Roguery in Print: Crime and Culture in Early Modern London

In the dangerous early modern city just who is the real criminal? And in an environment of vast inequality, who is really bringing justice? Lena Liapi looks at the pamphlets that helped make up the literature of the city and shape the dualities of the rogue.

I would ask you, reader, to look at the cover image of Roguery in Print and tell me what you see. Do you see two men being punished for their crimes, or two men escaping prison? Is it supposed to be a warning for the just deserts of crime or an acknowledgement that, sometimes, people can escape the consequences of their misdeeds?

This is a question that runs through most rogue pamphlets, without ever being resolved. These short publications presented the tricks of criminals in London, focusing particularly on confidence tricksters, thieves, and highwaymen. They narrated with gusto examples from rogues’ lives and particularly noteworthy cons, such as the man who dressed up like a bear in order to drive his terrified victim away from his room, or the robber who spent months ingratiating himself to his target before treating him to a dinner out while his accomplices robbed the house. In these stories, the spectre of horrible punishment is at odds with the apparent relish in narrating a funny story, where the criminal is presented as a trickster or even a good fellow, and his crimes as a way to redress social imbalances. Victims are often greedy, uncharitable, or cruel, and their suffering is seen as a fitting punishment for their failings.

What I found fascinating in these texts and what I explore in the book, is that they did not present criminals as part of a separate and sinister underworld, but as part of early modern London. Rogue pamphlets acknowledged that the metropolis is a place where sin runs rife, but also that it is a place of wit, which rewards intelligence and adaptability. Rogue pamphlets are part of the literature of the city, enjoying the accomplishments of London (its wealth, growth and urbane culture) while also being aware of its shortcomings.

Gamaliel Ratsey being led to the gallows

In this book, I trace the development of rogue pamphlets from the 1590s to the 1680s, examining how such texts evolved in this period, keeping many of the same elements (such as the trickster figure and the focus on the city) or even the same stories, but also adapting to new circumstances. Rogue pamphlets from the 1650s onwards progressively become more politicised, as stationers and authors realise that such texts can be appropriate vehicles for propagating political messages. There is a clear line connecting Ratsey, the 1605 highwayman with the 1640s highwayman Hind and the 1680s highway robber Nevison, all of them being presented in pamphlets as witty criminals who can show intelligence and compassion when warranted. The connection between highwaymen 30 years apart is highlighted in Nevison’s 1684 pamphlet, subtitled ‘Capt. Hind improv’d’. However, the stories of Hind and Nevison were also employed as an attack against Parliamentarians and Whigs respectively, suggesting that such texts could also serve political purposes.

Rogue pamphlets can also be considered implicitly political, as they examine the boundaries of society and what counts as acceptable behaviour. They give answers that are not always obvious, such as when a robber justifies his actions by stating that ‘dishonesty with riches is honesty, honesty with poverty is dishonesty’, exposing the hypocrisy of early modern society which valourises wealth rather than appropriate social relations. These texts repeatedly ask who the real criminal is and leave it to their readers to make up their own mind about the answer; as indeed, does the cover image of Roguery in Print.

This guest post is written by Lena Liapi, a Lecturer in Early Modern History at Keele University.

Roguery in Print: Crime and Culture in Early Modern London
by Lena Liapi
Hardback / 9781783274406 / £48.75 or $86.25

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