In the chapter ‘Charity’ of my book A Social History of Disability in the Middle Ages I mentioned something on the suspicion concerning ‘fake’ beggars, people who asked for alms pretending to be disabled. At the time of writing I had unfortunately not managed to read an excellent book, a micro-history of London’s relations between government and inhabitants, Frank Rexroth’s, Deviance and Power in Late Medieval London [(Past and Present Publications), trans. Pamela E. Selwyn, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007]. Fraudulent beggars faking disabilities make a number of appearances in the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century sources Rexroth has looked at, but the question of how such ‘frauds’ were identified raises further thoughts on the interaction between disability as something deemed ‘true’ or ‘false’, and way the medieval precursors of neighbourhood watch schemes supplied the necessary information.

In London in 1355 a man called John Sharryngworth aka Eberton was referred to as a faytour, i.e. a fraud, because he had lived in the city as a vagabundus, with which was meant that he was deemed to be a fraudulent, workshy beggar who although capable of working begged for his bread by pretending to be poor and infirm, thus deceiving people. John was sent to the pillory by the mayor of London, the aldermen and the sheriffs for this offence, as was recorded in the Memoranda Rolls of London’s government. (Corporation of London Records Office, Plea and Memoranda Rolls A7 m. 8 verso, given in Rexroth p. 121)

Since the 1370s the courts in London had been dealing with cases of false beggars who extorted alms by trickery and lies “since proclamations and punishment rituals had constantly reiterated that their scandalous behaviour consisted in feigning (fingendo) bodily infirmity, faking injuries and mutilations, and thus ultimately in violating the rule of transparency.” (Rexroth p. 276)

In October 1380 the authorities in London recorded the case of two beggars, John Ward from Yorkshire and Richard Lynham from Somerset, who wandered about the city making horrible and unintelligible sounds and using their hands and feet to make signs – hence incidentally a rare if indirect reference to the nearest thing to sign language for the deaf in the Middle Ages – by which they tried to make people understand that they were merchants who had been attacked by robbers and deprived not just of their goods but also of their tongues. “In order to substantiate their assertions they carried with them two yardsticks meant to stand for their previous occupation, as well as the iron hook and tongs they presented as the robbers’ instruments of torture.” (Rexroth p. 129) They even asked people to look in their mouths to ascertain that their tongues had been cut out. However, it turned out that one of the cut-out ‘tongues’ they produced as evidence was a piece of leather, and once the fraud was found out, the mayor, John Hadele, ordered them to be put in the stocks for one hour each on three separate days, with the tools of their fraud suspended from their necks, three days of stocks being an unusually harsh penalty for this kind of offence. The record mentions that by doing this, the two spurious beggars were defrauding the debilitated poor (i.e. the genuine disabled) and deceiving the whole of the populace, repeating when handing out the sentence that due to their malice and falsity and deceivance of the whole populace the sentence should be the rather unusual three days. (The original text is from Corporation of London Records, Letter Book H fol. 125 verso) Does this not sound remarkably like the rhetoric about benefit frauds in modern Britain?

On 23 November 1381, the new mayor of London, John of Northampton, who had only taken office the previous month, issued a proclamation against ‘sturdy begging’ on the grounds that it was harmful to the real, truly deserving, needy beggars, and ordered any such fraudulent beggars to be arrested and taken to the pillory at Cornhill (Rexroth p. 145; the source is Corporation of London Records, Letter Book H fol. 137 verso). Just the day before, on 22 November 1381, mayor John of Northampton had caused a beggar with the telling name Adam Ryebred to be brought to trial, for allegedly “feigning disability although he was healthy and quite capable of earning his living with work at a reasonable wage” in many locations throughout the realm, so alluding to the desire to rid London of such frauds and scroungers. Exporting the ‘problem’ elsewhere is not a new tactic. “The name given to the defendant (to which he was, perhaps, already accustomed) summed up the nature of his offence: here was someone living beyond his means by deceit, whose fraudulent begging even allowed him to afford rye bread!” (Rexroth p. 145) Rye bread was a more expensive bread than the poor could normally afford, so his moniker reflected his suspicion-arousing lifestyle. A physical examination of Adam’s body made it apparent that he was not disabled – it seems that in the later fourteenth century already the authorities in London were doing what the assessors of Personal Independence Payment (PIP), which earlier in 2013 replaced Disability Living Allowance (DLA), are doing today! By his actions, Adam Ryebred was said to have cheated “genuine beggars and paupers and deceived the public” (veros mendicantes et pauperes defraudat in decepcionem tocius populi), as the source states.

