Current interest in the concept and reality of ‘civil society’ came largely from political events at the end of the twentieth century. This chapter, however, goes back to the late fifteenth century to examine the conception of civil society. Much had changed between the later fifteenth and early eighteenth centuries. Despite underlying continuities in assumptions and practices, definitions of public welfare had been stretched and articulated in new forms, and the agencies which delivered it had become more various and more self-consciously purposeful. The most important part was indisputably public: the machinery which provided outdoor relief at the parish level, the inadvertent but increasingly indispensable creation of the Act of 43 Elizabeth. The product as much of continuity as of change, this resulted in a strengthening of the kind of civic consciousness which came from wide participation in the shaping and delivery of public welfare.
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