental
changes in the way poverty was perceived and how the poor were handled
throughout the whole of English history; namely, the effect of the Reformation
on attitudes towards the poor and how poverty was to be remedied, as well as
the statutes put in place by the national government i.e. the Elizabethan Poor
Law and how these were implemented locally. The argument put forward in this
essay is that social relations towards poverty reflect wider ideas that pervade
the period; ideas of control, order and hierarchy. To emphasise this
hypothesis, three sources have been singled out to represent both specific
examples and subtle nuances to how poverty played a role in social relations. Firstly,
there will be an examination of the Swallowfield Articles, which show an
attempt at local leadership trying to address the issue of poverty in their
parish. Secondly, there will be an analysis of Thomas Hardman’s negative portrayal
of ‘vagabonds’, also referred to as ‘vagrants’ and how this sub-group of the
poor were treated in society. Finally, with the example of Gillis van
Tilborch’s Tichborne Dole painting, there will be an examination of the role of
charity in this period, focusing on the narrowing conditions placed on the poor
to receive this charity.

There was an emergence of local
governance in this period that solidified the development of social relations
between the self-proclaimed leaders of communities and the poor during this
period. The Swallowfield Articles, written in 1596 by a group of individuals
who came together with the intention to be leaders or representatives of the
parish, outline a set of resolutions that were to be bestowed upon the
community and amongst themselves. The articles are unusual in the sense that
they provide ‘extraordinary vividness and detail’ into the emerging politics of
the parish which remained fairly dormant in the rest of the country at this
time.2 The context surrounding
the articles is one rooted in a time of uncertainty due to immense social and
economic dislocation associated with the period. This notion of uncertainty, as
though the order of things was out of balance, may have then pushed members of
the community to form this ‘compayne’. The ‘compayne’ recognise the need to
help the ‘honest poore, the blynd, the syck, the lame & diseased persons’
(no. 19).3 This is not an atypical
attitude, since the sick were a group that were ‘viewed with…sympathy’ and
treated the most ‘generously’ compared to other groups of the poor nation-wide.4 More interestingly however
is the use of the word ‘honest’, which opens the discussion of the authors
defined ‘honest’ as. The articles state that the poor need to be ‘warned to
lyve & behave them selves’, and that the poor were common ‘disturbers of
peace & quyetnes’ (no. 15).5 This language suggests
that the authors saw themselves as being above the poor, which undoubtedly
shaped the social relations they engaged in. The idea that the masses, which were
comprised largely of the poor, should be ‘subservient and well-behaved’ did have
a great influence over local management of the poor.6 Hindle, in his analysis of
the articles, made the assessment that the ‘compayne’ launched ‘a local
experiment in social regulation’.7 One example of this
regulation was to ‘stay the maryage’, or prohibit the marriage of, the poor
(no. 20).8 The idea that the
‘compayne’ felt it within their power to be able to do so emphasises how social
relations between themselves and the poor were generally one-sided and showed a
lack of empathy. It is important to recognise that the articles were only to be
viewed by the ‘compayne’ themselves, which suggests why they were so open about
this extreme example of regulation. The articles also promote the idea of
reverence on the Sabbath day (no. 24).9 This gives insight into
the religious undertones that were present among the chief inhabitants of
Swallowfield; an undertone that promoted the idea of social order and
worldliness that would have permeated throughout their community. The
interesting emphasis within the opening articles on the chief inhabitants
themselves conducting good behaviour within their meetings shows that this idea
of order applied even to them (no. 1-7).10 However, this pursuit of
social order ultimately shaped how they viewed the poor and effected social
relations within Swallowfield, and similar ideas existed in wider early modern
English society.

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