chapter  8
12 Pages

THE UNEMPLOYED

THE problem of Unemployment, which gives us so much anxiety, confronted our forefathers ~lso, although it was not then nearly so vast and complicated. Many causes contributed to produce it: the breakdown of the Feudal System freed serfs from the obligation of rendering service to ~their lords, but they were not all fit for other work, and many who had given up their lands in the hope of obtaining better employment in the towns, discovered too late that they had not the skill necessary for industrial occupations. Agricultural labourers were thrown out of work by the enclosure of large tracts of land for sheep farming. The development of the manufacture of cloth so greatly increased the demand for wool that land-owners found it more profitable to turn their land into pasture than to grow corn upon it. Enclosing was not carried on as extensively in our period as in the sixteenth century, but even in the reign of Henry VII Parliament declared that on account of it idleness daily increased, for where in some towns "two hundred persones were occupied and lived by their lawfull labours, nowe ben there occupied two or three herdemen." The selfish policy

of the Gilds in limiting the number of apprentices each master might take also caused unemployment, as many youths were prevented from-- acquiring the training needed to make them efficient artisans. The workmen themselves complained that the employment of aliens deprived them of work, and no doubt this was a factor in the situation. The long wars in which England was engaged also tended to swell the numbers of the un· employed: many soldiers returned from them unfit or unwilling to work. There were others also who could earn a living, but who preferred to be idle: such, for instance, as a beggar described in Mr. Riley's Memorials oj London, who went about " barefooted and with long hair, under the guise of sanctity," pretending to be a hermit; for six years he lived " by such lies, falsities, and deceits," whereas he was able to work. Langland speaks very severely about men of this kind-Piers the Plowman, in pity for the poor, is about to bid Hunger leave the country, but first he asks what he is to do with beggars, saying that he knows well they will work ill if Hunger be gone. Hunger, in reply, tells him to feed them "with houndes bred and hors bred" and make them work. This advice is the more remarkable as Langland was full of sympathy with the sorrows of the poor. It contrasts curiously with Mr. Bernard Shaw's assertion that" a man could not be a reasonable moral human being unless he had a reasonable, dignified sub· sistence."