Rose Hadshar is an independent researcher, academic translator and PhD applicant. Her Masters thesis investigated queer sexuality in the case of fishwives in seventeenth century London, and her PhD proposal centres on the lives of farmed animals in post-Reformation Europe.

We do not call travelling Mormons “vagrants”. We probably wouldn’t call them “migrants” either – though technically either term could apply. Itinerant evangelists and preachers have not always escaped such names. In the mid-seventeenth century, during Cromwell’s Interregnum, numerous Quaker preachers were tried as vagrants. They could be detained indefinitely or returned to their place of origin. Some Quakers were publically whipped under the Vagrancy Act. Quakers were seen as a threat to political and religious hierarchy, and their movements were considered dangerous and potentially criminal.

The language used to describe Quakers by contemporaries was often virulent and de-humanising. Members of Parliament lamented “How pernicious have these men already been; how spreading, infectious, and contagious.”[1] Quakers were “vipers … crept into the bowels of your Commonwealth, and the government too. They grow numerous, and swarm all the nation over”.[2] Quakers were thus portrayed as a social disease, or as animals or vermin swarming throughout the land. Sometimes Quakers were associated with other “outsider” groups in an attempt to discredit them. The first recorded usage of the word “Quaker” in 1647 referred to a group of women who “swell, shiver and shake” while conversing spiritually with Mohammed’s holy-ghost.[3]

A later-seventeenth century Quaker woman. Source: Marcellus Laroon, The Cryes of the City of London. London (London, 1688).

There is no evidence that seventeenth-century Quakers thought of themselves as communing with Islam, never mind Mohammed. Such language was more characteristic of the fear and distrust of those in authority than of the behaviour of the Quakers themselves. Quakers usually travelled in small groups, so would not generally have resembles swarms. Often they journeyed in pairs, as when Mary Fisher and Elizabeth Williams became the first Quakers to be whipped under the Vagrancy Act, in Cambridge in 1653. Sometimes, “vagrant” Quakers were arrested within a stone’s throw of their permanent residence. In Devon in 1657, Humphry Sprague and Thomas Dyer were whipped as vagrants, a mere two and five miles respectively from their own homes.[4] Clearly the sense in which these men were ‘wandering’ is geographically arbitrary – the real reason that Sprague and Dyer were punished was that they had attended a Quaker meeting. Words like “viper” and “vagrant” accurately reflected the attitudes of the authorities to religious and social deviance, rather than describing the objective state of Quakers at this time.

More conventional vagrants fared little better. Since the days of Elizabeth, there had been widespread concern about so-called “sturdy” or “idle” beggars: men who were fit and able to work, but chose to live off alms instead. It is unlikely that such men ever made up a considerable proportion of those who begged, but the stereotype was pervasive. The regulatory system that dealt with vagrants handed out alms with one hand and whipped people out of the parish with the other. The deciding factor was whether a person was deemed to have settlement rights in the parish in question. If so, they might receive alms or be set to work. If not, they would be expelled from the parish as someone else’s problem, and a financial burden for other rate-payers.

We no longer think of Quakers as vagrants – but the language we used for displaced and ‘wandering’ people hasn’t changed much. The phrase “a swarm of people” was used by the then Prime Minister David Cameron to describe refugees.[5] “Aggressive begging” was decried by Windsor council leader Simon Dudley in Jan 2018.[6] Dudley also called for homeless people to be prosecuted under the 1824 Vagrancy Act.[7] Quakers stridently rejected the language and treatment of their contemporaries. Fisher and Williams told students in Cambridge that their college was ‘a cage of unclean Birds, and the Synagogue of Satan’.[8] We wouldn’t use such religious imagery today – but the implicit and explicit criticism posed by homelessness and the refugee crisis is no less damning.

[1] Thomas Rutt, ed., Diary of Thomas Burton (London, 1828), pp. 121, 124.

[2] Ibid., p. 96.

[3] Quoted in Bernadette Andrea, Women and Islam in Early Modern English Literature (Cambridge, 2007), p. 52.

[4] Joseph Besse, A Collection of the Sufferings of the People Called Quakers, 2 vols (London, 1753), vol i, p. 150.

[5] “PM’s Migrant ‘Swarm’ Remark Criticised.” BBC News, July 30, 2015, sec. UK Politics.

[6] “Begging Crackdown Call before Royal Wedding.” BBC News, January 3, 2018, sec. Berkshire.

[7] Reporters, Telegraph. “Clear Beggars from Streets of Windsor Ahead of Royal Wedding, Says Local Council Leader.” The Telegraph, January 4, 2018.

[8] [T. Firmin], The First New Persecution; Or, A True Narrative of the Cruel Usage of Two Christians, by the Present Mayor of Cambridge (London, 1654), p. 4.

%d bloggers like this: