"She would tell none other tale":
Narrative Strategies in the Bridewell Court Books and the Rogue Literature of the Early Modern Period

Martine van Elk

 

"Scene from Bridewell Prison"
William Hogarth

 

     1. Early twentieth-century studies of rogue literature of the early modern period regarded this lively body of work as a historically accurate representation of the underworld. That approach has long been abandoned, but the question of the relationship between the cony-catching pamphlets and rogue books on the one hand and the legal records, statutes, and other historical sources on the other continues to be a matter of debate. This is immediately apparent in Rogues and Early Modern English Culture, the most comprehensive collection of critical views on the topic. As Craig Dionne and Steve Mentz, the editors, argue in their introduction, the figure of the rogue reveals the complicated rivalry between those readers on the side of social history and those on the side of literature: "because the rogue is, inescapably, both fact and fiction," they write, "this figure occupies an important space in the ongoing negotiations between various forms of historicism and literary culture."1

     2. Among historians it has long been customary to assert that the legal records on vagrancy in no way confirm the fascinating stories of underworld guilds, canting, and devious trickery found in the rogue books.2 This has allowed them to set the literature aside as the production of hack writers looking to make a profit on the literary marketplace. Lee Beier's discovery of references to beggar's cant in the legal records, however, points to the need for some reassessment of the relationship between the literary and the legal record.3 In Vagrancy, Homelessness, and English Renaissance Literature, Linda Woodbridge resolves the question of such evidence by suggesting it is the product of "literary influence on the judicial testimony."4 Her suggestion appears motivated by an understandable desire, like that of some historians, to maintain clear-cut boundaries between the legal and the literary, or the real and the fictional. The idea of "influence" itself presumes a division between the two bodies of texts, a gap that is thought to be illegitimately crossed by individuals who are unable to maintain the distinction between the real and the imaginary. Yet, if we consider both the legal records and the literature of roguery as contributions to an ideologically inflected, culturally significant discourse on vagrancy, the gap between literature and legal record becomes less obvious.

     3. In this essay, I want to continue, in the words of Dionne and Mentz, to "blur the boundaries between the historical and the literary" (11). I look at the narrative strategies and techniques used in the records of examinations held by the court of governors at Bridewell, collected in the Bridewell Court Books (hereafter BCB). In doing so, I do not seek to determine which way influence flowed, but instead aim to further our understanding of early modern discourse on vagrancy more generally. I am not trying to place the legal records themselves in the category of fiction, nor am I interested in revealing instances of scapegoating in both literature and law courts -- it goes without saying that neither the rogue books nor the governors at Bridewell looked particularly favorably on vagrants, even though there are definitely instances in the records where the governors appeared to have taken pity on someone.5 In spite of the fact that the records were initiated by a real encounter with a homeless person, they may nonetheless be situated within the same discourse as the literature. Like the literature, they show a reliance on narrative structures, literary ordering, and story-telling techniques. The conventional ways in which records tell their stories, I am suggesting, can tell us not only about early modern views of the social order but also about the cultural importance of certain types of narratives as ordering mechanisms.

     4. Literary critics have long grappled with the generic problem of the rogue literature of the latter half of the sixteenth and the first half of the seventeenth century. As Dionne and Mentz note, the topic of the vagrant itself seems to inspire this confusion. A much discussed reason for these books' slippery generic character is their contradictory author presentation. The narrators of rogue books by Thomas Harman, Robert Greene, and Thomas Dekker, much like the rogues they describe, adopt a range of roles, from heroic unmaskers of tricksters out to fleece an unsuspecting citizenry to confirmed plagiarists who revel in hinting at the similarities between rogues and more respectable inhabitants of the commonwealth, including themselves. These contradictory author-figures insist on the reality and urgency of the content of their books, professing to solve the problem of vagrant crime through educating their readers. But their harsh moral tone is undermined by the comic aspects of their stories, which are frequently explicitly presented as "pleasant tales." Literary treatments of the rogue books in terms of genre have often focused on the illicit pleasure readers must have derived from witnessing the rogues' clever tricks. Woodbridge places them firmly within the tradition of the early modern jestbook. Others have pointed to connections with the picaresque novel, while Paola Pugliatti has situated the books within a long-standing European tradition of its own. Mentz places the rogue literature in the capacious generic realm of romance, a connection I have found helpful and compelling when it comes to the legal records, as this essay will show.6 Such categorizations, of course, would seem to undermine these books' stated moral mission and claim to veracity. The rogue book writer, then, is uneasily poised somewhere between objective discoverer of truth and subjective inventor of literature, with one role apparently always impinging on the authority of the other.

