"Now For the Lords' Sake":
Vagrancy, Downward Mobility, and Low Aesthetics

Craig Dionne

 

Whoso hath lust, or will leave his thrift,
And will find no better way nor shift,
Come this highway, here to take some rest,
For it is ordained for each unthrifty guest.

-- Robert Copland, Highway to the Spital-House (1535)  

 

 

     1. When the actor playing Pompey the Clown enters the stage in act four of William Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, he is alone, looking out at the faces of the audience.  Imprisoned for being a "bawd" -- and now installed as apprentice to the executioner -- Pompey tours his new place of work and speaks with biting irony of the "customers" before him. "I am as well acquainted here as I was in our house of profession," he jokes.  The humorous reference to the theater's own dubious status as an immoral "house" would not have been lost on Shakespeare's audience, especially if, as is supposed, Robert Armin was able to play such clown figures as "natural fools," lending even more accuracy -- our students might say "street cred" -- to Pompey's rustic wisdom on the just afflictions of the inmates.1 The audience is cleverly mirrored in the doubling of the scene's enfolding diagesis, transforming Vienna's prisoners into paying customers of the Globe. You can almost hear the belly laughs as Pompey steps to the front of the stage and starts pointing out individuals in the crowd, who may have (who knows?) just breezed into the playhouse after visiting -- or turning a trick at -- the bawdy house down the street:

POMPEY: I am as well acquainted here as I was in our house of profession: one would think it were Mistress Overdone's own house, for here be many of her old customers. First, here's young Master Rash; he's in for a commodity of brown paper and old ginger, ninescore and seventeen pounds; of which he made five marks, ready money: marry, then ginger was not much in request, for the old women were all dead. Then is there here one Master Caper, at the suit of Master Three-pile the mercer, for some four suits of peach-coloured satin, which now peaches him a beggar. Then have we here young Dizy, and young Master Deep-vow, and Master Copperspur, and Master Starve-lackey the rapier and dagger man, and young Drop-heir that killed lusty Pudding, and Master Forthlight the tilter, and brave Master Shooty the great traveller, and wild Half-can that stabbed Pots, and, I think, forty more; all great doers in our trade, and are now 'for the Lord's sake.'

It's an incidental scene, but one that sets the right frame for the essays in this special issue on Vagrant Subjects. Pompey's prisoners are poor, vagrant, some actually forced to beg. The nicknames signal the absurdity of self-display and ostentation, the unpredictability of the market, but in the mix are Master Caper, Master Three-pile, etc. These are not just working class subjects. All suffer from economic misfortune. In this world, inflation and exploitive commodity loans replace the medieval notion of Mortality as the great leveler, and the Vice character speaking from the platea is a secularized sentry of Hell's new gate. All are imprisoned here -- high and low alike -- and can only cry "for the Lords sake" as they beg for alms. The uncanny realism, for modern readers, resides in Shakespeare's frank acceptance of the buffets of economic causality. The dark humor seems complicit with the early modern commonplace that one's economic well-being serves as a sign for one's moral status.

     2. It might strike modern readers as odd that a play ostensibly preoccupied with measuring justice to venery has a discovery scene in which prisoners are locked up for debt, or crimes related to the desperation that comes with poverty.2 In early modern England, poverty and lechery were fungible signs, we might say, often represented as symptoms of the same intangible affliction. "One would think it were Mistress Overdone's own house," Pompey muses. To this day, the very words we use to describe the value of someone made low by such wasteful expenditures -- profligate, dissolute, debauched -- are telling reminders of how confused and interchangeable moral and economic categories can be, ambiguous associations that attest to the sexual economy of value in the modern discourse of property and worth. These associations, it could be argued, originated in early modern Reformation when the idea of poverty lost its religious association fixed by the old church.  Copland hails his readers in the first line of Highway to the Spital-House (1535), by describing in the same breath "those who have lust, or will leave his thrift . . ." shifting anxiously the medieval associations of cupiditas as a sign of moral laxity so that frugality can serve as a symbol of moral rectitude.3 Pompey's customers are victims of vanity, in the old sense, but the language also attests to specific spendthrift habits peculiar to the middle and upper class of the time. The world bodied forth in his crude assessment of his cronies' adversity is one of harsh, indifferent justice to those who cling to the aristocratic ideals of flamboyant leisure, borrowing to maintain lavish lifestyles, commodity loans bartered for sumptuous display, speculative markets calling out, or "peaching," those who practice extravagance for its own sake, making poor decisions about who to follow in the court. But Pompey knows them all: they are not just loose with their purses.

