Title Background

Institutional and Legal Responses to Begging in Medieval England.

Institutional and Legal Responses to Begging in Medieval England.

Prior to the fourteenth century the story of begging was a “graciously told narrative” of conventions and rituals that allowed for the sharing of worldly resources. Three kinds of materials are sampled from the eighth to the twelfth centuries to understand the “design of social welfare”: ecclesiastical ideas about the doctrine of almsgiving; expressions of ritual and communal generosity; and contemporary opinion about “individual behavior and social order.” From the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries evidence is adduced from the traditions and responsibility of local government and the “testimony of clergy, lawmakers, and employers of labor” to account for the change in perspective in the later period when almsgiving was no longer considered to have an uncomplicated, positive effect on communal life, but the definition of beggar came to include, in addition, not only “the willfully unemployed but also servants and laborers demanding higher wages” and migrant workers. This negative construction of begging arose concurrently with the increasing parliamentary and civic regulation of labor in the decades following the Black Death. The capacity to labor became an essential “criterion in determining charitable aid” and moral and pastoral commentary encouraged unsolicited aid to the individual deserving poor. Stern regulation, on the other hand, was implemented to regulate the perceived dangerous and negative economic effects of the rise in the numbers of beggars—a rise that may, at least partially, be termed a “political fiction” since the government had been responsible for broadening the definition of the term. An Appendix details funeral doles from 1380 to 1459.


Social Science History 26.3 (2002): 447–73.


Clark, Elaine.