Fable of the Poor

Controversies among English historians may appear to the world arid or comical affairs, but in fact they are the signs that we know something about a subject but that we don’t yet know quite enough. The combatants throw up enormous banks of material and at first the divide between them seems unbridgeable. Sometimes the digging by rival groups is so intense that the ground of the debate shifts, as happened over the commutation of labor services in the system of land tenure called feudalism, and is happening now over the famous dispute about the gentry in the early seventeenth century. At other times the chasm between the two sides gets filled in by the bulldozers—sometimes indeed by the work of one man, as when Father David Knowles put an end to the debate about the dissolution of the monasteries with volumes of such dispassionate erudition that the exchanges a generation previously between G. G. Coulton and Cardinal Gasquet looked absurd.

One controversy in which the bulldozers are still hard at work centers upon the effect of the industrial revolution upon the standard of living and quality of life among the poor. It has been going on for more than fifty years since John Clapham first took J. L. and Barbara Hammond to task for being so indignant about the degradation and poverty of the industrial and agricultural laborer. Since then gangs of historians have been at work, some stressing how benevolent and humanitarian, others how callous and self-interested, the legislation of those days was, some arguing that despite the trade cycle real wages were rising, others that the pool of desperately poor people was always being replenished by the increase in the population. Here, however, is a fine book based on the reading of the by now vast secondary literature, which helps immensely to fill in the ground between the two sides and make the reader conscious of how complicated a matter the idea of poverty is. Gertrude Himmelfarb has written more than just another contribution to the controversy. Her book says something important about the feelings and ideas of our ancestors—and about our own.

She begins by asking a simple question. What did people in the past mean when they spoke of the poor? Who did they think they were? Were they those below a certain level of existence? Or were they merely those who were incapable of earning a living—cripples, orphans, and the aged? Did government, central or local, have a duty to relieve them? At what level should such support be? Should any distinction be made between the deserving and undeserving poor? Were there two nations as Disraeli said? Or were there different tribes of poor, some in recognized occupations, others comparable to Mayhew’s street folk or Max Stirner’s Lumpen?

In answering these questions Gertrude Himmelfarb pays a singular compliment to England. Christendom had always made charity a virtue: “Ye who now shall bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.” But from the end of Elizabeth’s…

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