     3. It is often said that Renaissance England witnessed more class mobility than any other era in the nation's history, especially for the middling sort. But the story of Pompey's customers in the play challenges us to rethink mobility from a particularly American ideological perspective as always meaning upward. The longer history attests to just how many during this time, not just the itinerant working poor, lived this mobility from the other side of the fence, as it were, experiencing severe social and economic shifts related to rapid industrial expansion, dispossession of tenant farms, debasement of currency, uncontrolled inflation, and a doubling of population. Pompey's soliloquy to the audience serves as a warning that this tribulation is not just limited to those like himself: Bridewell turns a blind eye to status -- she's an equal opportunity incarcerator.4

Vagrant Subjects

     4. All the essays in this special issue focus on various aspects of the history of vagrancy in early modern English studies, as new directions in literary theory and social history ask us to rethink paths of inquiry. At the intersection of social history, with its empirical working through the legal archive, and literary criticism, with its emphasis on the ideological nature of language -- if we can use such crude demarcations of paradigms (see below) -- there remain serious questions about the relevance and accuracy of the genre of print culture known as "rogue literature" or "cony-catching pamphlets": are they merely continuations of joke books? Fictional fabrications? How important was the image of the rogue in establishing not just the perception of the homeless itinerant classes, but in influencing the legal treatment of impoverished people? Since it is difficult to find actual evidence of cant or organized crime in the court records, should we dismiss the whole literary fascination of the rogue as a fiction?5 Moreover, with the renewed interested in religious practices, there is a serious investigation of the old church's residual pull on social life through the period, where it seems a too complicit investment in the Whig historicism has led us to undervalue the traces of past customs and unspoken faiths.6 In the context of vagrant studies this trend is translated into questioning the age-old assumption that the Catholic attitudes toward poverty were, finally, overturned or eradicated in the Tudor Poor Laws. Behind this question, of course, is an ethical judgment about the efficiency of the poor relief set about in the sixteenth century; as Paolo Pugliatti describes the two poles of the debate, "at times the accent has been put on its repressive side, at others on the side of the Reformation and the mechanisms of control that inspired most of the provisions" (35). Is it true that the religious ideals of caritas and the whole range of almsgiving practices associated with medieval England were revised by secular notions of poverty regulated through the Reformation ideals of sixteenth-century England?  Within the discourse of the new religious critical turn, we might ask, if rogues were merely fictional, trumped up scapegoats, then how exactly did the concept of this extimate Subject alter the relationship between civilian and civic life for Christians in the sixteenth century? Was the vagabond the homo sacer of early modern England, as Giorgio Agamben might ask, that allowed the Sovereign state to conceptualize its power over those deemed in troubling ways an exception to rules of work and productivity? Finally, critics are beginning to question the deeper structuralist logic behind the idea that the experience of vagabond existence was always excluded, like the structuring absence of representation, when it was recorded by middle class writers and booksellers. Following Patricia Fumerton's Unsettled, there is a serious attempt to find more authentic accounts in the existing record of such bare lives and the aesthetic of those texts that render these lives. This is a fascinating new development, one that does more than counter the fields' typical concentration on courtly and dramatic literature and art. Equivalent to uncovering the shepherd's life free from the lens of the idealizing pastoral, the project of reading the "low subject" offers a whole range of critical and textual possibilities.

     5. Martine Van Elk argues in her contribution, "She would tell none other tale . . ." that it is worth reading the Bridewell records as narratives, considering their "reliance on narrative structures, literary ordering, and story-telling techniques" next to both rogue books and the romance. She is responding forcefully to the debate about the relevance of the rogue books in understanding the "real" problems of crime and vagrancy. Cant, clandestine guilds, criminal societies with their own unspoken covenants: the world of the cony-catcher is merely illusory, the argument goes, and of little value in recuperating the real story of vagrancy and crime in the sixteenth-century. Van Elk's notes (especially 2-4) are working to position her claims quite adroitly in this context. The argument about the historical accuracy of the rogue pamphlets usually hinges on the idea that the court records offer more precise documents to recover the stories of vagrancy. "Our assumptions about separation of history and fiction and about the impropriety of using literary techniques when describing marginal groups do not appear to be shared by early modern authors," she reminds us.  Van Elk's position is that we're dealing with texts that can too easily seem natural recordings or confessions of human experience. As social texts, the records create "the impression of the governors as objective discoverers compiling the facts, mysteriously in control, and able to see and know what the reader cannot." What I find fascinating and extremely useful to the debate is her close questioning of this ritual of legal interrogation, with its forced lacunae and unspoken power relations, reminding us that often the accused were never proven to have committed the offenses in question. "In the absence of confession," she asserts, "the records often assert that some offense or other has been proven, usually without including testimony or evidence." Many of Van Elk's observations are meant not just to refigure the value of the rogue book as such, but to remind historians that the perlocutionary acts figured in confession-based transcriptions are also forms of artifice engaged in representing the world through a complex ideological grid.

