Reflections on the Poor Laws

P1020893.JPGWater of Leith, Edinburgh, bench beside Saint Bernard’s well with a statue of Hygieia, goddess of health

The largely impenetrable layers of history and how we humans are so prone to repeat past mistakes.

That is what occurs to me today as I walk these ancient paths and sit beside an ancient, pagan well of healing—mineral waters—overlaid, of course, by Christian (Saint Bernard) and ancient Greek (Hygieia) symbols. After a morning of reading ancient British Poor Laws—weeks of researching them and tracing their repercussions today, not only in the U.K. but also in the U.S. and in Seattle/Washington State. The worthy and unworthy poor. The deserving and underserving poor. The impotent poor. Paupers. Vagrants. Ruffians. Charity and its attendant ills. Solidarity and its limitations.

Beige mud puddles surround me here as I sit on this bench, barely staying dry underneath my umbrella. What sort of stone is all this beige-ness? (note: ancient sandstone, over 300 million years old.) The entire city of Edinburgh is composed of beige stone. And what minerals are in this water? (note: Sulphur, magnesium, and iron it seems.)

A soft purple Scottish thistle—late blooming ones in the midst of a large patch of blackened, dried up plants with thistle heads. There seems to be a prickly and a not so prickly version of thistles here. Why is the thistle the national flower of Scotland? (note: no one seems to know although there is a story about it that involves Norwegian invaders by sea who stepped on the thistles and alerted the Scots to their presence.)

Why aren’t nurses taught more about the history of social welfare and of the legacies of ancient pauper laws? Are they taught that at all here in Scotland or elsewhere in the U.K.? How much of it are even social workers taught either here in the U.K. or back home in the U.S.? It seems so important and puts many things in perspective, especially in terms of addressing the current thorny question, “What to do about the homeless?” And my own ongoing work in the vicinity of that question. I almost feel cheated in not having known about it much earlier in my life and my career as a nurse.

The deep layers of the histories of places and peoples are important to acknowledge, to know, at least at some more than superficial level. Is this something that can only be appreciated as one ages and takes on a proper sense of time?

A beechnut exploded, scattered on the ground along the river walk path wending its way beneath an old tree. They look like flowers but are hard. I try to press one between these pages and it breaks through the paper. Only the seeds remain.

 

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