First Advisor

Charles M. White

Date of Publication


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (M.A.) in History






Poor laws -- Great Britain -- Historiography Great Britain -- History -- Tudors (1485-1603) -- Historiography



Physical Description

1 online resource (89p.)


The Elizabethan poor laws stand as a great work from a dynamic period. How and why they were formulated have been questions which historians have asked for centuries. The discussions of these questions have varied, depending on the personal values and biases which each historian brought to this study. It is generally agreed that a very important function of the historian is interpretation. The study of history is not only a study of the events, but a study of the historians and their differing interpretations of those events.

In the past one hundred years, numerous historians have devoted themselves to studying the Elizabethan poor laws. Their interpretations varied considerably in some areas and very little in others. This essay examines some of those interpretations and attempts to find methodological and/or ideological differences which may account for the differing opinions. The study focuses upon four broad schools of historical thought-Whigs, legal historiains, economic historians, and social historians.

The historians selected represent a wide range of interpretations. James A . Froude, C. J. Ribton-Turner, and George Nicholls represent the Whig interpretation. William Holdsworth and G. R. Elton represent the legal interpretation. William J. Ashley, R. H. Tawney, and Peter Ramsey were selected as the economic historians. E. M.Leonard, B. Kirkman Gray, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, A. L. Rowse, and W. K . Jordan are the social historians.

Whig historians saw the poor laws as part of a continuing constitutional development. They interpreted them as representing the inevitable forward progress of the English system of government. Legal historians were concerned with the formulation of the law and with the machinery provided for its administration. Their interpretations focused on the law itself and its position in the legal system as a whole. Economic historians examined the factors behind the law and the economic factors in particular which they believed led to its passage. Thus, their interpretations centered upon discussions of the significance of such topics as enclosure, inflation, urbanization, and vagrancy. Social historians offered interpretations of the Elizabethan poor laws designed to explore the structural relationship between social classes.


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