England in the 14th century - a snapshot.
In the time of Geoffrey Chaucer (1340-1400) (The Canterbury Tales) and William Langland (1330-1400) (Piers the Plowman) England was still largely feudal as established by William the Conqueror. This consisted of parcels of land or `manors` held by a courtier or knight. The manor land was divided between the local lord of the manor, with small plots leased to vassals. The vassals or villeins as they were called, were not subject to eviction as such but were required to work for the landlord a specified number of days a year, as well as pay rents for their plot. On days when he was not required by the bailiff of the manor the vassal was free to work his own land, to raise crops for his subsistence and for sale. He and his wife and family would also have other occupations and skills such as weavers and dyers, spinners of wool, etc to help their income. The system worked well for centuries but gradually a desire for a better life and greater independence percolated the people. This manifested itself in successful peasant farmers expanding their land holdings and employing workers. At the other extreme the unsuccessful turned to outlawry as a means of obtaining a living; and joined a very large population of able bodied beggars, itinerants and persons of no fixed abode.
The poverty of the time is well illustrated in Piers the Plowman :
The neediest are our neighbours if we give heed to them.
Prisoners in the dungeon, the poor in the cottage,
Charged with a crew of children and with a landlords rent.
What they win by their spinning to make their porridge with,
Milk and meal, to satisfy the babes, —
The babes that continually cry for food —
This they must spend on the rent of their houses.
Ày and themselves suffer with hunger,
With woe in winter rising a-nights,
In the narrow room to rock the cradle,
Carding, combing, clouting, washing, rubbing, winding peeling, rushes.
Pitiful is it to read the cottage women’s woe.
A feature of the farming system was that labour was not always available at short notice. This led to the fixed days service being converted into cash, as rents, from which the bailiff could hire labour when needed. There even developed the concept of gang working - specialist labour to do the ploughing when required, to collect in the grain harvest etc. Coupled with the idea of personal freedom was the desire for improved status and therein for better rates of pay. The Black Death in 1348-9 killed about half the population of Britain and labour was short. This was an occasion when the people were astute enough to recognise their worth and to press for higher wages. Complete personal freedom - with freedom as a right, began to be talked about.
In this environment the words and ideas propounded by John Wyckcliffe fell on receptive ears, more so as he wrote in English and the distributed tracts were eagerly sought after. The disendowment of the Church was a suggestion to redistribute the wealth of the church and use it for the relief of the poor. This was also supported by the Lords whose lands had been given to the church as a means of saving their souls, as they saw a means of regaining their wealth (never mind the poor). Wyckcliffe`s tracts included criticism of the mendicant or `begging` friars whom he accused of being
"impudent beggars, roaming from house to house, [who] took advantage of the piety and simplicity of the people, and were snatching the morsel of charity from the famishing mouths of the aged and infirm. That their vows of poverty amounted to a declaration ,on their part, that they were determined to lead a life of indolence and idleness; and that whoever might be hungry, they should be fed at the expense of the community, and riot on the earnings of industrious poverty."
Underpinning this view was a desire to simplify the church and involve the people themselves in an increased responsibility for their beliefs and actions. Wyckcliffe wanted a different type of preacher who would call the people to repentance; use the sermon to reform life and manners, and give people a sense of a personal relationship with God. He saw absolutions, the Mass, pardons and penance commuted for money, as ways of avoiding personal responsibility. Thus he sought a church that was free of pious hypocrites who lived off the poor and kept them in bondage of superstition. He sought change not so much in society, but in people`s hearts with the aim of advancing the Kingdom of Christ.
At the bottom rung meantime, the poor starved and prices increased while wages were restrained by the Statute of Labourers. This legislation constrained the wages payable to free contract labourers for some forty years. The groundwork was thus laid for the likes of zealous former priest, John Ball, to fulminate against the wrongs imposed on the vassals and their families, and to sow the seeds of rebellion that ended in the Peasant`s Revolt of 1381.
It would be 180 years before the Statute of Labourers was replaced by a Statute of Artificers in 1563 which took forward the rights of workers by requiring contracts for labour be for a year. It required that no one could leave that employ for a year and included a requirement for 3 months notice. Every workman was liable to serve seven years apprenticeship and not allowed to leave his home district without permission. Hours of work were regulated and wages settled annually by the justices of the peace; in summer working from 5am to 7 or 8pm. In winter the hours were dawn to dusk. Even this regulation did not help the considerable number of paupers. What in fact was happening was that nothing was replacing the monastic and old feudal system which had focussed upon the responsibility of the community for all within it. This was soon recognised and a law passed
"to the intent that idle and loitering persons and valiant beggars may be avoided , and the impotent, feeble and lame, which are the poor in very deed, should be hereafter relieved and well provided for."
But enforcing it and collecting money was another matter. It was 1601 before The Poor Law was enacted, and work houses and alms houses
became established. These would remain the basis for poor relief until 1834.