Society's Gray Areas

There were in the countryside many people who did not fit neatly into a particular niche.

At the bottom of this group were the vagabonds, beggars, cut-purses and masterless men - of whom there were thousands in Elizabethan England, for reasons that will be touched on later. If such a person were lucky, he or she could get a begging license, and beg in a particular town without hindrance from the constables. If one did not have such a license, and could not demonstrate a valid reason for being in a particular place at a particular time (being destitute and homeless was not considered a valid reason to wander the roads), one would be whipped through the village and ordered to go back where one came from. Multiple convictions for vagabondage could result in hanging. The parish was expected to take care of all the local poor, but little thought was given to providing for poor people who might come from other neighborhoods. Poor strangers were welcome nowhere.

A step above the vagabonds were wandering tradesmen such as peddlers and tinkers. They were welcome for the goods or services they provided, but they had an unsavory reputation for thievery, deceit and seduction of the local females.

Within the villages, there were specialists at one trade or another, such as blacksmiths, carpenters, thatchers, potters, weavers and the like. Most of these people were also peasant farmers who held plots insufficient to support them (ie cottars), and supplemented their incomes with their trades. They were not members of a Guild since the craft Guilds only existed in the towns. There was also, inevitably, at least one Inn/Alehouse in every village and the tavernkeeper held a rather important and respected place in the village community.

The village also usually had a priest who served as the local representative of the Church, and who had the job of solemnizing and presiding over the rites of peoples' lives; such as marriage, death and baptism. The level of education and dedication of the local clergy was not exemplary. Many of them were losers who had found a living in the
Church, having failed at everything else. The living provided by the Church was not very generous, and it often had to be supplemented by some farming or doubling as the local school master. Though meager, the livings provided to the village clergy did ensure the sustenance of the large class of men with some education but few prospects.

Another method of making ends meet in the clergy was "pluralism"; which was the holding of multiple benefices (posts). Thus a single cleric might be the parish priest of several different parishes, and might even collect a living from a parish he had never seen. If a Rector or Vicar held multiple benefices, he would often appoint poor priests as Curates to perform his duties in the less desirable locations.

Every gentleman's household, and many yeoman and peasant households, had servants. The status of servants varied considerably, depending upon where in the household hierarchy the servant was, and the status of the servant's master. The servant wore the badge and/or livery of his master and represented his master where ever he went. A man in livery had the right of free travel. Where a common wanderer without the proper papers would be treated as a vagrant, a servant could move freely, since it was assumed that he was on his master's business. A gentleman of course, could go wherever he wanted, without hindrance.

The usual criterion for the local authorities was: if a traveler was a well-dressed man on a horse or a servant in livery, he could travel freely; if he was afoot and poorly dressed, he was a dangerous vagrant and was beaten, put in the stocks, and generally made to feel unwelcome. Soldiers, tradesmen and peddlers who had valid reason to travel would be issued "testimonials" by the Justices of the Peace or other substantial persons, in
order to avoid such treatment.

Soldiers were also a group that didn't fit neatly into the structure of society. The officers were gentlemen, and were regarded as normal members of the gentry, but the rank and file were generally feared for their predatory reputation, despised for their poverty and envied for their freedom, flamboyance and virility. They were generally treated with circumspection, and all honest people were glad to see them leave. Their women, the "camp followers" were generally regarded as thieves and harlots by honest folk.

Up until now, I have referred mostly to men in the structure of society. This is simply because that is how the Elizabethans viewed the world. Status was something that men had, and a woman's status was derived entirely from that of her husband, if she was married; and her father if she was not. A woman was generally regarded as being one half step below her husband - of lesser status than her husband, but of greater status than all men who were of lesser status than her husband.

This is not to say that they were mute slaves. The Elizabethan woman had many customary rights, especially around the home, that were not reflected in the male-oriented, property-oriented legal system. She was, in practice, a more or less equal partner in the family, though the husband probably got the last word (or thought he did).

Elizabethan women spoke their minds, and though they didn't generally own property or hold office, they shouldered considerable responsibility. The husband might have been the master of the house, but it was the wife who held the keys to the doors and chests and ruled the house. Each sex had its unique rights and obligations, and in theory, when these were honored, a couple would make up a single, efficient unit.

In Husband and wife the next point to godliness and honesty, is good husbandry and good huswifery...He without doors, she within; he abroad, she at home; he in such things as befit his sex, she (in those that beseem hers), must be content to unite their pains for their profit, and to undergo the labor of getting their living in the sweat of their brows, and of eating the labor of their hands. Neither must be an idlesby, a do-naught, a loiterer; neither must be like a lame or gouty leg, that hath all the attendance, and
performeth no service for it: but they must be partners in painstaking, as two oxen that draw one yoke.

William Wately, The Bride Bush (1619)