Crime and PunishmentVagabonds Return to the main page
Case Study 1- Was it a crime to be poor? Task Glossary
  In this period governments became increasingly worried about people they called "vagabonds". A vagabond was anyone who didn't seem to have a regular job or a fixed home.
Vagabonds became the main criminal stereotype of the 16th and 17th centuries. The very existence of such people made the ruling classes angry - as can be seen in some of the language used in these Sources. With no police force, governments were worried about disorder, even, sometimes, rebellion. They believed that it was the beggars' fault that they were unemployed. They said that vagabonds chose not to work and were just lazy, preferring a life of crime. A whole series of harsh laws were passed against them. One, in 1531, said that a vagabond had to be "tied to the end of a cart, naked, and be beaten with whips till his body be bloody…"
That more people were unemployed and on the road was not, in fact, their own fault. Population was rising: it doubled from 1500 to 1650. Farming was going through a crisis and, in years of bad harvest, the very poor had to leave their homes and seek work or starve to death inside them. Trade suffered occasional depressions. There was, of course, no dole or welfare. The monasteries, which had given charitable help to such people in the past, were all dissolved in 1536-9.
The Poor Laws of 1598 and 1601 made a distinction between what they called "impotent poor" - people too old or disabled or sick to work - and "sturdy rogues" - those who could work but did not. The first group were to be looked after. The second were to be punished and sent to their home parish. Was this making it a crime to be poor?
Case Study 1  Sources
Source 1 Source 2 Source 4 Source 3