     5. In Discovering the Subject in Renaissance England, Elizabeth Hanson treats the rogue literature as evidence of the cultural importance of what she calls "discovery scenarios" in the early modern period, found not only in literature but also in legal and political sources. She shows that there are two contradictory impulses in these scenarios: they emphasize the study of the other as an object to be known but they also insist on the unknowability of the other and the limits of discovery itself, as the discoverer confronts in the other another subject who must remain, in the end, a secret. These dual tendencies, she argues, make for a contradictory construction of selfhood that should be seen as evidence of a larger epistemic shift towards a modern subjectivity.7 In a competitive marketplace of print, authors of rogue literature obviously profited from this transitional worldview: their work was in demand because they uncovered the tricks of the rogue while the image of the always unknowable rogue continued to maintain that demand. They comforted their readers by telling them how to handle the frightening underworld they might encounter but also continued to stir up anxiety by showing this underworld to be pervasive and always changing.8 Greene warns his readers in A Notable Discovery of Cosenage (1591): "If I should spend many sheets in deciphering their shifts, it were frivolous, in that they be many and full of variety, for every day they invent new tricks and such quaint devices as are secret, yet passing dangerous, that if a man had Argus' eyes, he could scant pry into the bottom of their practices."9 The vexed relationship between discovery and secrecy, objectivity and entertainment, and fact and fiction in the rogue books makes for multivalent texts that pretend to restore order yet always imply that disorder is permanent because the vagrant refuses to let him- or herself be known fully.

     6. Readers of romance would have found, as Mentz has argued, aspects of the genre in the rogue books. Of course, the term romance itself refers to a highly complex tradition, made up of many different types of stories. Fredric Jameson's famous essay on romance emphasizes that at the heart of the genre, which he traces back to medieval rather than ancient examples, is the confrontation with the Other, the alien who is described as evil because of his Otherness. He calls this the "deep-rooted ideology" that constitutes the genre. It has "the function of drawing the boundaries of a given social order and providing a powerful internal deterrent against deviance or subversion."10 His description stresses mostly the genre's strong drive towards a mysteriously achieved order at the end. Jameson describes the romance ending as follows:

the hostile knight, in armor, his identity unknown, exudes that insolence which marks a fundamental refusal of recognition and stamps him as the bearer of the category of evil, up to the moment in which, defeated and unmasked, he asks for mercy and tells his name, . . . at which point he becomes simply one knight among others and loses all his sinister unfamiliarity. (161)

This anagnorisis or final recognition undoes the wandering that has led up to it. Identification, not only of the Other, but also of the self through the Other, is key. For both hero and enemy to be returned to a place in the social order, they must both be named, as a sign of their resumption of an identity that can be conventionally understood. Identification thus signals a moment of reformation of individuals but it also renews the larger social order, which is shown to be capable of re-absorbing hero and enemy. Such identificatory endings rely most frequently on straightforward factual details of identity that repress the effects of wandering on inwardness for both protagonist and antagonist. But in spite of this push for closure, romance also thrives on its own interest in disorder. For Patricia Parker, this is what distinguishes the genre as mode. In Inescapable Romance, she argues that "'romance' is that mode or tendency which remains on the threshold before the promised end, still in the wilderness of wandering, 'error,' or 'trial.'"11 The ending, in short, is a conventional return to normality. What has led up to it is an unpredictable "wilderness." Whether we emphasize the digressive or the ordering inclinations of romance, the genre is marked by a confrontation with deviance and the restoration of the social order through the reformation of the individual.

