This Day (Norma Rae Edition)

Published:January 12, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

On this day in 1563 the English Parliament passed the Statute of Artificers, which compiled and revised 200 years’ worth of law regarding servitude. We mention it because the law was still in effect when Jamestown was founded, but it’s more important than that, obviously. Between 1520 and 1630, England’s population more than doubled, from 2.3 million to 4.8 million, an astonishing demographic feat but one that came with huge problems. What to do with all these people? Parliament hoped its 1563 statute might “banishe Idlenesse[,] advance Husbandrye,” and so deal with the near-overwhelming number of poor and unemployed citizens. In fact, the founding of Virginia itself was partially a response to this problem. In his Discourse on Western Planting (1584), Richard Hakluyt (the younger) argued to Queen Elizabeth that new American colonies would energize England’s “decayed trades” and provide work for the country’s “multitudes of loyterers and idle vagabondes.”

Anyway, what the Statute of Artificers did to deal with this problem was to require that anyone who was single and unemployed, basically, was required to become a servant. An indenture lasted a year, at which time everyone met at what literally was a job fair, shopped around and either found a new master or leveraged a good offer into a better contract with the old one. This system became the basis for Virginia’s institution of indentured servitude. The big difference, of course, was that Virginia servants served much, much longer—anywhere from four to seven years on average. And the conditions … well, let’s just say that Virginia’s servants could have used someone like Norma Rae:

IMAGES: Top: English Parliament by Chen Steffer; bottom: the indenture of William Buckland, front and back (Gunston Hall)