     6. Van Elk also pushes even further here the suggestion made by Steve Mentz in another context that we might consider reading the actual patterns of the court records in the context of the romance, especially the way the "resolutions parallel anagnorisis in romance," she explains, "and are similarly constructed out of the rehearsal of factual details that have no direct bearing on the protagonists' inwardness or their experience of wandering up to that point but that are all the same given a mysterious truth-value."7 Like the romance, the records try to eliminate anything that might signal an inner-subjective experience within the confessor/narrator. Van Elk's contribution in this conversation is that we need not jump too quickly to read the conventional endings of discovery: "The drive toward closure . . . cannot overcome the excessive concentration on transgression, the part that causes revulsion and wonder." She explains that it is hard for modern readers not to be "more impressed by the detail of criminal or sexual behavior than by the predictable response of the governors. In other words, the long middle, between the promise of disclosure and the final resolution, trouble convention."

     7. It's a long middle, but for whom? I wonder if Van Elk would consider theorizing more the reader of the records. If we can compare a legal record to a narrative, can we fold the various theories of narrative into the transcript as a text? Not just who is the reader, but how the reader is configured? A kind of universal reader? The Monarch? Something like the prison-house guard in Bentham's Panopticon? How were these texts used? what were their social functions? What is at stake in the performance of authority that makes up the confessional transcript. How were they used with repeat criminals? Are there moments when records speak of their own power? (their own textuality?). As for the idea of the middle of the narrative providing a window into the lives of the itinerant/low subject, how does this middle work to trouble the ideology of authority behind Bridewell exactly? For me, Van Elk's observation of the unsettling nature of the crime report corresponds with Hal Gladfelder's thesis in Beyond the Law: Criminality and Narrative in the Eighteenth Century (Johns Hopkins UP, 2001) that makes the case that the "long middle" of crime reports in the late seventeenth century was the precursor to the realist novel. The local detail provided by the confessor about the grim realities of their lives begins to feed a new consumer habit in the London reader. Gladfelder's project is on the mass-produced trial report of late seventeenth and eighteenth-century, but there are surprising overlaps here, especially in the area of the transgressive potential of this realist "middle" to expose a reality that is too stark to be easily recuperated by dominant modes of ideological compromise or narrative closure. I am also thinking of Martha Nussbaum's Poetic Justice, where she argues that the "middle" of social realism conditions a self-awareness necessary for empathy in civic life. We cannot ask Van Elk to discuss how the eighteenth-century realist novel influenced sixteenth century legal records, or how the reader of one print culture worked in another, but we might ask her to think out loud about how other texts in the period exhibited analogous moments of narrative "middles" that troubled convention in analogous ways. That is, can we fold the Bridewell docouments into other narratives or genres to think of larger cultural frameworks?  Or is this an observation of a discourse that is bound to its location and resistant to exportation to other forms of representation?

     8. After finishing this essay on Bridewell, I had to do a double take when I started reading A. L. Beier's ambitious, "From the Organic Society to Utopian Virtue: Reforming the Poor and Re-Forming the Social Order in England, 1500-1550." I know Beier's work in the context of social history (he was a student of Lawrence Stone), his masterful study, Masterless Men, and his work tracing history of Bridewell. Here, Beier seems to venture into the history of ideas, the paradigm of Renaissance organicism, where the "state" is represented as a body whose parts all have a stake in the governance of the health of the nation. (Beier's note 62 tips his hand here). Many of us probably share memories of being taught the correlate of this metaphor -- the Chain of Being -- in our first Renaissance survey courses. Beier admits his paper "agrees with the argument for continuity between medieval and early modern attitudes" of the poor. His paper is in two parts. In the first, he examines closely the popularity of the "medieval precedents" of early modern notions of social duty to the poor, the survival idea of the "three-estate model," the clergy, the lay elites, and the common people, with its roots in "tenth century France." Beier describes this as an ideology that emphasized the "principle of mutual obligation" at the heart of this model:

