16Th Century English Economics Essay, Research Paper
Like Plato, almost 2000 years before him, Thomas More was not satisfied with the political and economic structure of the society that he lived in. More found that his society, 16th century England, was a corrupt society that favored the few and oppressed the many. More, like Plato who wrote the Republic, also wrote a political commentary about his time entitled “Utopia”. In Utopia, More explains the relative idiocy of killing a thief for stealing when because of the economic situation of the time many peasants were driven from their homes by the rich landowners. Contributing factors to this consist of the “Black Death” of almost 150 years before and a change in agriculture leading to a rise in poverty as More illustrates in Utopia.
The “Black Death” was a horrible plague that wiped out about two thirds of the population of Europe between the years of 1347-1350. The consequences that followed and the turmoil that affected most of Europe was not fully recovered from until about the sixteenth century. The “Black Death” swept through Europe killing millions of people. It wiped out towns, depopulated cities and left Europe in turmoil. The crops that were in the land died because no one was able to tend the fields and starvation was great during the next few years as food was scarce and the price rose because of it. One good thing that did occur was a rise in the wages of the working class people, namely the peasants.
Such a great loss of people destroyed many small towns and villages and depopulated the cities. The lords consequently received more land when a tenant died without anyone to whom to pass the family farm. Looking for laborers to work the land proved to be a fairly large problem, because of the diminished labor force. Labor was difficult to find and what labor that could be found was more expensive. This was because the peasants realized that they were more in demand and therefore could charge more for their services than they could when the labor force was large. Food, which was more expensive before the “Black Death”, decreased in price because less food was required to feed the population. Manufactured goods rose in price as well as craftsmen were able to charge more for their goods because there was less competition for them. The decrease in farm good prices and the subsequent rise in farm worker wages and manufactured goods had many landowners looking for a different way of getting money rather than through conventional farming.
The noble landowners after the “Black Death” did not make as much capital. They needed to figure out a way to make more profit on less merchandise and reduce the number of workers in the fields to reduce their costs. They turned to sheep farming. Wool was the main textile with which one produced clothing. By turning to sheep farming, sheep being the sole producers of wool, and gaining a monopoly on wool, the landowners were able to sell wool for a rather large price to other people in the land. More states that sheep are: “man-eaters. Fields, houses, towns everything goes down their throats”. Unlike fields of grain, sheep need few people to attend them as long as there is a fence around them. They don’t need too many people watching over them to make sure that they do not run away. What began to happen in England at the time is that landowners would evict the peasants from their fields and turn their land and houses into fields in which he could tend his sheep. This had the result of forcing many peasants from the farms into the large cities and into poverty.
When they were forced to leave their homes the peasants got very little for their land. What they did have was usually not worth very much so they did not have enough money to start again. This had the result of many of the peasants being forced into the streets of the cities as they could survive on what little they had for only so long. The eventual loss of all their money and property lead many people to theft.
Thomas More believed that theft , and especially the punishment of thieves, was a problem in 16th century England. With the end of the former farming practices of raising wheat and other grains and the rise of sheep farming, thousands of people flocked to the cities to start a new life. Eventually as More States: “they’ve been wandering around for a bit this little is all used up, and then what can they do but steal and be very properly hanged?”. Essentially what happens is that the peasants move into the towns but they cannot find any work or a place to live as they have little money with which to survive. Eventually all their money gets used up and they begin to
get hungry. Since a human being depends upon food to survive, the peasants would start to try to get food any way that they could. This meant that they had to steal or beg for money so that they could buy food. If they were caught for stealing they would be detained and then killed.
Killing, More believes, is a very unjust sentence for stealing in order to survive. Especially since by killing another person someone receives the same sentence. More Believes that if a thief were to kill the person they stole from they would lessen their chances of being caught and since if caught there can be no worse sentence than death this is shown when he states:
From a practical point of view, surely it’s obvious that to punish thieves and murders in precisely the same way is not only absurd but also highly dangerous for the people of the public. If a thief knows that a conviction for murder will get him into no more trouble than a conviction for theft, he’s more naturally impelled to kill the person that he’d otherwise merely have robbed. It’s no worse for him if he’s caught, and it gives him a better chance of not being caught, and of concealing the crime altogether.
Thomas More suggested that perhaps killing a thief is not the answer, maybe giving them jobs and feeding them would be more just. All the thief wants is to eat a decent meal and not have to worry about starving to death. If the king were to get those detained to start working for him doing public service, building roads and other various occupations then he would not have to worry about needing such high taxes to pay people to do those things and simply provide these people with food and a place to live and thievery would be lessened because they would already be provided for.
England at the time of Sir Thomas More was a rather unjust place where the greater population lived in poverty and oppression. As is evident in his writing, More is aware that many of the problems in England are due to a rather large population that cannot sustain itself. He makes many suggestions to the reader about how the problem could be solved and how society would have to be restructured in order to effect those changes, the least of which is the abolition of classes and private property. As is evident in later years after his death, this oppression could only last for a time until the poor rose up and demanded equal treatment. A change that took many centuries to accomplish.
Thomas More, Utopia trans. Paul Turner (Penguin Books Ltd. 1965), Introduction by Paul Turner.
Birnie Arthur, An Economic History of the British Isles (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1961)
Plato, The Republic and Other Works trans B. Jowett (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. 1989)