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The Progress of the Nation page 17


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To relate all the jollity with which Christmas was celebrated is beyond our space. The Christmas carols with which the waits awoke all the sleeping people for a fortnight before; the yule-log dragged into the hall and piled on the fire, the boar's-head feast, with plum-pudding and mince-pies, and all the dances and games, were as much in fashion as in the days of the ancient Church. Plough Monday, Valentine Day, Easter and "Whitsuntide, St. John's Eve, and all the charities of Maunday Thursday, were still maintained. Even Palm Sunday, when the figure of Christ went on its procession mounted on a wooden ass, resisted the Reformation till the year 154S, or nearly to the end of the reign of Edward VI.

The drama, which was now shaping itself into freedom and splendour under such men as Shakespeare and Marlowe, was yet conducted in a style very rude. The theatres were mostly of wood; the actors were rarely arrayed in proper costume; women's parts were represented by boys; any scenery which the play had, remained, like a picture on a country fair booth, through the whole piece. The aristocratic frequenters sate on the stage, for there were no boxes or dress-circle, and the commonalty sate on stools and enjoyed their pipes and beer during the performance. What was worse, the theatre had to contend with the bear-garden, bull-baiting, and cock-fighting in the affections of the public, even the highest portion of it.

As Sunday had been the great day of the Church plays or Mysteries, so Sunday was the chief day of the theatre, which brought it into disrepute with the serious portion of the community; and when there was bull-baiting, the theatre was closed that it might not interfere. Queen Elizabeth was especially fond of the bear-garden, and that sport was consequently included by Leicester in the recreations which he provided for her at Kenilworth. In truth, bear-gardens, cock-pits, bowling-greens, tennis-courts, dicing-houses, taverns, smoking ordinaries, and the like, abounded, giving us a fair idea of the grade of taste of that age. Hunting and hawking were still pastimes of the sentry, and horse-racing became a great rage. The first notice we have of this latter pastime is on the occasion before mentioned, when Henry went a-Maying in 1515; after which it is said that he and Ms brother-in-law, the Duke of Suffolk, diverted themselves by "racing on great coursers." In fact, the taste of this remarkable age was of a very low type - sensual, empty, and vulgar; of a stamp, indeed, which none but the lowest of our present population could for a moment endure: a fact showing in a marked degree the immense advance since then of refinement in mind and in morals. A people any purer and more humane could not, in truth, have existed amid the daily spectacles which surrounded them: the heads of traitors stuck on gate and bridge, the bloody execution of queens and nobles, the -crowds of wretches dangling from a thousand gibbets, the flaming stake, the bran ding-iron, the scourge, and the stocks, were the most familiar objects to a people who required a Shakespeare to interlard his finest tragedies with harlequins and fools.

CONDITION OF THE PEOPLE

But amid the grossness of this century there must have existed a large intermixture of a more moral class, for the Bible had become extensively read, and the Reformers must have been numerous to enable the Government to effect the ecclesiastical changes which they did; and the advance of physical improvement must not be judged of by the popular condition of to-day, but of previous times. In the course of the century the condition of the people considerably advanced. At the beginning the houses of farmers were generally of timber, and those of labourers of mud, or wattle and mud. In many of them were no chimneys, except one for cooking. Wooden trenchers and wooden spoons were used instead of pewter or earthenware; and a yeoman who had half-a-dozen pewter dishes in his house was looked on as wealthy. Their lodging was equally mean. Straw beds and pillows of chaff were most common; flock beds were a rural luxury; and the farm servants lay on straw, and often had not even a coverlet to throw over them. The bread of the common people was made of rye, barley, or oats, and in many districts of peas or beans. The gentry only ate wheaten bread. The men by the fire in the evening, after their day's work, made their own shoes, or prepared the yokes for oxen, and their plough-gear. The women made the wool and the hemp or flax ready for the weaver at the spinning-wheel. As they do now on the Continent, the countrywomen worked much in the fields. Fitzherbert, the first of our writers on husbandly, says that it was the business of the farmer's wife "to winnow all manner of corn, to make malt, to wash, to make hay, to shear corn, and, in time of need, to help her husband to fill the muck-wain, or dung-cart, drive the plough, to load hay or corn, to go to market and sell butter or pigs or fowls."

