chapter  7
31 Pages

The “mixed economy of welfare” in early modern England: assessments of the options from Hale to Malthus (c. 1683-1803)

The sixteenth century saw attempts in many European countries to systematize giving to the poor. It was suggested that accumulated funds should be put under central direction, perhaps of bodies of men appointed by municipalities, and that casual alms should likewise be directed to such bodies for distribution. In practice such consolidation was certainly rarely-probably never-achieved in communities of any size, neither in England, nor elsewhere in Britain, nor on the Continent. Although public bodies or officers-in England, churchwardens and “overseers of the poor”—did gain control of some funds, even in some states the right to tax (much more extensively employed in England than elsewhere), they did not achieve a monopoly of relief, but rather joined the ranks of other official, collective and individual donors. The seventeenth century was, indeed, marked by a proliferation of relief sources: in Catholic countries, in the context of counter-Reformation mobilization of both clerics and pious laity; in England, in the context of a wave of charitable giving within the framework of the developing law of trusts, lovingly chronicled in this century by W.K.Jordan. The invention of the “subscription charity” in late seventeenth-century England-a kind of charity relying more or less heavily for its funds on regular or occasional donations by a body of supporters-added a powerful new type to the existing range of relief-distributing entities. None of these developments displaced the individual donor, doling out alms face-to-face or in response to “begging letters”.1