     7. The Bridewell records show similar contradictory impulses, suggesting that their presence is not only the result of the commercial motive of the hack writer of rogue literature or of the imagined appeal to a middle-class book reader. Instead, the contradictions in the legal record, in terms of author presentation and the use of conventional literary techniques, tell us that these have a larger cultural relevance in the period and expose the difference between our own cultural paradigms and those of early moderns. Our assumptions about the separation of history and fiction and about the impropriety of using literary techniques when describing marginal social groups do not appear to be shared by early modern authors. I want to suggest, therefore, that certain literary structures and narratives have a wide cultural valence in the period, making them pop up in unlikely places, including the legal examination. The legal records are a product of motivated, ideologically significant modes of story-telling and narrative technique. They employ literary and legal conventions to construct a framework within which to understand the chaos and unpredictability of vagrancy.

     8. The governors of Bridewell hospital, the first English workhouse, founded in 1553 for the "undeserving poor," had powers of arrest, judgment, punishment, and correction of those who were brought before its court. Paul Griffiths has demonstrated that these powers were unprecedented, calling Bridewell "the only such institution in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England that could police, prosecute, and punish in this way without reference to an external monitoring authority, like a justice of the peace. In this respect, it was an innovation, coupling police and penal functions within a single all-purpose institution."12 As historians have shown, moreover, Bridewell represents a very early and ambitious, though not very successful, attempt at using the penal system not only to police and punish but also to reform offenders.13 The inwardness of the vagrant, then, was a subject of serious concern for the Bridewell governors, whose efforts had to be predicated on the assumption that this inwardness can be reformed from without. Showing a much wider interest in social disorder and immorality than its initial charter would suggest, the court of governors came to handle not only "sturdy" beggars but also those who had committed sexual offenses of the sort we might otherwise expect to see in ecclesiastical courts, proving even further that their claim to authority was staked in the field of inwardness, not just the punishment of crime. In the context of this larger mission of reform of the early modern subject, the records of examinations document the law's ability to "know" a slippery group of people, linked not by homelessness but by any kind of immoral behavior that is perceived as detrimental to the social order.14 Although there are no imagined readers other than the court and its administrators for this textual production, the court books' status as public record suggests we should treat them as attempts at documenting and thus permanently fixing the identities of the accused. Writing the record of an examination, in other words, is a way of rendering legible the disturbing cultural presence of the vagrant. Such ordering happens, as is true for literature, to a large extent through particular conventions, as if the repetitive language, predictable structure, and the close resemblance of records to each other help guarantee the authority and objectivity of the institution.

     9. The shape of the examination record itself betrays this interest in maintaining order through an appeal to convention. In its most complete version, the record follows a predictable sequence of identification, the statement of the charge, a confession or refusal to confess, and in conclusion a punishment or discharge. The record charts the sins and secrets of the dissolute offender as well as the resolution or ending of the narrative in the form of the judgment, which represents the legal establishment's answer to the problem of vagrancy. Identification is clearly of paramount importance. It is in identification that the record can most readily imagine a perfect encounter between vagrant and court, through which the object of the court's examination submits to a proper repositioning in the commonwealth. Harman triumphantly includes a list of names of vagabonds at the end of A Caveat for Common Cursitors (1566), as if his index will permanently end the narratives of vagrant trickery told in the previous pages. By listing and naming the vagrants, his index implies, potential victims will forever be able to identify the tricksters as such, so that the construction of an index is a form of control over the seemingly uncontrollable vagrant. The Bridewell governors similarly rely on the idea that identification is vital to establishing order. Once they are named, the thinking goes, vagrants will no longer be able to remain obscure and slippery, and there will be an end to their disorderly and threatening movement between social classes. Each Court Book begins with a long index of names, and each record prominently features the name (or names) of the accused, usually in the title, along with other available identifying markers such as place of origin (birth or residence), professional history, marital status, and names of employers, husbands, or, for young, unmarried people, parents. Place of birth is obviously central in determining the fate of the vagrant, who is only committed in Bridewell if legally from London and will otherwise be returned to his or her own parish. If the place of birth is unknown, a person may have to be kept until it can be ascertained, as was true for Margaret Hodson, before the court on 16 December 1598. In her case, it was "ordered that she shalbe kept at the charge of this house & sett at worke & apparelled untill certayne inquiry be made where she was borne" (BCB 4, fol. 54). The record, in other words, can only be successful if it provides specific clues to the offender's identity, an identity that is made up not only of name and social status but also of geographical origin. The fantasy behind the record is that the wandering of the vagrant ends with his or her recognition. The records' resolutions parallel anagnorisis in romance 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. As Mentz writes of the cony-catching literature, "London's dangers . . . become part of the predictable wandering phase of literary romance, which is always followed by recovery. In other words, the city's dangers become formulaic and part of a new stable order" (241).