Mayor John of Northampton seems to have made it a personal campaign to rid his city of undesirables, and “continued his persecution of sturdy beggars: one week later, two men from Ireland and Somerset, respectively, were brought before him, and in mid-December the court considered the case of another Irishman. In February [1382], the accused were a Londoner and a man from Bristol.” (Rexroth p. 145). In yet another prefiguration of the practices of the modern state, mayor Northampton set up a register of sturdy beggars, of which a copy survives with verdicts from the court trials up until February 1382, hence our knowledge of the cases above. (Corporation of London Records Office, Plea and Memoranda Rolls A25 m. 3 recto, Rexroth p. 146) The original list is unfortunately lost, but the ethos behind this list reflects the increased surveillance that the authorities deemed it necessary to carry out over the inhabitants of London. Again, a rather startling similarity to modern practices. The government of fourteenth-century London did not, of course, have recourse to modern electronic means of surveillance, but we should not ignore the fact that paper or parchment scraps, or even the card index files of nineteenth-century criminologists, make just as good a ‘database’ system as our supposedly more efficient computer-based ones. For the context of the fourteenth century they were completely fit for purpose.

Knowledge is power, as these kinds of cases testify yet again. How the London authorities obtained such surveillance knowledge is a fascinating if rather scary (for a liberal mindset) aspect of social ties and control. As Rexroth explains in his book (pp. 191-98), the system of splitting London into wards, each with individual aldermen, beadles and constables, provided the ideal local information gathering techniques. Beadles kept a list of inhabitants of each ward. Wardmotes, assemblies of the entire populace of a ward drawn together in the presence of the alderman and officers, met “for the purpose of correcting defects, removing harmful things and promoting the common good of the ward in question” (pro defectibus corrigendis, nocumentis amovendis, et ejusdem Wardae commoditatibus promovendis), as the town clerk John Carpenter noted in his White Book in 1419. Such assemblies had probably been held since the late thirteenth century, but only leave administrative traces from the 1420 onwards, due to the natural attenuation of such records and sources.

With this brief excursion into administrative history as background, I want to now highlight some of the things that people were concerned about at these wardmotes. In general, they discussed comon defectyf, nusauncis and defautis, that is defects that affect the commonality, nuisances and defaults. The items of concern could be dilapidated houses, blocked streets, piled up rubbish, nocturnal noise disturbances due to the cackling of someone’s geese – or the lifestyle of particular individuals. This is where the fraudulent beggars come in. Neighbourly surveillance of individuals, their actions, appearance, and interactions with others is therefore regrettably an old, old practice, not simply to be treated as an aberration of the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries, what with the notorious interior security forces such as the Stasi in former East Germany, or the current debate about electronic spying by the UK and the US. The accusations, petty neighbourly wrangles, and denunciations of ‘defects’, meaning people as well as objects, the worst excesses of which may have existed under the Blockwart system of Nazi Germany, have unpalatable precursors in late medieval London – and undoubtedly anywhere else where ‘neighbourhood forums’, to use a word from current local government practice in the UK, meet to identify ‘defects’. It is one thing complaining about blocked drains, but as the examples above from medieval London show, complaints can easily transfer from objects onto people. Surveillance societies breed suspicious minds.