This post was written for Stray Voices, a project based at the Centre for Metropolitan History which uncovers the hidden histories of homelessness. You can find the original post here.
As Christmas approaches and the nights get colder, this time of year often sees modern Londoners expressing sympathy for the city’s homeless population through events like Sleep Out London and winter coat collections.
However, modern attitudes to the homeless are complex. This is very obvious in perennial debates about the morality of giving money directly to homeless people. The New Statesman recently ran two opposing opinion pieces. One decried the ‘abject morality’ of withholding cash from the homeless on the grounds that it might be spend on drugs or alcohol. The other, written by the chief executive of a London homeless charity, was appalled at the ‘inhuman fatalism’ of those who, like the writer of the first piece, advocate giving money regardless of whether it funds addiction.
Homelessness and the response of the settled population are topics fraught with anxiety in modern society. Much of it stems from concern about making moral judgments of others; how far is it right to make assumptions about homeless people on the basis of their circumstances or their appearance?
These kinds of debates about homelessness and vagrancy have a very long history in England and indeed across Europe. In medieval Christianity, poverty was thought to be a virtue. Following the example of Christ, the Franciscan friars were founded in the thirteenth century. They were bound to travel and preach the gospel, embrace poverty and reject property ownership. The friars were popular, especially in towns and cities.
However, with the advent of the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century, the holiness of unsettled poverty was severely questioned. Between a third and a half of the population of England died and as a consequence both economy and society were refigured. Scarcity of labour gave workers the power to demand higher wages. Statutes in the years after the plague attempted to limit wages to pre-plague levels and enforce dress codes which prevented peasants from displaying wealth above their station. However, where landowners refused to pay what was demanded, many rural people simply went on the road in search of work or alms elsewhere. In these circumstances, the church and authorities across Europe began to develop nuanced attitudes towards poverty, particularly the wandering poor, which drew distinctions between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ beggars; between those who were capable of labour but refused and those who, through no fault of their own, were incapacitated. In some ways, the tension between charity and judgment of who is ‘deserving’ has never fully been resolved, recurring in the following centuries from the 1601 poor law to its reform in 1834 and into our present ‘Age of Austerity’.
In the later fifteenth century, after a long period of stability, population levels were beginning to rise. Although it was to be another century before the city returned to its pre-plague population, the modest increase in population seems to have been the cause of much anxiety amongst the city’s rulers and the crown. A statute was passed in 1495 which attempted to discourage the poor from travelling in search of work called for the poor to seek alms or work only in the place where they lived, were ‘best known’ or born.(1)
Attempts to criminalise vagrancy and wandering beggars often associated homeless people (or ‘vagabonds’ as they were often called) with immoral behaviour. Proclamations decried them as ‘mighty beggars… which may get their living by labour and will not labour’.(2) These ‘idle persons’ could even be the cause of crimes by the settled population. In 1482, the city issued two proclamations denouncing vagrancy, one focussing on ‘great beggars’ and the other on ‘strumpets, misguided and idle women daily vagrant and walking about by the streets and lanes’. These women, it pronounced, encouraged Londoners in the ‘stinking sin of lechery’.(3) Homeless women, ungoverned by men and free to move around the city at will, transgressed sexual mores as well as offending by their idleness.
This harsh rhetoric was encouraged by the crown, and intensified in the early decades of the 1500s. However, this was a society where most policing was done by ordinary members of the public and where observation by neighbours was the basis for determining who had committed crimes.
In my research, I’m interested in how neighbourhood communities in London responded to the mobile and how they worked to marginalise individuals. This rhetoric, which encouraged the perception of the homeless as cause of multiple social problems, fed in to how individuals were judged. John Fuller, a servant from Essex, was judged to be a vagrant in London because he travelled to the city on business for his master’s family. In 1470 the parishioners of St. Mary Axe, London described him as a poor man and a drunkard who was ‘called by many names that he does not always use’.(4) John Fuller’s experience highlights how determination of who was a ‘vagrant’ could be contingent and how much it might be related to other behaviours which were considered problematic.
Then, as now, attitudes to homelessness were bound up with moral judgment of the circumstances and behaviour of vagrants. As the case of John Fuller suggests, in the late fifteenth century the two could become so entwined that an individual could be determined to be homeless on the basis of their appearance and behaviour rather than any knowledge of their lack of a home. One seeming continuity with the present day is the myriad of judgments and assumptions made about those who lack a settled home.
- Marjorie McIntosh, Poor Relief in England, 1350-1600, (Cambridge, 2012), pp. 43-44.
- London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), Court of Common Council Journal 8, ff. 49-49v.
- LMA, Court of Common Council Journal 9, ff. 14-14v.
- London Consistory Court Deposition Book, DL/C/205, ff. 225, 236-36v.