Graphic Witness: Hugo Gellert
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Hugo Gellert: Karl Marx' 'Capital' in Lithographs

Savage legislation against the expropriated from the end of the fifteenth century onwards
Acts of Parliament to force down wages [1/3]

PRIMARY ACCUMULATION: Savage legislation against the expropriated from the end of the fifteenth century onwards -- Acts of Parliament to force down wages

A masterless proletariat had been created by the breaking-up of the bands of feudal retainers, and by successive acts of forcible expropriation of the land. But it was impossible for those who had been thus driven off the land to be absorbed by the rising system of manufacture as quickly as they were "set free." Nor could those who were suddenly removed from their customary surroundings and hurled into new ones be expected, all in a moment, to submit to the discipline of their new conditions. Large numbers of them became beggars, thieves, and vagabonds; in part, from inclination; but far more often from the pressure of circumstances. At the end of the fifteenth century, and throughout the sixteenth, there were enacted all over western Europe cruel laws against vagrancy.

The ancestors of the present working class were punished for becoming vagabonds and paupers, although the condition of vagabondage and pauperism had been forced on them. The legislature treated them as "voluntary" criminals, on the assumption that it rested with them to go on working under conditions which had ceased to exist.

In England this sort of legislation began during the reign of Henry VII.

Then, under Henry VIII, came the Act of 1530. Beggars who were old and were unable to work were to be granted a beggar's license. On the other hand, there were whipping and imprisonment for sturdy vagabonds. They were to be tied to a cart-tail and whipped until the blood streamed from their bodies; then they had to swear to go back to their birthplace or to where they had been living during the last three years and "put themselves to labor."

What a grim irony! [Subsequently] the former statute was renewed, being strengthened by additional clauses. In case of a second arrest for vagrancy, the whipping was to be repeated, and half of one of the offender's ears to be sliced off. A person convicted of a third offence was to be executed as a hardened criminal and an enemy of the commonweal.

Then Edward VI came to the throne. A statute passed in 1547, the first year of his reign, declares that if any one refuses to work he will be assigned as a slave to the person who has denounced him as an idler. The master shall feed his slave on bread and water, weak broth, and such refuse meat as he thinks fit. He is entitled to force the slave to do any work, no matter how disgusting, under penalty of the whip and chain. Should a slave absent himself for a fortnight without leave, the offender is to be condemned to slavery for life, and is to be branded on the forehead or on the back with the letter S. If he should run away thrice, he is to be executed as a felon. The master can sell him, bequeath him, hire him out as a slave, like any other personal chattel or brute beast. If slaves conspire against their masters, they are to be executed. Justices of the peace, on information, are to hunt the rascals down. If it happens that a vagabond has been idling anywhere for three days, he is to be sent to his birthplace, then branded on the chest with a V, and thereafter he is to be set to work in chains upon the roads, or at some other labor. Should a vagrant give a false birthplace, then he is to become the life-long slave of this place, its inhabitants, or its corporation, and to be branded with an S. All persons have the right to take away a vagabond's children and to keep them as apprentices, the lads until the age of 24, the girls until the age of 20. Should they run away, these young persons are to become the slaves of their masters until the attainment of the before-mentioned age. The masters may put them in irons or whip them, etc., if they please. Every master may have an iron ring welded round the neck, the arms, or the legs of his slave for better recognition and for safekeeping. . . .

Next take an Act passed in 1572, during the reign of Elizabeth. Unlicensed beggars over 14 years of age are to be severely flogged, and branded on the left ear, unless someone will take them into service for two years. In case of a repetition of the offense, if they are over 18, they are to be executed, unless some one will take them into service for two years. For a third offense, they are to be executed without mercy as felons. . . .

Thus was the agricultural population forcibly expropriated from the soil, driven from home, coerced into vagrancy, and then whipped, branded, and tortured by grotesque and terrible laws--constrained to accept the discipline required by the wage system.