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The three fine essays that follow and the recent turn of the century provide the occasion for an assessment of the state of the early modern social welfare history endeavor. What do we know now about the poor and poverty relief in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that the great policy historians of the early twentieth century did not know? Why? What methodological assumptions and foci have emerged over the past hundred years, and how have they deepened our understanding of social welfare? What are the current points of research departure? With such a potentially vast historical literature to consider, I must dismiss at the outset any claim to complete thoroughness. I have, rather, organized the essay around eight clusters of work that have shaped the historiographical corpus.
On June 15, 1624, Dr. Robert Vilvane informed the mayor of Exeter by letter of his displeasure with the haphazard application of poor rates in the city. Vilvane, who owned property within the city and in the surrounding countryside, was protesting the high rates imposed on his modest holdings in the city, since he was already subject to what he felt were excessive assessments on his country properties. Vilvane pointed out that he had taken it upon himself to support the purchase of armor and powder for martial officers, along with voluntary contributions to the poor, to churches, and to “sundry other taxes.” Despite a debt to the city in the amount of £500 (on which he paid interest), he did “freely give 12d weekly to two poor families here, which else would fall into penury.” Having recounted all this, he considered that “there is little cause to hoist me so high to all payments, who (besides my house) have little here [in the city].” At the crux of his argument, he asserted, was “that a Rate to the Poor is no competent Rule…both because it is uncertain…and also unequal, because some are set up too high, and others too low, by fear or favour.” Vilvane had contributed to a certain collection for the poor in a particular part of the city and noted that “many murmur at this day” about the collection, since it appeared that the overseers “did not disburse above half the Contribution.” As an unwilling party to this scheme, the doctor was upset, as he felt others were: “[I] do profess myself in this but an Echo of the Multitude, which are much aggrieved.”
When Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, he perpetuated the long tradition of foreign Protestants seeking shelter in England. England’s place as a religious refuge began after the Reformation; the resulting foundations of Stranger churches meant that a pre-existing community could advocate for the refugees. Yet, the religious attitudes that previously fostered an economy of entitlement for religious exiles no longer exercised the influence they once had. This meant that there was a distinct possibility that the Huguenot refugees of the 1680s could have become the first modern refugees.
Historians of early modern Europe have become accustomed to the dichotomy of the deserving and undeserving poor, though they still debate the origins of the transformation of attitudes toward the poor and poverty. Historians have studied less carefully the ways in which these presumably static categories flexed, as individuals and officials worked out poor relief and charity on the local level. Military, religious, and social exigencies, precipitated by war, the Reformation, and demographic pressure, allowed churchwardens and vestrymen to redraw the contours of the deserving and undeserving poor within the broader frame of the infirm, aged, and sick. International conflicts of the early seventeenth century created circumstances and refugees not anticipated by the poor law innovators of the sixteenth century. London’s responses to these unexpected developments illustrate how inhabitants constructed the categories of die deserving and undeserving poor. This construction depended upon the discretion of churchwardens and their fellow officers, who listened to the accounts and read the official documents of the poor making claims on parish relief and charity.