The Underclass, Underculture  & History From Below


V For Vagrant. Ink and Dirtied Water on A3 Rough Khadi Paper. 2021.

After the Black Death caused massive depopulation and, in turn, cut the labour force in half (bringing Feudal serfdom to an end) the surviving sought after labourers demanded higher wages, which provided more disposable income and allowed for peasants to have mobility rather than be tied to a landlord. Some peasants were even able to own their own land. Of course the authorities were concerned about this and how much freedom peasants were having, so the first labour law was implimented early on - the Ordinance of the Labourers, 1349 - to increase the available workforce, criminalise idleness, and cap wages at pre plague rates. Variants of this authoritarian act throughout the centuries weren't entirely successful, so tougher forms of punishment gradually became a more familiar sight.

With the labour supply severely reduced, increasing the need for the remaining labour force which came with a higher wage demand, landed eiltes could not meet these demands so farmers and labourers would flea the estates in search of work elsewhere. The Marxist historian Christopher Hill touches on this in his book, 'Liberty Against The Law': "the catastrophe of the Black Death was followed by a century of declining population. There was a shortage of labour, land was unoccupied, and so a splendid opportunity was offered to serfs to liberate themselves by running away and settling elsewhere on uncultivated land." So, vagabondage was a route out of serfdom, and although it had existed in various ways and for various reasons prior to the Black Death, it became a continuous and a more concerning problem, with authorities implimenting vagrancy and labour laws in an attempt to tackle it - the 1349 and 1351 labouring statutes, along with an enforced wage cap and price controls. These laws and their future variants, however, were never all that successful at controlling the mobility of labourers and masterless men. These authoritarian acts, laws, and reigns of oppression were the focus of a rebellious turning point - vagrancy, radical peasantry, anti-tax and anti-enclosure solidarity - during the crisis of the late middle ages, which brought the otherwise fragmented idea of class consciousness from below into a more solid concept.

A. L. Beier's 'Masterless Men: The Vagrancy Problem In England, 1560 - 1640' provides a great insight into this vagrancy concern and the era of state punishment which followed to counter it. From the time of the Black Death and the many popular uprisings across Europe to the culminating era of confinement beginning in the 17th century, there was a significant growth of corporal punishment in statute law. Stocks, used in medieval gaols, were ordered to be built in every town by the Statute of Labourers for the detention of runaway servants and labourers. In a statute of 1495 vagabonds and beggars were to be set in stocks for three days and nights with a diet of bread and water. The pillory was employed against fraudulent dicers and beggars, and in some cases signs were placed above their heads stating their offences. Another form of punishment was whipping, which was implimented widely due to it being cost effective and an efficient way to deal with vagabonds. To hold vagrants for trial, or send them to a house of correction, was expensive and troublesome, whereas a thrashing and a passport saw them off to be someone else's concern. As well as these forms of public punishment and humiliation there was also human branding; a V stamped on the chest, or an R on the shoulder. This was a form of surveillance to mark out vagrants from the rest of the population and giving some indication who had been criminalised. However, rather than alleviate the problem, vagrants continued to be relatively mobile.