A Prayer against the Exploitation of the Poor from the 16th Century

The Sixteenth century was a period of considerable poverty and unrest. In addition to the social and religious disruption caused by the Reformation and Dissolution of the Monasteries, a rising population caused increased demand for land. Inflation increased, and a series of bad harvests led to famine. The late medieval contraction in trade resulted in wid3espread unemployment, with many towns declaring that they were unable to meet the taxes set by central government. The populated area of many towns contracted, leaving whole suburbs in rack and ruin. Henry VIII’s antiquarian, John Leland, declared that 200 houses – a considerable proportion of the town’s housing stock – in Bridgwater were in ruin. Instead, whole families poured into occupy the very poorest districts. These people were too poor to pay taxes, and so largely went undocumented. Worse were the enclosures. Improving landlords began to enclose their land, denying their tenants and peasants the right to graze their animals their ancestors had enjoyed during the Middle Ages.

The Rich only Stewards of Land and Property in Sixteenth Century Theology

The results were rioting, and a vast literature of protest, based in Christian theology and belief, in pamphlets and sermons from the 1540s and early 1550s. Much of this literature was based on the notion of the stewardship of the rich. Their land was given to them by God, not for them to use it as they pleased, but to use wisely and morally. This included taking proper care of their tenants and the poor. Robert Crowley in 1548 declared, ‘If there were no God then would I think it lawfull for men to use their possessions as they lyste (please) … But forasmuch as we have a God, and he hath declared unto us by the scripturs that he hath made the possessioners but Stuards of his ryches … I think no Christian ears can abyde to heare that nore than Turkysh opnion.’

Poverty was still largely seen as the fault of the individual, but there was sharp, bitter criticism of the aristocrats and gentry who raised rents, and exploited and evicted their tenants. They were ‘the caterpillars of the commonwealth’, ‘ungentle gentlemen’ who neglected the duties of stewardship to their tenants that the Lord had placed upon them.

The preacher Brinkelow declared that ‘the erth is the poor mannys as wel as the rych’, and stated that ‘the earth O Lord is thine’, emphasising that the world was not the preserve of the wealthy alone, who were responsible to no one but themselves. A contemporary prayer for landlords prayed that God’s grace would change their callous attitude to the poor

A Prayer for the Rich to Rediscover their Christian Duty to their Tenants and the Poor

‘We heartily pray thee to send thy Holy Spirit into the hearts of them that possess the grounds, pastures and dwelling places of the earth; that they, remembering themselves to be Thy tenants, may not rack and stretch out the rents of their houses and lands, nor yet take unreasonable fines and incomes after the manner of covetous worldlings; but so let them out to other that the inhabitants thereof may both be able to pay the rents and also honestly to live, to nourish their families and to relieve the poor’.

Regardless of whether one is a Christian or not, the central lesson – that rulers and the wealthy also have a duty to act morally and defend and provide for the poor and their families – still remains. It is to be hoped that it will be rediscovered in this new age of poverty and discontent.

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6 Responses to “A Prayer against the Exploitation of the Poor from the 16th Century”

  1. Mike Sivier Says:

    Reblogged this on Vox Political and commented:
    I have the distinct feeling that we have an investation of ‘caterpillars of the commonwealth’ at the moment…

  2. guy fawkes Says:

    Are we in the new age of poverty and discontent or the old age of greed and elitism?

    • beastrabban Says:

      Either/or, Guy! I think one is very much the opposite face of the other. The greed and elitism of Cameron and his cronies is breeding poverty and discontent. It’s merely two sides of the same coin

  3. thepositivevoice Says:

    Reblogged this on thepositivevoice.

  4. rainbowwarriorlizzie Says:

    Reblogged this on HUMAN RIGHTS & POLITICAL JOURNAL.

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