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February 15, 2010

25 Years After Masterless Men.

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4 out of 5 stars

A.L. Beier’s ‘Masterless Men: The Vagrancy Problem in England 1560-1640’ was published in 1985 after over a decade of research and writing on the subject of Tudor and early Stuart vagrancy, and it remains a touchstone in the historiography of early modern poverty and social history more generally. Beier argues that the vagrancy laws of the late Tudors and onwards were constructed and enacted to deal with a new social problem: ‘a large landless element with no firm roots and few prospects’[1] that was unique to the demographic and economic contexts of the period between 1560 and 1640. Beier’s historical research was exhaustive, and it covered the depositions and arrests of over 1600 vagrants in Chester, Leicester, Reading and Warwick from 1571 to 1642, as well as over 5000 vagrants punished for misdemeanours in other counties such as Essex or Wiltshire for a similar period. Beier also drew upon parliamentary and polemical bodies of evidence to supplement his case studies. The effects of such extensive research are felt throughout the text, and Beier is able to offer effectively a portrait of vagrancy for all of England by making use of such materials. ‘Masterless Men’ also struck down certain orthodoxies in the scholarship of roguery and vagabondage, particularly the (then) widely held notion of a vast ‘Elizabethan underworld’ filled with hardened and organized criminals. Beier’s scholarship suggests that less than a third of all career vagabonds were criminal in nature[2], and that there was far more of a continuum between begging, wage labour, and petty crime then usually supposed. Paupers could and would make ends meet by using all three methods in a single day, if they needed to do so to survive.[3]

Beier also illustrates the contemporary elite and institutional perceptions of vagrancy, and argues that from such perspectives vagrancy was a dangerous challenge to the existing social order. The social structure of vagrancy existed at complete odds with the hierarchal and holistic body politic envisioned by every social commentator from the Monarch downwards. ‘Masterlessness’ in and of itself was considered a crime in early modern England, and vagrants aggravated their perceived social danger still further by being highly visible in addition to highly mobile. The vagrant’s morality was also implicitly at odds with social convention; alehouses were important meeting places and often a roof over one’s head, and social relations between vagrants were almost by necessity fragmented and often brief.[4] The trades and skills of vagrancy were also highly suspect to authorities, with tinkering, peddling, petty larceny or guile, and begging as the most common means used to get by. Beier convincingly demonstrates that the low levels of real wages, combined with high population growth and a large contingent of poor youth countrywide created a crisis situation which massively exacerbated existing conditions of poverty, in effect creating many more who were ‘rootless’ and without prospects.

Beier’s study ranges from 1560 to 1640, effectively from early in Elizabeth’s reign until the end of the reign of Charles I, but some of his sources and all of his conclusions range well beyond those temporal limitations. Beier’s arguments about the unique nature of vagabondage in his period when compared to the later Restoration and Augustan period are particularly thought provoking. He argues that after 1660, the number of cases of career or permanent vagrancy must surely have declined, based on increased demographic stability, economic prosperity, and increased spending on social policy and settlement, as well as changes in enforcement and juridical opinion.[5] But ‘while historians have been aware of the shift in policy after 1660, they have not examined the reasons for it in any depth’[6], which begs the question of whether or not historians have even examined vagrancy itself after 1660 in sufficient depth. Indeed, some of Beier’s conclusions seem hard to justify past 1700, particularly his assertion that the Acts of Settlement and the 1697 Poor Bill greatly mitigated and effectively controlled vagrancy. One could just as easily argue that such statutes merely redefined or ‘passed on’ vagrancy in a way which partially de-criminalized it but in no way mitigated the real experience of vagabonds as they were shunted from one parish to another, and that lowering levels of actual vagrancy were mostly a by-product of a more stable demographic composition and legal redefinition. Beier does account for several other mitigating factors in the late seventeenth century, including rising rates of impressment and emigration to the Americas. But ultimately Beier seems compelled to leave the story unfinished, and questions concerning the later seventeenth century unanswered; a tendency which is common in histories of the lower sorts well into the late eighteenth century, when population and fiscal pressures once again create crises of welfare and dependency. Implicitly then, the story of the vagabond during the later Stuart and early Augustan periods remains to be told, and while A.L. Beier provides a first-rate guide to vagrancy from the time of Shakespeare until the civil war, he can do no more than sketch the general character of the fate of the mobile poor during the reign of Charles II or Anne, and indeed even that depiction remains largely unconfirmed and untouched by social historians of the period.



[1] A.L. Beier. Masterless Men: The Vagrancy Problem in England 1560-1640. London and New York: Methuen Press, 1985. p. xxi

[2] Ibid. p. 124

[3] A.L. Beier. Masterless Men: The Vagrancy Problem in England 1560-1640. p. 89

[4] Ibid. p. 80

[5] A.L. Beier. Masterless Men. p. 171/2

[6] Ibid.


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