Tough Love, 14th Century Style

We have alluded before in this space to the conundrum of living in a community where–well, where you get hit up for spare change or are otherwise wheedled and baited as part of some impromptu street-based money-raising scheme. We have quoted Walt Whitman's injunction "give alms to all who ask." And we have watched as our town and nearby cities have adopted laws–for instance, San Francisco's "Sit-Lie Ordinance"–that are supposed to address the issue.

In researching another topic just now, I found that England's King Edward III dealt with panhandlers, too. Here's a section of a decree handed down in 1351 to deal with the impact of the Black Death that had recently swept the kingdom:

"… Because many strong beggars, as long as they may live by begging, do refuse to labor, giving themselves to idleness and vice, and sometimes to theft and other abominations; none upon the said pain of imprisonment, shall, under the color of pity or alms, give anything to such, who are able to labor, or presume to favor them in their idleness, so that thereby they may be compelled to labor for their necessary living."

I like the phrase "under the color of pity or alms." Mustn't give sway to those kinds of feelings or predilections.

(And what could this possibly have to do with the Black Death? Well, England was facing a severe labor shortage after the plague, and the king was answering demands to find able-bodied workers. The same proclamation also prohibited laborers, who found themselves in a sellers' market, from demanding higher wages for their work; that prohibition is said to have become the Common Law precedent for blocking formation of labor unions in the United States up through 1840.)

Walt Whitman: Injunction

“This is what you shall do: love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labour to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence towards the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency, not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”

—Walt Whitman, Preface, “Leaves of Grass” (1855)

Random Quotage

A friend has a column on Wired News today about giving spare change to a homeless guy and about the debate, within and without, that goes along with that act:

“Slipped a homeless guy a buck the other day. After he mumbled off down the street, my companion sniffed her disapproval: ‘It only encourages them, you know. And he’ll just use it for drugs or alcohol.’

“I had looked him squarely in his gimlet eye. I could smell his breath. Safe to say she was right.

” ‘Who the hell cares what he uses it for?’ I said. ‘If it kills the pain for a few hours, I’m happy to help. …’ ”

In any case, it’s not an only-in-San Francisco story. I go back and forth on this whole thing myself. But I always have Walt Whitman’s take in the back of my mind:

“Love the earth and sun and animals,

Despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks,

Stand up for the stupid and crazy,

Devote your income and labor to others …

And your very flesh shall be a great poem.”