IT was undoubtedly fear of social disorder in the two and a half centuries following the Black Death which gradually converted the maintenance of the poor from an aspect of personal Christian charity into a prime function of the state. With approximately one-third of her population removed by plague, England’s fourteenth-century economy had a chronic labour shortage and a paternalistic state attempted to introduce wage control by the Statute of Labourers of 1351. This was reinforced by the Poor Law Act of 1388 which not only tried to fix wages but also to prevent that mobility of labour which would cause wages to rise. Laws against vagrancy were thus the origins of poor relief, and whenever economic conditions prevailed which encouraged men to wander the country in search of employment, the late medieval and early modern English state sought to restrict this mobility for fear of its social consequences.
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