Roguery in print: crime and culture in early modern London

In celebration of her new book, Lena Liapi writes a guest post on rogues in print. We are delighted that Roguery in Print is now in print!

Robert Greene, a writer central to the commercial dramatic developments of the late 1580s and 1590s, was perhaps better known to early modern men and women through his depiction of rogues and vagabonds in a series of pamphlets. He was not the first one; pamphlets by Thomas Harman, Gilbert Walker, and John Awdeley had appeared in the mid-sixteenth century, presenting the wicked lives and practices of thieves, confidence tricksters, and vagabonds. Their influence is evident in early plays such as The Three Ladies of London, with Robert Wilson’s depiction of unscrupulous figures like Fraud, Usury, Dissimulation, and Simony drawing on archetypes made popular in printed pamphlets. However, when rogue literature first attracted scholarly attention in the nineteenth century, this interest was connected to finding the sources for Shakespeare’s depictions of rogues and vagabonds such as Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale. This mirrors a tendency to connect everything that is interesting in this period to Shakespeare, but in fact, other playwrights such as Robert Greene, Thomas Dekker, and Thomas Middleton were far more important in developing rogue literature, not only in plays, but also pamphlets published in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  

These are the publications that piqued my interest when I started writing Roguery in Print: I wanted to know more about these characters and their significance in early modern culture. Coming from a history background, I wanted to go beyond the ‘canon’ of rogue literature, established by the anthologies by A. V. Judges and Arthur Kinney. This was my starting point: to expand the range of texts that could be considered as rogue pamphlets and to examine how such publications changed over time, between 1590 and 1670 (and I know I am seriously stretching the ‘before Shakespeare’ premise of this blog!). In doing so, I focused on subject and form: I wanted texts which dealt with property crime in London, including some element of trickery (as this was the characteristic I thought was more pertinent) but also I wanted pamphlets: short printed texts, rather than treatises or ballads. This was because I wanted to examine what could be available to a wide range of readers and because pamphlets were an ideal format for courting public opinion; examining pamphlets would therefore allow me to consider what representations of rogues were available for a reasonably wide audience. 

The result was a corpus of 123 pamphlets published between 1590 and 1670, including both original texts and reprints. Even though the numbers are small, my research showed that there was sustained interest in rogues throughout this period and that, even though some publications were reprinted, for the most part rogue pamphlets followed the fate of more topical pamphlets, with few reprints but more new titles appearing. This, along with the way that rogue pamphlets followed the changes in format of news pamphlets (quarto from 1590 until 1650, and then a growing importance of the smaller octavo), suggested that rogue pamphlets were often seen as topical publications. In terms of chronology, one of the findings that surprised me was that the publication of rogue pamphlets peaked after 1650, following a similar trend in news pamphlets.

What about their stories? The stories were in some ways similar throughout the period, while also showing ability to adapt to changing circumstances. I argue that these pamphlets did not depict a criminal underworld. Even though there is outrage at the activities of criminals, they are only part of the outrage targeted at the transformations of early modern London. For example, pamphlets reflect the common trope of the countryman fleeced by city sharps, which also appears in pamphlets, ballads, plays, and sermons. But they do not stop there: they also have a lot to say about the way in which the city destroys people’s lives and forces them into a life of crime. And the one feeling that resonates through much of the literature about the city is the way in which members of the middling or upper sorts are exploiting their position to gain unfair advantages; a common refrain in such stories is that those belonging to ‘respectable’ society are worse cheats, but they can avoid being punished for their actions. This is equally true in Dekker’s aphorism in 1609 ‘God save the poor, the rich can shift’ (shift here implying cheat or use indirect means) and in Elizabeth Cellier’s defence of a highwayman in 1671, when she claims that he ‘a little Wealth did onely take,/ Which those who lost it, got perchance by Cheat.’ 

Authors and publishers of rogue pamphlets used these publications for social and political critique, while also entertaining their readers with stories of criminal ingenuity and their victims’ gullibility. This characteristic links them to city comedies, which also focused on presenting likeable criminals who act as foils for their greedy victims. The main difference is that it was easier for criminals to get a happy ending in plays; in pamphlets, the last scene was often the execution of the criminal. Whether this last moment was supposed to be didactic was up to the readers, and interpretations of its significance in presenting a moral message can vary. I would argue that it was less important than the enjoyment of reading about a criminal’s wayward life and wit.   

Roguery in Print’s premise is that a combination of book history and cultural history can provide insights useful to both historians and literary critics. Through an examination of form and content, this book traces the images put forward to audiences about the criminals walking side-by-side with them in the busy streets of early modern London. 

Lena Liapi

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