WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Commentary: The Bubonic Plague and Vagrancy Laws

Apr 22, 2020

As we navigate through these difficult times, I am reminded of several sociological studies that have examined the effects of a past pandemic on our laws and culture. The bubonic plague first hit Europe in 1347. It was first spread by fleas, highly contagious, and victims died within days of contracting the disease. The bubonic plague, or Black Death, is estimated to have killed 60% of the world's population.

One of the most dramatic effects of the bubonic plague was its impact on the labor force. When the plague hit Europe, the system of feudal landownership was in decline. Without the free labor of serfs in the old feudal system and increased wages subsequent to the labor shortage, landowners were desperate to keep labor cheap and available. Legislation in England in 1348 criminalized idleness and activated a rarely used legal concept: vagrancy.

As William Chambliss pointed out in 1964 in his seminal work on vagrancy laws, the labor shortage in England fostered a series of laws requiring able-bodied people to engage in productive work and prohibited low wage workers from traveling. Unemployed people were legally defined as shiftless, rogues, vagabonds, and criminally suspect, and subject to punishments of branding, whipping, cutting off an ear, or even death by hanging.

The poor laws of 1572 and 1601 further solidified the standard that work among the poor was to be regulated. It should be noted that wealthy people who did not work were neither required to work nor characterized as possessing a “shiftless nature.”

Vagrancy laws have been used throughout American history to compel work. After the Civil War the Black Codes enacted between 1865 and 1867 used vagrancy statutes to force freed slaves into exploitive employment for low wages.

By the mid-20th century hundreds of thousands of people were arrested each year under vagrancy statutes for unemployment, sexual nonconformity, racial reasons, labor activism, and civil rights protest. The statutes were purposely vague and allowed for the arrest of people who had not committed any specific crime, but who might be prone to crime.

While vagrancy statutes were found to be unconstitutionally vague and arbitrary in 1972 by the U.S. Supreme Court, there is a resurgence of interest in the concept of vagrancy as indicated by attempts to criminalize homelessness in some areas.

Vagrancy laws persisted long after the Black Death pandemic ended and cultural attitudes about idleness among the poor remained an important component of English and American law. Many scholars have pointed out that standards in our criminal justice system that criminalize actions typically committed by poor people differently from actions typically committed by the wealthy have their origins in the vagrancy and poor laws that developed during the bubonic plague.

As we emerge from the present pandemic we will experience societal change that will significantly affect our democracy and our culture. Unlike the bubonic plague, that disproportionately killed poor and working class people, this pandemic crosses all demographic categories. The economic vulnerability and higher death rates among African Americans, Latin X, and Native Peoples illustrate enduring social inequities, however.

In the midst of very painful social, economic, and human losses in this pandemic, some signs of cultural shift are actually encouraging. Empathy, gratitude, connectedness, and appreciation for the work done by all essential workers from truck drivers and grocery store clerks to nurses and physicians are part of the daily lexicon.

As we navigate out of the crisis we should all pay attention to the directions of cultural shift and hang on to the ribbon of appreciation many of us have acquired in this pandemic.

Polly Radosh is Chair of the Western Illinois University Board of Trustees. She is a Professor Emeritus of Sociology and a Retired Chair of Women’s Studies at WIU.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio. 

Diverse viewpoints are welcome and encouraged.