Latimer, who was a farmer's son, describes the advance in the value of land in his time. When he was young, he says, his father's farm was rented by him at 4 a year; that he employed half-a-dozen men upon it, and had 100 sheep and thirty cows; that his father managed to send him to school and college, and to give to each of his daughters o on her marriage. But, continues Latimer, at the time he wrote this, the same farm was charged 16 a year, or fourfold, and that the farmer of it could do nothing for his prince, himself, or his children, nor give a cup of drink to the poor. The cause of this was the increased demand for wool, which had occasioned great enclosures, and a decrease of tillage in favour of pasturage. This pressed greatly on the labouring class who were not employed; for the gentlemen had flocks of from 10,000 to 20,000, and a few shepherds were all they needed in their great enclosures. The gentry, who thus occupied the land, we are told, did not reside there, but crowded up to London, and hung about the Court. "Hence," says Roger Ascham, "so many families dispersed, so many houses ruined. Hence the honour and strength of England, the noble yeomanry, are broken up and destroyed."

The evils of this state of things compelled the legislature to put restrictions on the extent of pasturage, to insist on the tillage of sufficient land for the wants of the community; and penalties were enacted for such as did not build proper cottages for their labourers, with four acres of land each, or who allowed more than one family in one cottage. The evil produced its own remedy. The scarcity of tillage land raised the price of produce, and that stimulated to the manuring and better culture of the land. We learn from Harrison and Norden, writers of the period, that towards the end of the century things were greatly improved. The farmers and small builders were become more painstaking and skilful. They collected manure and even the sweeping of streets, burnt lime, and carted sea-sand, as in Cornwall and Devon. The consequence was that they had better cattle and better crops, they had milk from their cows, ewes, and goats; and they used much more meat. In the autumn they cured bacon and beef for the winter; and in summer they had abundance of veal, beef, and mutton, which, says Harrison, they ceased to baste with lard, but basted with butter, or suffered the fattest to baste itself.

With their living, their houses improved. Wood or wattle gave way to stone or brick, the wooden trenchers were superseded at substantial tables by pewter, and with the pewter began to show themselves articles of silver. Feather beds replaced the straw and chaff mattresses; there was more abundant linen, bed-covers, and better clothing. Coal was beginning to make the scarcity of wood less felt.

The vast increase of foreign trade and of manufactures which we have noticed, must have proved the most effectual means, far more than enactments, for encouraging tillage, from the augmented demand of provisions and luxuries; and the same causes would provide employment and good wages for increased numbers. The land as well as every other thing in the kingdom was in a transition state, and as the vast estates of nobles and the Church, now divided amongst a multitude, came to be settled and cultivated, the diffusion of life and prosperity through the rural districts was no doubt proportional. At this time there must have been a great flow of population from the agricultural to the manufacturing districts, as the latter were making increased demands on the strength of the nation; yet it appears that the produce both of the tilled ground and of pasturage was steadily increasing. The small cottagers, who had probably been but poor farmers, being now gradually absorbed into the growing artisan population, gave place to greater and wealthier men, who laid out the ground in large grazing farms. This gave rise to the false impression that the population was decreasing, and the statistics of the period give frequent evidence of the alarm thus occasioned. Harrison, in his " Description of England," says: - "It is an easy matter to prove that England was never less furnished with people than at this present; for if the old records of every manor be sought, and search made to find what tenements are fallen, either down or into the lords' hands, or bought and united together by other men, it will soon appear that in some one manor seventeen, eighteen, or twenty houses are shrunk. I know what I say by mine own experience, notwithstanding that some one cottage be here and there erected of late which is to little purpose. Of cities and towns either utterly decayed, or more than a quarter or half diminished, though some one be a little increased here and there - of towns pulled down for sheep-walks and no more but the lordships now standing in them, beside those that William Rufus pulled down - I could say somewhat." Our evidence, however, for the increase of the population Is incontestable; and the wages for ordinary labour seems to have been quite double its old amount in this century. It may be interesting to record some of the salaries of the period. In the household of the Earl of Northumberland, in loll, the principal priest of the chapel received 5 a year; a chaplain graduate, 3 6s. 8d.; a chaplain, not a graduate, 2; a minstrel, 4; a serving-boy, 13s. 4d.; all these being lodged and fed in addition. In 1500 a mason received 4d. a day, and 2d. for diet. In 1575 a master mason received Is. a day, and a common labourer 8d. In 1601 a master mason had Is. 2d. a day, and a labourer, 10d. The long continuance of internal peace had increased the population from two millions and a half in che commencement of the fifteenth century, to six millions and a half at the end of the sixteenth; but the increase of trade, of commerce, and of tillage, had not been able to absorb a tithe of the homeless and destitute people who had been increasing since the abolition of villanage and the destruction of the monasteries, which had fed swarms of them. We have had occasion to show that these vagabond tribes overran the country like a flood, "vagabonds, rogues, and sturdy beggars" carrying terror and crime everywhere. Henry VIII., Harrison tells us, in the course of his reign, hanged of robbers, thieves, and vagabonds, no fewer than 72,000, and Elizabeth, toward the latter part of her reign, sent 300 or 400 of them annually to the gallows.

We find a statute of the first year of Edward VI. containing the following: - "Idleness and vagabondry is the mother and root of all thefts, robberies, and all evil acts and other mischiefs, and the multitude of people given thereto hath always been here within this realm very great and more in number, as it may appear, than in other regions; the which idleness and vagabondry all the king's highness' noble progenitors, kings of this realm and this high court of Parliament hath often and with great travail gone about and assayed with godly acts and statutes to repress; yet until this our time it hath not had that success which hath been wished; but - partly by foolish pity and mercy of them which should have seen the said godly laws executed, partly by perverse natures and long-accustomed idleness of the persons given to loitering - the said godly statutes hitherto hath had small effect, and idle and vagabond persons hath been suffered to remain and increase, and yet so do." "If," continues the Act, "they should be punished by death, whipping, imprisonment, or with other corporal pain, it were not without their desert, for the example of others and to the benefit of the commonwealth; yet if they could be brought to be made profitable and do service, it were much to be wished and desired." Such words would lead us to conclude that they were about to adopt conciliatory measures with regard to this troublesome class, but we find on the contrary the harshest enactments put in execution. Thus,, every person found idle and wandering without any effort to find work was to be considered a vagabond, and was liable to be seized by any one and forced to labour, for which he was to receive only his daily food. If he attempted to run away, he was to be branded on the breast with the letter "V" and made the slave of his owner for two years. If he made a second attempt for liberty, he was to be branded on the forehead or cheek with the letter "S" and made his master's slave for ever; while a third effort at escape was punishable by death. The severity of this law prevented its being properly executed, and caused its repeal in two years. After various futile enactments, Henry VIII., in 1530, gave the sick and impotent permission to beg; and in 1535 the magistrates and the clergy were ordered to make collections for their relief. These were the first approaches to a poor-law, and in the year 1562 Queen Elizabeth passed an Act making parochial assessments for the poor compulsory. The poor-law, therefore, in reality dates from that period; but in the year 1601, the celebrated Act of the 43rd of Elizabeth organised and completed that system of employing and maintaining the destitute poor, which has remained for ever the law of England. Such was the sixteenth century in England; a period more remarkable than any which had gone before it, and which, with all its dark and repulsive features, was the gloomy dawn of the glorious day which we now enjoy. It was an age in which the whole system of society was in a state of convulsion, in which whatever was antiquated, contracted, or rotten, was severed and thrown down; and the seeds of a thousand new things thrown into the upturned soil, already showed those vigorous germs and shoots which have ever since been growing and ripening into a country and a moral and political condition which have no parallel.

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