Social interdependence cut not just top to bottom. The common people were charged to "remember their rents and payments" to lords, which would maintain unity among them, including the poorest. The better off of the third estate were instructed to be kind to their inferiors: not to "covet great lucre of them that be less than they, but be unto their underlings loving and charitable." Those in their debt they should not throw into prison if they missed or were late with payments; nor should they charge usurious rates of interest. The observance of mutual obligations among the three estates would provide strong roots for "this noble tree of commonwealth."

Beier finds the metaphor of the social body -- where the belly would share the food with other "discontented members," as they are called in one famous example (Coriolanus 1.1), the so called "organicist" model of society -- preserving the three-estate model through the sixteenth century. What is striking is the political spectrum of thinkers that ascribed to the model, the "commonwealth men," ecclesiastic officials, polemicists, non-conformists alike. Beier suggests the model of social responsibility functioned as a residual ideology that clashed with this emerging discourse of poverty found in the Poor Laws. Attempting to distinguish able from disabled, the Poor Laws shifted the focus onto the poor as harbingers of moral decay rather than victims deserving charity. Beier's example of Martin Bucer suggests that the practice of alms-giving was not entirely supplanted by the new discourse. His reading of Utopia, in this context, emphasizes More's break with the organicist model: "Once property belonged to individuals, however abundant, 'every man tries to get as much as he can for his own exclusive use, a handful of men end up sharing the whole pile, and the rest are left in poverty.'"  Beier surmises: "Here, in one fell swoop, Utopia destroyed the notion of organic unity in society and replaced it with concepts of wealth, poverty, and social injustice."

     9. In the second half of Beier's paper, the focus is on the emerging humanist ideal of virtue as a shaping force in redefining the relationship between the rich and poor. The argument goes that wealth can be seen as a positive catalyst insofar as it is required to test the ethical commitment of a gentleman's interest in others. Donald Trumps of the world have the opportunity to demonstrate a rare aspect of civic virtue by dispensing some of their wealth to others. This is like an early modern version of "trickle down" humanism, call it a kind of "supply-side ethics." "No man . . . should be excluded from wealth just because only a minority could attain it. A stronger defense of wealth would be hard to discover, a position very much at odds with the organicists who, while stoutly denying the accusations that they attacked property rights, were at least prepared to treat property as a matter of stewardship." The "virtuist" model changes the relationship between man and wealth, too, not only making the point of reference an ethical code within the individual property owner, but making idleness of the poor a sign of weak inner-development. "Unemployment . . . was not the product of impersonal market forces. Rather, following civic humanists, it was the result of personal choices that led to moral failings, even crime." The secular impulse behind this new conception of wealth and poverty allowed for progressive answers to problems of "voluntary idleness," like education and "honest occupations."

     10. Beier offers much needed clarification on the rich history behind the competing perspectives on poverty and vagrancy in the period. Since some of the texts included in Beier's overview are religious -- a few are sermons -- I was wondering if it is worth considering the way the third-state ideal, as expressed in the body-state metaphor, might be inflected with the discourse of the body as a sacred/condemned object. Could the "body" also connote "corrupt body," the body of Christ, the body of church? I am thinking the obligation to the church might mean something slightly different than the body of the commonwealth. Or the corrupt body could be an un-transcendable horizon, of sorts, a way to rationalize greed? Is there ever an overlapping of the terms in these writings? More's "break" with the organicist model, for example, seems to rely upon a fairly standard Christian view of humankind in a postlapsarian state of covetousness: "Once property belonged to individuals . . . every man tries to get as much as he can for his own exclusive use."

