Pearls and Poverty in Elizabethan England

To the vast majority, the Elizabethan period means little more than fabulously dressed courtiers, exquisite jewellery, a queen with the most incredible hair, and giving the Spanish a bit of spanking when they got a bit too intimate with the South coast of England. For those a little better acquainted with the period, they might make note of its increased economic growth, prosperity, and the first tentative steps towards the creation of a colonial empire – all predicated upon state-sanctioned piracy of ships returning from the New World to the Old, attempting to head towards those same Spanish ports from which the infamous Armada set sail. The period is often cited as one of relative religious toleration, with Protestants and Catholics moving towards a detente although, of course, the extent to which that is the case is, in truth, limited.

But there is one aspect in which the Elizabethan period is considered to have paved the way towards the modern world; the assistance of the poor.

The 1601 Act for the Relief of the Poor, drew together a disparate set of prior legislation, and consolidated the idea that local parishes were required to provide alms, assistance, or work, to the destitute of their area. And this is often considered to demonstrate the care and maternal instinct of the mother of the nation. However, there are significant issues with considering this Act some kind of proto-socialism, and considering Elizabeth herself a kindly monarch for enacting it.

Firstly, the Act came in the final two years of the Queen’s life, and prior to it, a number of barbaric changes to the law were implemented that ensured the poor would have a genuinely miserable, and often violent existence. Henry VII had introduced a law in 1495 ordering those out of work and in poverty to be placed in the stocks for three days. Henry VIII raised the stakes to include a severe whipping. But the worst was yet to come. Elizabeth allowed a law to be passed in 1572 that required beggars to be burned through the ear for their first offence, and hanged for persistent poverty. Hardly the actions of a magnanimous ruler.

Admittedly, Elizabeth was the first monarch to legalise the distinction between the so-called ‘deserving poor’ and those who were able to work, and formalised assistance for the former group. However, the brutal punishment meted out to the latter group demonstrates that society was nowhere near an attempt to move towards social equality at that time.

The second issue is that the reasons behind why they were enacted demonstrates that there was no kindly intent in the Poor Laws. Quite aside from the Catholic hang-ups that still existed around alms-giving as part of the sacrament of penitence (which was a requirement if you wished to get to heaven), there were more terrestrial rationales.

Even 400 years ago, the wealthy recognised that people must be kept well-enough fed and sheltered to prevent crime; hungry people will steal to eat. It was a genuine concern of the day, amid a growing population and increasing unemployment, that there would be so many in poverty that they would band together in groups and form a substantial rebellion against the state. As it simply would not do to upset the social order in this way, a minimum quantity of resources was required to pacify the masses, keeping them docile enough to rule.

It was also believed that the poor were in and of themselves a cause of disease. In an age where it was believed that illness spread through miasma – bad smells – it is not difficult to imagine how this belief came about. Preventing widespread poverty was considered a way in which, to some extent, the spread of disease could be controlled.

By the time Queen Elizabeth I passed away in 1603, laws had been put in place that provided consistent assistance to those within society who were unable to care for themselves. But it was by no means a selfless act. And, whilst the Poor Laws continued to exist in some shape or form until their eventual and complete repeal in 1967, they can in no way be considered as a form of proto-socialism.

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The Paradox of Politics

During a lovely long walk to the middle of nowhere and back, a conversation was struck up about why the political right always seems to have greater periods of electoral stability and success than their politically left rivals. Certainly, if one looks over the timeline of British election results over the last couple of centuries or so, it reveals a startlingly blue hue. As the conversation progressed, it evolved into a more generalised look at how things generally remain broadly (small-c) conservative over the longue durée, with brief moments of liberalisation during which previously withheld rights are granted to repressed groups. Naturally, I start musing on the reason why this might be, and, why the left might in fact never win in the long run.

Although I wont pretend to be an expert on such matters, something became apparent very quickly. To explore it, I am going to use some incredibly blunt generalizations about the two wings, but it will save us from wasting the time to categorise and label each and every scenario when the majority understand broadly what is meant when referring to ‘left’ and ‘right’ in both situations described.

It should be noted that at this stage, these are very loose-fit thoughts that I shall probably return to ruminate upon at some point in the future. I would gladly welcome helpful input!

The first problem for the left is that it tends to err towards a position of acceptance of difference. This openness is seen by the likeminded as a forum for constructive debate, in which issues that face individuals and the wider world can be solved, and is one in which every person is entitled to hold their own opinion. However, whilst this is a perfectly good system when engaging with those of a similar persuasion, when faced with the more generally closed-mindedness of the right it faces an issue. Those on the right are traditionally less accepting of difference, and more likely to surround themselves with those of their own cultural background. When challenged on a resistance to change, the right must only remind the left that it is supposed to be accepting of all opinions, and that they must treat those of the right with the same respect as those of their own. In this, the left faces a conundrum. How does the left claim that the insular opinions of the right are incorrect, whilst maintaining their acceptance of free thought? To do so would be to undermine, and create a paradox within their own philosophy. Furthermore, the right is far more likely, due to its inherent homogeneity, to reach consensus between individuals and thus create a more unified position from which to fight their political battles. The left, however, is philosophically bound to allowing the voices of all to be heard, precluding the possibility of unification. The only binding consensus is that everybody may condone differing courses of action – which is not a useful position from which to launch an offensive upon an ideological rival. The only way in which this can be countered is to adopt the consensus strategy of the right; a hypocritical action. This undermines the left, creating a logic-crisis that can be easily exploited. ‘You believe in diversity and difference, yet you are all presenting the same front. You believe we should all have free thought, yet you wish to eliminate my preference for homogeneity.’ Furthermore, the likelihood of any left-consensus surviving over a significant period is inversely proportional to the willingness to abandon the core philosophy of individual thinking.

The second problem for the left is the preference towards pacifism. In practical terms, this faces the same paradox as the first problem in that the right only has to arm itself to fight a battle in order to have won both the physical and philosophical fight. In this situation, the left will either stick to principle, and be wiped out, or take up arms, and become the hypocrite that abandoned their philosophy. Once again, the left has no hope of winning.

The only hope of a stable and long term victory for the left is the permanent abandonment of some core beliefs by a select few who are willing to sacrifice their principles in order to ensure the survival of the deeper philosophies. Yet, even though this is something that is part of the day-to-day political vernacular, the true left attack this position, leading to yet more fragmentation.

As stated, this is only loose-fit thoughts at this stage. Furthermore, it relies on gross oversimplification of complex ideologies predominantly based on how one side views the other, rather than any basis in reality. However, I hope it is an interesting thought experiment nonetheless. I find it an interesting topic for consideration, and so I shall return to this at some point in the future when it is more developed!

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