Tough Love for Panhandlers, 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 public concerns about getting panhandled.

In researching another topic just now, I found that England’s King Edward III dealt with panhandlers, too. Here’s a section of the Ordinance of Laborers, handed down in 1349 as to deal with the impact of the Black Death that had recently swept the kingdom:

“… Because that many valiant beggars, as long as they may live of 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.”

To be clear, the law didn’t outlaw begging. It outlawed giving anything to beggars. (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? you ask. Well, England was facing a severe labor shortage after the plague, and the king was answering demands to find workers. The same proclamation essentially required all able-bodied people under 60 to work; in fact, if someone who was otherwise unemployed was asked to work and refused, they could be thrown in jail; and anyone who was employed was forbidden to leave their position “without reasonable cause or license.” The statute 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.