     11. I am also wondering just how prevalent both views (the organicist and virtuist models) were especially if some of the texts may have been limited to an inner-circle of readers. Beier's use of Lovejoy's touchstone of currency suggests that many of the works carefully presented here may have had a large influence in their time or have represented a conventional wisdom. Who were the readers of these pamphlets and manuscripts? Does the distribution of the printed versions of the works tell us anything about the popularity of the beliefs? Who sold the sermons, if they were printed, and who read the parliamentarian speeches if they saw print? Dudlay's Tree of the Commonwealth was published in 1859. What was the provenance of the handwritten manuscript? Are excerpts found in commonplace books from the period, or did Henry VIII ever read it? Starky's Dialogue of Pole and Lupset was unpublished until 1871. Beier detects Starky staking a pronounced position in Pole's argument about virtue as service to the state, but the prevailing interpretation of this document is that the structure of the humanist argument is more ambivalent. The Dialogue argues cogently the merits of elective monarchy and the critique of passive obedience; though counter to Tudor hegemony, these ideas are put into discourse as rational claims. As described in Joel Altman's Tudor Play of Mind, this dialogical form does indeed promote an "ethical neutrality," allowing Starky "to propose radical measures, then to modify them and supply more practical alternatives" (38). But Altman is quick to add that "the radical idea, once stated, is not lost; it hovers in the consciousness awaiting its time" (38).8 How does Beier's privileging of Pole's perspective account for this play of ambivalence inherent in the humanist rhetorical tradition? This brings me to a final point. What about the history of "service" in the guilds? Starky's audience is the king himself (and perhaps courtiers and MPs), but what about other citizens of the commonwealth, or personages who were, though not among the circle of elite, exemplars of this virtue and whose citizenship worked according to the new humanist theory (Jack of Newbury?). Were not Alderman allowed to "buy out" their required posts by paying a standard fee? Where does this established practice sit in the context of the virtuist model?

     12. Sandra Logan's contribution, "Fright Flight and the Suffering City: Mobility, Catastrophe, and the State of Emergency," is in two parts. The first is organized around ideas of poverty and vagabondage as represented in Thomas More's Utopia. The gist of this extremely adept and close reading of More's treatise is that Hythloday's defense of Utopian forms of economic distribution express an "explicit concern . . . with two kinds of boundary transgression -- moral and physical -- as well as an assertion of the centrality of the family as an organizational structure, and the centrality of regional affiliation and identity." What I find most useful in this reading is Logan's attention to More's preoccupation with travel and mobility, and how Utopia eliminates need for travel within its borders. For Logan, More "implies that in a system of equitable social responsibility and reward, as in Utopia, unauthorized travel should be recognized as a deliberately disruptive act, potentially threatening and intolerable, while he makes it clear that, in contrast, early modern England had failed to address the conditions of poverty, abuse, and involuntary exile that emerged through the transformation of rural social organization, as a result of war, and as an effect of a wide range of other social ills." Logan deals with More's self-distancing through the use of dialogue in note 4: "it is at least possible, if not probable, that More did not advocate such universal equity of benefit and responsibility, but posed it as an embodiment of what the aristocracy and monarch stood to lose if they should continue to ignore their responsibilities to the poor under the hierarchical system that ensured their relative leisure." The second part of her essay centers on the idea of mobility in the city in the context of London's plague history and in Jonson's satire, The Alchemist. The history of the plague, particularly its effect on the idea of mobility, is illuminating. Logan explores the "flight of the privileged" during the disease's outbreak. If mobility among the poor is seen as subversive, mobility among the middling sort, gentry and aristocracy was a sign of power and privilege, especially at a time when the outbreak threatened to decimate urban centers. Writers like Defoe and Dekker critique the lack of social responsibility of those who leave the city during the plague, exposing mobility as a "marker of social irresponsibility, and thus as a cause of disorder." But Jonson's play goes further to examine the acquisitive culture behind this irresponsibility. Reexamining the play in the context of the plague history throws it in a most interesting light. For Logan, when Subtle and his cronies stay behind, and "none of the schemers' victims come seeking plague cures or protection, this lack of concern for the threat hovering over the city emphasizes the pecuniary interest of the citizenry in general, eliding any clear distinction between small businessman, serving man, and hardened shyster. . . ." Logan's reading of Jonson's allegory of materialist gain is perceptive: "the plague city is itself akin to the alchemist's alembic, fired by the burning pressue of disease, through which the general populace . . . are forced into the alchemical processes of disintegration and sublimation." The "base elements" that remain -- and serve to define all strata of society -- are the "corruption and opportunism underlying the humorous action of the play." Logan's thematic reading is powerful, and worth considering, I think, in context of Jonson's other plays, "Not only does the capacity for mobility signal social privilege, but the desire for mobility and its enactment suggest that self-interest is the shared quality of all social strata. This city, occupied post-exodus by what is in effect an expendable population of the not-yet-dead, is not so much torn from its moorings in Christian morality, then, as exposed as a site of universal secular self-interest -- a condition embodied by the fleeing privileged as well as the entrapped unprivileged."