     10. In order to create a coherent narrative, the records need to suppress the source material out of which they are constructed. We generally do not hear of questions asked by the court, and the examinations appear as a finished story rather than an interrogation. The records feature reported speech by the examined and attribute the confession to him or her. The confession or, in its absence, proven charge constitutes a necessary middle part to the story, and the punishment, which is not argued for but merely stated, appears as its natural outcome. Generally, we are given an account of what happened when, the apparent result of a successful examination leading to a confession and conclusion. The myriad instances of seemingly spontaneous confession bolster the authority of the governors, whose mere presence appears to have led to the revelation of the truth. In the absence of a confession, the records often assert that some offense or other has been proven, usually without including testimony or evidence, unless specific individuals have been brought in to testify. Thus, 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. The words attributed to the offenders are at times imposed on them by the court, making the confessions themselves a mixture of apparently authentic speech by the accused and legalistic or moralistic phrases ascribed to them by the court. Invariably, for instance, the records have individuals confessing to having had "the use and carnal knowledge" of someone's body, a phrase that obviously does not originate with them. Alternatively, people confess to such transgressions as being a "knave," a "lewd harlot," or a "common picker." Even more elaborate confessions in the records do not offer insight into inwardness, but rely on mostly factual accounts of what happened when and who said what, the result of a specific line of questioning to which we are not privy.

     11. In contrast with the flat characterization of many offenders, the court of governors creates a vivid authorial presence for itself in the abundant use of negative adjectives for the accused and their offenses. The persons examined are not described in official jargon or placed in legal categories, but rather seem to be classified in accordance with the individual preferences of the court. As Griffiths writes in his study of young transients held at the Norwich Bridewell, "Contemporary governors were resolute nomenclators, and they disseminated an intimidating array of labels, which placed people who corrupted their ideas of law and order on the margins of society."15 Individuals are most frequently accused of the broad sin of "lewdness," but also represented through specific phrases chosen by the court. A look at the different volumes of records shows that these phrases vary over time. Perennial favorites are "idle rogue," "vagrant quean" and, especially, "counterfeit vagrant." Equally vaguely, the charge at times seems to be merely based on an appeal to popular knowledge of the offenses of the accused. John Watkins, for instance, was punished on 15 January 1603, apparently only for being "a notorious shiftinge roague famous for his villanyes" (BCB 4, fol. 347).

     12. The records' language beyond the labels attached to offenders varies to reflect the governors' judgment of the nature of the offence, constructing an authorial presence inspired by moral principles. A case brought before the court on 13 March 1560 (in modern dating) was particularly egregious to the governors, judging from the language of the record:

Sybbell Steyre also Oteley the wyfe of Richard Oteley of Stepney brought into this house the xiij of marche 1559 by Mr Sare deputie of the warde of Creplegate for that she is a marveilous dissemblyng woman which falsely and colorably hath gone abowte the Citie affirmyng her husbond to have ben borned for religion at Canterbury in Quene Marys tyme & that she had viij children & loste by the death of her husbond a howse & ij acres of lande (beyng all together false & untrue) and by these and suche lyke counterfett suggestions craved money of a great nombre of the worshipfull of this Citie ffor the which she was admonysshed punysshed and sett at libertie the day and yere aforeseid. (BCB 1, fol. 66)

Mistress Oteley was probably released because she had a residence, making her punishment less severe than that of many ordinary vagrant beggars. But she seems to have incited the ire of the court because of her desire to make a profit out of religious martyrdom as well as her creation of a false narrative about the death of her husband, the very person who should have been in charge of her. Her disobedience in domestic and religious terms, then, must have prompted the description of her deceit as "marveilous" as if the story has left the governors in awe, experiencing the kind of wonder promised to the reader of the cony-catching pamphlets. The record uses no fewer than five adjectives to confirm that Oteley's story is untrue (dissemblyng, falsely, colorably, false, untrue, counterfett). Her construction of a bogus story is thus nervously undone by the permanent record of the correct narrative at Bridewell, with one story incorporating and, it is hoped, permanently eradicating another.

