‘Masterless Men’ and the Commonwealth: Class, Ideology and Representation in Early Modern Rogue Literature

The texts that I am going to discuss In this article belong to the Renaissance genre of rogue literature, as it has been posthumously labelled, pamphlets which dealt with the representation of the life of vagrants, beggars and petty criminals. According to a modern account, this narrative tradition developed ‘as a figurative act of settlement: exposing, dissecting, and classifying all that threatened to confuse social relations in Elizabethan England, tying the loose ends of commerce and crime back to the frayed fabric of society’ (Agnew 65). In fact, it claimed to be doing even more than that: texts such as Gilbert Walkers’s A Manifest Detection of Diceplay (1552), John Awdeley’s The Fraternity of Vagabonds (1561), Thomas Harman’s A Caveat for Common Cursitors, Vulgarly Called Vagabonds (1566), or Robert Greene’s ‘cony-catching’ pamphlets, to take the best examples, introduce themselves with the claim to have been written and published to record and publicly denounce the unlawful practices of their protagonists, and help the state policing and punitive apparatuses to bring them to justice. Harman’s A Caveat for Common Cursitors, for instance, begins by recalling the ‘most wholesome statutes, ordinances, and necessary laws, made, set forth and published, for the extreme punishment of all vagrants and sturdy vagabonds, as passeth through and by all parts of this famous isle’ (81), and even includes an appendix containing a list of names of the ‘most notorious and wickedest walkers that are living now at this present’ (140).
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