     13. It is interesting to consider the larger frame of mobility when thinking of the two central texts by More and Jonson analyzed here. I am led to ask Logan to apply this sensitive reading of travel and mobility to More's own position as an author: it seems as if the whole critique of social hierarchy is conditioned by travel, or the level of remove it guarantees, or at least an awareness or thirst for other perspectives. One is tempted to believe that humanism itself in the period is conditioned by a form of international scholarly vagabondage. Is there a level of complicity with this desire for mobility in the text that works against its focus on policing the boundaries that establish "local" identity within the national and/or (manorial) family context? Are there moments where mobility serves, elsewhere in Utopia, as a form of authorizing credible perspectives, or authorizing difference? If so, are these moments worth considering in the debate about mobility and vagrancy generally? Finally, Logan senses a deeper civic mission in Jonson's cynicism; he is really "aiming at reform," we're told.  "His impulse to transform the social practices that lead to catastrophic tragedy," are revealed as the motive for his irony. I sense this statement is true to Jonson's aesthetic, yet I wonder if there is more to say about Jonson's own investment in opportunism and acquisitiveness. This last question comes out of my own speculations about how to transcend the hermeneutics implicit in our own humanist practices as readers and teachers of these powerful texts:  Some of the rogue pamphlets, from which Jonson's depiction of con artists draws, reveal thieves with a great deal of self awareness if not political consciousness, especially when they justify their profession by saying cheating and theft is the foundation of legitimate landholding and mercantilism I am thinking of the notorious "M" of Walker's Manifest Detection . . . of Dice Play, 1552. Jonson's underworld characters seem almost dense or oblivious by comparison. Although it is true that Jonson means to level social distinctions by claiming all classes are essentially corrupt and self-serving, why is it I sense that there is kind of censoring of the Other in his satiric impulse? His vice characters are rendered in a way that naturalize crime rather than expose it as institutional, as a practice found in forms of property and exchange. Might we respond by asking, if we're to acknowledge opportunism as an essential (humoral) trait as portrayed by Jonson, how might we move beyond it? How do we act unlike ourselves?

     14. Finally, Patricia Fumerton's "Mocking Aristocratic Place: The Perspective of the Streets," can be read as a follow up to her latest book, Unsettled: The Culture of Mobility and the Working Poor in Early Modern England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006). Here she elaborates on the idea of a genuinely "low aesthetic" of displacement of vagrancy being something of a commodity, a fashionable identity that can be used or appropriated by the aristocracy, whose lives are now complicated because of the dissolution of manor house culture. If the aristocracy are linked by association with interior spaces and thus have an inward, layered subjectivity -- a "self [that] could be felt to be penetrated into and experienced as 'interior' and singular" -- the unsettled lower classes "had no access to such a discovery" and thus have an identity that is "dispersed and multiple." This binary is overturned, or at least complicated, by the fact that the idea of an inward aristocratic self is illusory, more of a cultural (or ego) ideal, by virtue of the fact that "interior spaces . . . continually fragmented and multiplied -- private rooms, for instance, were further subdivided or, like the banqueting house, broken a-part from the whole -- suggesting a perpetual fracturing, deferral, and unattainability or unknowability of the aristocratic self." This in part is the observation made in her first study, Cultural Aesthetics, U of Chicago, 1993. In this essay the story of this dispersed aristocratic self is fleshed out as Fumerton brings both of her two works together, in a way that puts forth a dialectical narrative of the aristocratic self in relation to the mobile self of the itinerant classes (Fumerton calls the relation a "perverse affinity"). The aristocracy engage in economic practices that, in turn, result in the breaking up of the traditional "spaces" of manor house production. One hears the whisper of Marx's "all that's solid melts into air . . ." behind the historical sweep she sketches:

A craftsman might lose or let go several apprentices in the course of his career, but a gentleman or noble might produce unmoored labor on a grand scale: by releasing large numbers of servants and retainers, as part of the move toward household privatization and economizing; by hiring wage laborers in their stead, who then had the uncertain task of providing their own lodging and food; by rack-renting and enclosing common lands, thus displacing tenants and forcing alternative and often makeshift means of livelihood; by increasingly in the seventeenth century setting up their sons as urban merchants and tradesmen, thus driving poorer apprentices into the itinerant ranks of journeymen or wage laborers; and, perhaps most significantly, by backing projects and monopolies that exploited the poor, often in the guise of putting them to work in new domestic trades.

