The Underclass, Underculture  & History From Below


Confine & Punish

B for Blasphemer & a red-hot poker through the tongue. Ink & dirty water on Khadi paper. 2021.

Quaker James Nayler, punished as a blasphemer by having his tongue bored through with a red-hot iron and branded with a 'B' in 1656. Ink & dirty water on rough A3 Khadi paper. 2021.

Pillory. Graphite & Ink on Rough Fabriano Paper. 2021.

V For Vagrant & Half An Ear Sliced Off. Ink on Rough A3 Khadi Paper. 2021.

Throughout the medieval era, the poor, vagrants, 'mad' people, the unemployed, beggars and thieves were kept alive by charity in monasteries and almshouses, but after the Tudor dissolution of the monasteries and a shift away from rights to hospitality these itinerants and outcasts were imprisoned in establishments which sought to reform through hard labour: hospitals, charitable workshops and correction workhouses (Bridewell, which became a generic term for hospitals/workhouses after the place) - all part of a bigger social policy, and what Michel Foucault called 'The Great Confinement'.

Along with this increasing incarceration of the lower class and outsiders, this interregnum period between Feudalism and Capitalism also saw a significant growth in corporal punishment and public humiliation within 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 in the late Middle Ages, and in some cases documents were placed above their heads stating their offences. As well as the stocks and pillory, vagrants and beggars endured the most widely used and cost effective form of punishment: whipping. 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.

Begging licences and passports (widely conterfeited by lower clergy, since the majority of the population were illiterate) were in circulation from the 14th century not long after the Black Death, playing a part in the surveillance of the movement of vagrants and masterless men. Brandification was another form of control. Symbols such as V for vagrancy stamped on the chest of an idler; R for rogue stamped on the shoulder; and B for blasphemy, stamped on the forehead (as in the case of rebel Quaker, James Nayler). Aboard slave ships and at slave markets, slaves usually had whichever merchant's logo on their shoulder when being sold. And during the two centuries of the Spanish Inquisition's reign of terror, heretics were ordered to wear capirotes, which were colour-coded cone hats indicating the relevant heresy they were accused of, and adorned with imagery (the devil in particular) indicating sinfulness; they also adorned a smock called a sanbenito with their crime sewn into the fabric, and they'd have to wear this attire during public processions through the town weeks prior to the Inquisition trials.