     13. Beyond diction, we can detect an authorial presence in tone. A 1559 record tells the story of another "counterfeit" vagrant. Like the Oteley record, it is a typical example of a "discovery scenario," to use Hanson's term:

George croft a vagabond whiche counterfeated the fallyng sycknes and made him selfe lame, was brought hether for the same, and her beyng ponysshed he was found perfit and whole and confessed him selfe to have counterfeated the same this half yer for necessite and after was commytted to the labor of this house and beyng here ponysshed was made upright and perfite whole. (undated, probably October 1559; BCB 1, fol. 26)

Croft, in the terminology of the rogue literature a "counterfeit crank," is somehow unmasked by the governors. His case is reminiscent of Harman's famous account of the trickery of Nicholas Jennings, who also pretended to have "the fallying syckness" and ended up at Bridewell, where "he was stripped stark naked, and his ugly attire put upon him before the masters thereof, who wondered greatly at his dissimulation."16 In the Caveat, the governors seem more surprised than in the case of Croft and are witness to a double display, first of his stripping down and then of his dressing up. In the record, the language betrays a wary familiarity with deceit and has a sarcastic edge, in the repeated assertion of Croft's actual health and the joking reference at the end to Bridewell's curative powers of reform. The punch-line conclusion is reminiscent of Harman's description of another trickster, the "dummerer," or vagrant who pretends to be mute. Harman's dummerer is ironically "cured" by a surgeon who boasts at having once before done the same thing and promises the narrator: "you shall see a miracle wrought anon. For I once . . . made a dumb man to speak" (119). The feat is performed through torture: after hanging the man tied by his hands from a beam, the dummerer screams to be let down. The legal record is not quite so cruel, though the governors are shown to be similarly devoid of sympathy for this man who claimed his fake performance was "for necessity." Paradoxically, then, the records feature an author who is both absent and present, objective and subjective, given the shape of a disembodied collective, amassing factual information and indices, yet also depicted as a moralistic presence, capable of emotional responses, such as wonder and anger, and shown to have a quirky set of linguistic preferences.

     14. In her discussion of Harman's work, Hanson argues compellingly for the various ways in which Harman violates the conventions of discovery and original authorship.17 For instance, he needs to be objective to maintain his credibility as witness to and judge of the vagrants he writes about, but at the same time he puts himself forward as subjective inventor, literary author, and even trickster, who engages in the very practices he condemns in others. Greene too draws these connections between himself and those he writes about, especially in The Defence of Cony-Catching (1592). The proximity of the author to the cony-catchers gives him legitimacy as their chronicler but also renders him suspect. It is a connection that must have been compelling to readers, who apparently were willing to entertain the thought that respectability was not altogether different from vagrant deceit. While the governors at Bridewell were far from pointing to similarities between themselves and the objects of their scrutiny, they too violate our notions of objectivity in constructing a striking personal presence. It seems to me that it is the very closeness of judge to offender -- along with the need for constant conversation between the two -- that has created this urge on the part of the governors to note their moral responses in the court books. However much they encountered stories of sin, they had to continue to record their surprise and revulsion. I suspect, therefore, that our disturbance at the mixture of objective and subjective in rogue literature and the records may not have been shared in the period. Instead, the author's presentation of himself as literary inventor appears to underpin his standing, proving his ability to understand and order the story of the wandering vagrant in a proper, conventional way.