And in turn, if I am reading this narrative correctly, the aristocracy are forced to adopt -- or become mirror images of -- the fractured identities of the unsettled classes they have turned out the door.9  Fumerton's interest is patently not how the beggars and vagrants were seen by the high or middle classes; rather her project is to uncover how the low and unsettled classes imagined this newly fractured aristocratic identity. We are told woodcut images of the aristocracy figured prominently in ballads and were probably hung up in homes as wall decorations. Can one compare taking an image of America's royalty -- Hollywood stars -- "made low" by a public scandal and exhibiting the tabloid pictures in one's home? This image of the fractured "sartorial" figure, as Fumerton shows in a brilliant reading of the interchangeability of genders and place in different woodcuts in printed texts, works ideologically to assuage the crime of poverty: "In the aesthetics of the broadside street ballad, the upper sorts might well have been imagined by the ballads' creators and their lowly audience not only as making visible and comprehensible but also as making acceptable an officially unrecognized, because mobile, laboring poor (who are but abstract ciphers, for instance, in "Mock Beggar Hall"). This is another way of understanding the recurrence of images of upper sorts in the woodcuts of ballads; they are not so much wish-fulfillment Others as prettified kin of the unsettled and unsettling 'low'" [emphasis mine].

     15. Fumerton asks that we see prostitution as the "mediating term" between the low and the high forms of unsettled placelessness, a pitch she makes based on her read of a ballad that tells the story of upper class youths "made low" by fashion and theater. "Prostitution . . . transforms the selective openness imaged in the picture of aristocratic privacy -- the lowered bridge, the lady gazing at us, the transgressive dinghy -- into an act of profitable penetration."  Mock Beggar Hall exemplifies the new lost identity of the aristocracy, who are voluntarily -- sometimes not so -- "'rattling' through the streets" while functioning as signs of "mock beggars." "The [now] empty hall mocks upper class 'place,' both geographical and social," she explains, "which has now become hollow and insubstantial. That is, the pursuit of mobility -- liquid cash, changeable fashion, rambling coaches, and the like -- has rendered any such notion of 'place' meaningless. The new upper class subject has no place. It is spacious, itinerant, and exchangeable."

     16. Fumerton raises some interesting questions not only about unsettled aesthetics but also about the critical options we have in reading early modern images as belonging to a system of signs. In this thoroughly historicized interpretation of the ballad as a low form, Fumerton moves from image to text and back again, her point of reference is a reader sensitive to the symbolics of space as it relates to identity.  I would like Fumerton to speak more about the configuration of this ideal reader's sense of spatial symbolics, how woodcuts so crudely rendered can lead to such a sensitive hermeneutics. Enclosed or encircled means private and, by extension,"settled" and fixed. Images left open, not encircled, mean "unsettled," or dislocated. The link between image and self here seems too immediate to me. Is a woodcut of a courtyard with a fence always symbolizing an "enclosed self?" Or is it sometimes just a courtyard? Can space on the printed page be read so literally as an index of subjectivity? It seems that Fumerton is committing to an unspoken formalist operation that invests the image on the page with an organic quality, where the connotative meaning finds its expression in a symmetrical form. While it is easier to understand how a lowered bridge is a metaphor for sexual availability, I wonder if there is a step or two left out of this equation when the act of "seeing" such images is figured as complicit with "self-interested exchange." Is there a psychoanalytic dimension that needs articulating here? This gets to the question of prostitution as the mediating term that "transforms the selective openness imaged in the picture of aristocratic privacy into an act of profitable penetration." I understand that there is a dual nature in an image of the aristocrat also used to serve as the image of the prostitute.  And the woodcut as commodity engages in some way in the same process that melted class identities. But to say the penetration is "profitable" assumes a gender dynamic that is, for me, as confused as the cross-dressed figures: who is doing what to whom here? Who is profiting on penetration? Who is the prostitute, who the consumer? Also, if prostitution is linked by a chain of association to unsettled identity, how does one explain how the image of placelessness might amend the feeling of unsettledness for the laboring poor who hang these images of selves "made low" on their walls? Would not the associations of prostitution problematize the ameliorative effects of this image? I can see poetic justice or carnivalesque inversion, but again the deeper psychology involved in the identification assumes a displacement of the pejorative association of prostitution upon which the larger argument depends.

