Internet Shakespeare Editions

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Beggars as criminals

Beggar. Jan Van der Vliet. Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.

Genuine beggars--those who were disabled*, and could not work for a living-- were tolerated, and were actually able to get a licence to beg. Others were less fortunate.

Able-bodied men over fourteen who had no visible means of support--often dispossessed farm labourers-- were to be whipped, and a hole burned through their right ear on a first offence, hanged for a second. Unemployed people were shunted from parish to parish until they could find someone willing to give them work. Fortunately, it seems that these draconian laws were enforced only sporadically.

The laws were expressed in terms of the employment of men, but of course there were as many women* and children involved. Even actors were considered vagrants unless they had the patronage of a master over the rank of baron.

Professional criminals

There were reports of an extensive underground of "coney-catchers" (con men) and other criminals, especially in the cities. Click here for more.


  1. The disabled

    The mentally disabled were largely uncared for unless their families could afford to keep them in the hospital Bedlam, on the outskirts of London.

  2. "Cold and comfortless"

    Good gracious people, for the Lord's sake, pity the poor women, we lie cold and comfortless night and day on the bare boards in the dark dungeon in great misery.
    (Orlando Gibbons, "Street Cries")