Effectiveness of Policies on Effects of Death in England

How effective were government policies in mitigating the effects of dearth in England during the period 1500 – 1850?


Look up ‘dearth’ in a modern dictionary and you will see it defined as ‘scarcity’, but in 16th and 17thcentury England ‘dearth’ could for many mean death. Although the spelling is near enough, a ‘dearth’ or scarcity (mainly applied to grain, which made up the staple diet of beer and bread) originated from the now quaint word ‘dear’ meaning expensive. And when food was too expensive the bulk of the population would starve; despite the philanthropy of the wealthy and the inadequate poor laws, which changed little for centuries after its first incarnation under Queen Elizabeth I. This was seen, particularly before the enlightenment, but surviving into in the 18th century, as the fault of the poor themselves who perhaps inadvertently had overloaded their sin quota and brought forth the ‘wrath of God’ who then visited upon the unfortunate sinners bad harvests and the consequential famines that followed.

For the removal of those heavenly judgements which our manifold sins and provocations have most justly deserved, and with which Almighty God is pleased to visit the iniquities of the land by a grievous scarcity and dearth of diverse articles of sustenance and necessaries of life”[1]

Although this might sound like a Cromwellian outburst it was actually written in the mid-18th century, providing proof positive for the masses that any misfortune which might arise (death, famine, etc.) was not by any fault of the ruling elite, but by powers beyond even kings, despite their ‘divine rights’.

But just in case the religious concept was not enough to quell any disturbances arising out of a starving population, laws had to be passed which, for example, forbade meetings of more than three men, and of not more than a dozen to be assembled at anytime or anywhere.

As with everything, words have a history. They are moulded by historical events and people. But they do not usually expire completely, instead they change.

‘Dearth’ was a far more ominous and morbid word to the people of the 16th, 17th, and 18th century than it is to the modern ear.

During the 17th century, starting in the late 16th, Governments were resistant to intervene in periods of dearth, though a form of protectionism was practised, to offset extremes of supply and demand, abundance and dearth, which was altered and revised when needs be. With a minimum and maximum price allowable for the exporting and importing of grain. A totally free market did not arrive until 1570. But as the price restrictions were instituted at a local and not governmental level the laws were not difficult to circumvent. Smuggling, for example, was practised, and easy to get away with, and it is true that smuggling was probably widely engaged upon. Add to this such things as bribery and corrupt local officials and it is easy to imagine a thriving black market sector within the price constraints.

This state of affairs begs the question of why did centralised government distance itself from intervention in the corn trade, and leave it to localised administration to implement any government protectionist policies? Opinions vary amongst historians but just two possibilities posited cite the City of London’s preoccupation with largely its own affairs, with its own idiosyncratic system, and the fact that abundance and dearth were largely regional and varied at different times and in different parts of the country. When central government did intervene, due to a particularly bad dearth, it is questionable whether intervention was instigated with an altruistic motive through amelioration of some of the more dreadful sufferings of the populace, or with a view to quell any disorder that might arise. Another interesting government policy that was sometimes practiced was the demonisation of alcohol, hoping that the populace would more easily subsist on more bread and less beer. When deaths from epidemic diseases, which were ubiquitous in this era, are taken into consideration, mortality rates still show a definite rise in years of serious dearth.

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