     17. Reading these essays, I was struck by the overlapping concern with getting "behind the veil" of middle class preoccupations with order and status that are at work in many of the early modern invectives against vagrants and able-bodied poor. Vagrancy as identity, "unsettledness," as sign of mobility, the object of official legal testimony, or humanist reflection. For us, the will to get at the real life of the vagrant can be read as a kind of suspension of belief in the critical matrix of poststucturalism and its whole hermeneutics of suspicion that interprets vagrant texts as "always already" complicit with the conservative ideologies that often represented the poor as caterpillars of the commonwealth. I have to admit, for me anyway, the project to map the vagrant subject is a refreshing investment in real life issues having to do with social politics and the literary text's engagement with social reality. I see it as a gesture of intellectual leftism that holds out hope on issues that concern progressive politics. At least this is how it feels. We care about the vagrants of the past because we care about homelessness and economic disparities in our own time. And doesn't it seem like an honest response to the other critical options in our profession? The interest in vagrancy can, I think, be seen as a politicized choice to recover the referent of the bare life outside this literature, a way to force the arrival of the lonely hour.

     18. But I wonder if the zeal to recover the truth behind the bare life cannot be taken a bit too far. Or if there is not some unspoken agitprop logic in our choice to find this vagrant subject in some texts over others: ballads, for example, and not the popular playhouse. At a recent national conference, I was amused that during the q-and-a of a panel on Renaissance City Comedies, someone asked, in perfect earnestness, "does anyone know what the average profits were for the East India Company? How much they actually made on their trade with India?" Getting at the real behind the realism(s) in our period feels like the obvious way to go. But the question did make me reconsider the panel across the hall on reading courtly sonnets through Levinasian deconstruction. After reading Lee Beier's essay for this issue, I wonder if social history and literary studies aren't passing each other on the freeway in opposite directions: let's at least wave out the window to each other. Behind the question about the East India Company was an assumption that any archival text found reflecting this data might in some way offer "it," the unaccommodated referent that would provide that touch of the real our profession seems to summon us toward. Is there not a deeper congruence with the turn to religion in our reverence for this unmediated object life? Something of a parallel mystical search for "identity in itself" free from its mediated forms? The essays in this collection all strive to describe the larger system of representation that recorded, spoke for, and diagnosed vagrancy as a sign for something else, as those who suffered from being "made low" were often forced to accept their lot in life. The hope is that we can learn to hear in the refracted forms of translation something of this life. If the essays in this issue are any indication, we're a good deal closer to doing just this.

 

 

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Notes

1 Peter Ackroyd's Shakespeare, (Doubleday 2005) p. 382.

2 See William Carroll's description of Bridewell's history in Fat Kings, Lean Beggars (pp. 108-124).

3 See Mark Koch's "The Desanctification of the Beggar in Rogue Pamphlets of the English Renaissance" in Works of Dissimilitude, Ed. Georges Edelen, New York, Dover, 1994.

4 Carroll claims the prison in Measure for Measure is a "thinly veiled image of Bridewell." p. 114. And why not? Its history served a capacious allegory: "Bridewell was a royal palace, a house of correction and job training, a harsh prison, a place of torture, a favored site for non-noble political prisoners, a theater, a granary, a mill, a warehouse, and a desirable rental space . . . a whorehouse and a 'common taphouse.' . . . Created in an expression of Christian charity, Bridewell developed so many other functions that it became a kind of sordid microcosm of the whole society" pp. 120-121. See also James Sharpe's influential Crime in Early Modern England 1550 - 1750 (Longman, 1984).

5 See a mapping of these questions as they relate to disciplinary divides practices in the introduction to Rogues and Early Modern English Culture , eds. Craig Dionne and Steve Mentz, U. of Michigan Press, 2004).

6 See Jen Jackson and Arthur Marotti's "The Turn to Religion in Early Modern English Studies," Criticism 46.1 (2004) 167-190.

7 Mentz, "Magic Books: Cony-Catching and the Romance of Early Modern England." Rogues and Early Modern English Culture, 240-260.

8 Altman sees Starky's Dialogue as a prime example of this ambivalence in his The Tudor Play of Mind: Rhetorical Inquiry and the Development of Elizabethan Drama. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), 36-38.

9 On vagrant identities as forms of appropriation, compare Bryan Reynolds chapter on early modern Gypsies in Becoming Criminal: Transversal Performance and Cultural Dissidence in Early Modern England (Johns Hopkins UP, 2002), pp. 23-63.

 

 

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