THE COMMON WEAL
The fact that I begin in the early sixteenth century is not meant to imply that there had not earlier been policies and activity to advance the public welfare in a multitude of directions. Any such presumption would obviously be false. Religious institutions, both lay and clerical, had for centuries been involved in pious works, which were defined to include the maintenance of such public services as hospitals, roads, and bridges, as well as almsgiving; and public attitudes towards charity had been shifting with some deliberation since (and arguably in part in response to) the demographic and economic crises of the mid-fourteenth century.1 Central government, council and parliament, had long been concerned with economic and social regulation, exemplified again since the Black Death in labour and sumptuary legislation. The institutions of local government also, in towns, manors, and parishes, were -- from the 1460s if not before -- increasingly involved in what might be termed social control: in regulating alehouses, vagrants, illicit sexual behaviour, and unruly pastimes.2 The topics which will occupy this book all have a prehistory which will be referred to in what follows and drawn on for comparative purposes in the concluding chapter.
It nevertheless makes sense to start in 1500, and to consider the period up to the 1560s as a single entity. Over that period, projects, policies, and civic activity for welfare purposes all came together for the first time under a single banner -- that of the common weal -- and it was carried forward by combined (and sometimes contending) forces of unusual variety and determination. It was recognizably the first of a number of similarly con-____________________