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Anxieties About Crime Mirrored In Early Modern Rogue Literature History Of Crime Essay

2603 words - 11 pages

What sort of anxieties about crime and the social order are suggested by the rogue literature produced in England during the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries?
Reading the sixteenth and seventeenth century examples of the rogue literature would have the historian believe that the world of the Elizabethans was split between two realms alienated by a thin line of law and order.[footnoteRef:1] The first world was occupied by the orderly citizens ‘of so peacable and prosperous a country’, while the other, undisclosed yet ubiquitous, was represented by the brotherhoods of ‘devilish cony-catchers’, sturdy beggars, vagabonds and other such ‘base-minded Caterpillars’.[footnoteRef:2] According to the words of Robert Greene, Thomas Harman and the Bell-man of London Thomas Dekker, these ‘Wild and Barbarous Rebels’ were the worst enemies of the ‘Tranquillity of the Weal public’ for their savagery and ‘devilish countenance’.[footnoteRef:3] The historiographical audience remains divided on how reliable these sources are, and while historians such as John McMullan grant these pamphlets a degree of credibility, others, such as Paul Griffiths, discount them as untrustworthy and purely fictional.[footnoteRef:4] However, the important question is, what do these literary sources tell us about their authors’ and audiences’ beliefs, and what were the social anxieties they came to represent. According to Frank Tannenbaum, ‘societies “cannot deal with people [whom they] cannot define”’.[footnoteRef:5] Therefore, in light of this quote, texts such as The Fraternity of Vagabonds and A Caveat for Common Cursitors Vulgarly Called Vagabonds quoted in this essay can be read as evidence of the contemporary attempts to define and to label those who did not belong in the new world order brought on by the socio-economic changes that came to pass in the early modern period. This essay will firstly examine the rhetoric of rogue literature as a literary genre. Thereafter, it will assess the socio-economic forces that stood behind the sixteenth and seventeenth century social dislocation while evaluating the changing attitudes to crime. Finally, it will place these popular cony-catching pamphlets in the context of the criminal law, which represents the official response to the anxieties mirrored in the rogue literature. [1: Paul Griffiths, Lost Londons: Change, Crime, and Control in the Capital City, 1550–1660 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 135; J. A. Sharpe, Crime in Early Modern England 1550-1750 (New York: Longman, 1984), p. 94.] [2: Greene, Robert, A Notable Discovery of Cozenage (1591), pp. 2-3. ] [3: Thomas Dekker, Lantern and Candle-light (1608), pp. 1-9.] [4: John L. McMullan, ‘Criminal organization in sixteenth and seventeenth-century London’, Social Problems, 29 (1981); Griffiths, Lost Londons p. 179. ] [5: Griffiths, Lost Londons, p. 179.]
In Lanthorne and Candle-light Thomas Dekker talked about ‘people [who] are strange both in...

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