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tibat during Reformari their acquiring tisans vis
one has ever worked so diligently at the economic history of England, and whom none can suspect of undue admiration of the Catholic Church, has also left it on record that during the century and a half which preceded the era of the Reformation the mass of English labourers were thriving under their guilds and trade unions, the peasants were gradually acquiring their lands and becoming small freeholders, the artisans rising to the position of smaii contractors and working with their own hands at structures which their native genius and experience had planned. In a word, according to this high authority, the last years of undivided Catholic England formed “the golden age” of the Englishman who was ready and willing to work.
“In the age which I have attempted to describe," writes the same authority, “and in describing which I have accumulated and condensed a vast amount of unquestionable facts, the rate of production was small, the conditions of health unsatisfactory, and the duration of life short. But, on the whole, there were none of those extremes of poverty and wealth which have excited the astonishment of philanthropists and are exciting the indignation of workmen. The age, it is true, had its discontents, and these discontents were expressed forcibly and in a startling manner. But of poverty which perishes unheeded, of a willingness to do honest work and a lack of opportunity there was little or none. The essence of life in England during the days of the Plantagenets and Tudors was that every one knew his neighbour, and that every one was his brother's keeper."?
In regard to the general care of the poorer brethren of a parish in pre-Reformation England, Bishop Hobhouse, after a careful examination of the available sources of information, writes as follows: “I can only suppose that the brotherhood tie was so strongly realised by the com
· The Economic Interpretation of History, p. 63.
munity that the weaker ones were succoured by the stronger, as out of a family store. The brotherhood tie was, no doubt, very much stronger then, when the village community was from generation to generation so unalloyed by anything foreign, when all were knit together by one faith and one worship and close kindred; but, further than this, the guild fellowships must have enhanced all the other bonds in drawing men to share their worldly goods as a common stock. Covertly, if not overtly, the guildsman bound himself to help his needy brother in sickness and age, as he expected his fellow-guildsman to do for him in his turn of need, and these bonds, added to a far stronger sense of the duty of children towards aged parents than is now found, did, I conceive, suffice for the relief of the poor, aided only by the direct almsgiving which flowed from the parsonage house, or in favoured localities from the doles or broken meat of a monastery.".
To relieve the Reformation from the odious charge that it was responsible for the poor-laws, many authors have declared that not only did poverty largely exist before, say, the dissolution of the monastic houses, but that it would not long have been possible for the ancient methods of relieving the distressed to cope with the increase in their numbers under the changed circumstances of the sixteenth century. It is of course possible to deal with broad assertions only by the production of a mass of details, which is, under the present circumstances, out of the question, or by assertions equally broad, and I remark that there is no evidence of any change of circumstances, so far as such changes appear in history, which could not have been fully met by the application of the old principles, and met in a way which would never have induced the degree of distressing pauperism which, in fact, was produced by the application of the social principles adopted at the Reformation. The underlying idea of these latter was property in
Churchwardens' Accounts (Somerset Record Soc.), p. xxiv.
the sense of absolute ownership in place of the older and more Christian idea of property in the sense of stewardship.
Most certainly the result was not calculated to improve the condition of the poorer members of the community. It was they who were made to pay, whilst their betters pocketed the price. The well-to-do classes, in the process, became richer and more prosperous, whilst the “masses" became, as an old writer has it, “mere stark beggars." As a fact, moreover, poverty became rampant, as we should have expected, immediately upon the great confiscations of land and other property at the dissolution of the religious houses. To take one example: Dr. Sharpe's knowledge of the records of the city of London enables him to say that “the sudden closing of these institutions caused the streets to be thronged with the sick and poor.”
“ The devil,” exclaims a preacher who lived through all these troublous times—“the devil cunningly turneth things his own way.” “Exanıples of this we have seen in our time more than I can have leisure to express or to rehearse. In the Acts of Parliament that we have had made in our days what godly preambles hath gone afore the same; even quasi oraculum Apollinis, as though the things that follow had come from the counsel of the highest in heaven; and yet the end hath been either to destroy abbeys or chauntries or colleges, or such like, by the which some have gotten much land, and have been made men of great possessions. But many an honest poor man hath been undone by it, and an innumerable multitude hath perished for default and lack of sustenance. And this misery hath long continued, and hath not yet (1556) an end. Moreover, all this commotion and fray was made under pretence of a common profit and common defence, but in very deed it was for private and proper lucre.” 1
* Roger Edgworth, Sermons, London, R. Caly, 1557, p. 309.
In the sixty years that followed the overthrow of the old system, it was necessary for Parliament to pass no less than twelve acts dealing with the relief of distress, the necessity for which, Thorold Rogers says, “can be traced distinctly back to the crimes of rulers and agents." I need not characterise the spirit which is manifested in these acts, where poverty and crime are treated as indistinguishable.
Dr. Jessop writes; “In the general scramble of the Terror under Henry the Eighth, and of the anarchy in the days of Edward the Sixtb. ... the monasteries were plundered even to their very pots and pans. The almshouses, in which old men and women were fed and clothed, were robbed to the last pound, the poor almsfolk being turned out in the cold at an hour's warning to beg their bread. The splendid hospitals for the sick and needy, sometimes magnificently provided with nurses and chaplains, whose very raison d'être was that they were to look after the care of those who were past caring for themselves, these were stripped of all their belongings, the inmates sent out to hobble into some convenient dry ditch to lie down and die in, or to crawl into some barn or house, there to be tended, not without fear of consequences, by some kindly man or woman, who could not bear to see a suffering fellow-creature drop down and die at their own doorposts.” 1
Intimately connected with the subject of the care of the poor in pre-Reformation days is obviously that of the mediæval guilds which, more than anything else, tended to foster the idea of the Christian brotherhood up to the eve of the religious changes.
It would probably be a mistake to suppose that these societies existed everywhere throughout the country in equal numbers. Mr. Thorold Rogers, it is true, says—and
* Parish Life in England before the Great Pillage (" Nineteenth Century," March 1898), p. 432.
the opinion of one who has done so much work in every kind of local record must carry great weight—that “ few parishes were probably without guild lands.” But there is certainly no distinct evidence that this was the case, especialiy in counties say like Hampshire, always sparsely populated as compared with other districts in the east of England, and where the people largely depended on agricultural pursuits for a living. It was in the great centres of trade and manufacture that the guilds were most numerous and most important, for it was precisely in those parts that the advantages of mutual help and co-operation outside the parish bond were most apparent and combination was practically possible.
An examination of the existing records leads to a general division of mediæval guilds into two classes—Craft or Trade associations, and Religious or, as some prefer now to call them, Social guilds. The former, as their name implies, had, as the special object of their existence, the protection of some work, trade or handicraft, and in this for practical purposes we may include those associations of traders or merchants known under the name of “guild-merchants.” Such, for instance, were the great companies of the city of London, and it was in reality under the plea that they were trading societies that they were saved in the general destruction which overtook all similar fraternities and associations in the sixteenth century. The division of guilds into the two classes named above is, however, after all more a matter of convenience than a real distinction founded on fact. All guilds, no matter for what special purpose they were founded, had the same general characteristic of brotherly aid and social charity; and no guild was divorced from the ordinary religious observances commonly practised by all such bodies in those days.
It is often supposed that, for the most part, what are called religious guilds existed for the purpose of promoting or encouraging the religious practices, such as the attendance at church on certain days, the taking part in ecclesias.