     15. Bridewell's aim was moral correction, and so the actions of the governors were predicated on the assumption that the interiority of others can be known and acted upon through physical discipline and force. The examined had to make themselves known as much as the cony-catchers, to whom the authors of rogue books have apparently easy access since they themselves always insist on revealing their tricks. When the accused at Bridewell did confess, their confessions tended to be highly conventional and entirely based on externals. It is through the recounting of acts and speech that the confession works, as is seen in this examination of a "dummerer":

William Worall broughte into this house the xxixth of December [1561] by Sampson the Sheriffes officer for that he went aboute the stretes faininge him selfe to be borne dome and beinge examoned saithe that he was borne in Bramley in hampshier and aboute a xv yeers paste was bound prentice at Bremton with one Corkys a Taylor in the same shier from whom before his yeres expired he ranne awaye and went to Blundesdon a house of the lorde Sandowes wher he began firste to begge & for that people shulld have more pitie on him ther fained him selfe to be borne dombe and so hathe practized ever since althoughe he hathe bene in service by sea and other Daungers in the preinces affaires for whiche he was well whipped the thirde of Januarye and adjudged by order taken the same daye at courte holden that he the said William Worall shulled on Sondaye then nexte ensuenge stande at powles crosse before the precher with a paper on his breste written on this wise A Deceitfull beggar counterfetinge him selfe to be borne Dome and could alwayes speke and also that he shulld open unto the people his said practize and that Done to be delivered he stode at poules crosse accordinge as aforesaid on Sondaye the fourthe of Januarye wher he dyd as abovesaid delivered out of this house the vth of Januarye 1561. (record for court held 3 January 1562 [modern dating]; BCB 1, fol. 182v-183)

The account relies primarily on factual information, rehearsing the details of Worall's personal history. Griffiths points out that generally magistrates dealing with vagrants were ill at ease when faced with "restless movement, imprecision or nothingness" and much preferred "traceable biographies and a good reason to be in London" ("Overlapping Circles," 116). Worall's record not only shows this tendency to construct a reassuringly factual CV for the offender, but it also emphasizes that the deceit was made public knowledge, to prevent future trickery, in another anagnoritic conclusion. In light of the court's concern with reform, it should surprise us that Worall's story is entirely devoid of motivation: we do not hear why he first abandoned his position as apprentice and why he returned to his begging practices after his time as a seaman and soldier. His actions are presented as simply motivated by a desire for profit, much like the offenses of others brought in to Bridewell, who were always expected to be acting only out of lewdness and greed. In failing to discuss explanations for behavior beyond what is conventionally assumed, the records, like the rogue books, construct superficial narratives of sin and depravity. The point of the story is the ingenious nature of trickery; its elements are disclosure, confession, and punishment. Plot, thus, becomes the driving force of these records, and it is a plot that of necessity always has to work in the same way.

     16. In literary terms, then, the Bridewell records begin in perfect recognition and end in a fantasy of punitive reform. Greene claims in A Notable Discovery of Cosenage (1591) that he can "decipher" the "qualities" of the vagabonds (157). While his use of "qualities" points to a search for the rogue's essence, "deciphering," one of Greene's favorite terms, had conflicting meanings. The OED entry shows that it was used both to mean decoding and encoding. On the one hand, deciphering was used for detection and discovery, the conversion of something secret into ordinary language. On the other hand, it also meant "to represent or express by some kind of character, cipher, or figure." The double meaning of deciphering points to two approaches to vagrancy: one that highlights the possibility of disclosure and another that emphasizes the permanence of mystery and the way in which any decoding is another encoding. These two approaches typify the ambiguous relationship of the authors of rogue books and the governors to the vagrant. Even as they base their authority on their ability to decipher the vagrant, they also show that it is impossible to achieve some measure of control over this slippery figure.

     17. Like romance, both rogue literature and Bridewell records must achieve their conventional endings by eliminating inwardness and relying on the logic of plot, featuring a seemingly endless variety of stories of deceit and misbehavior, which are all the same motivated and concluded in ways that make them appear conventional and commonplace. It is a real question whether this romance-like emphasis on what Mentz calls "recovery" is able to erase anxieties produced by the "wandering" phase of the story (241), and it is here that I depart somewhat from Mentz's argument, which relies more on the idea of successful closure to romance than mine. The drive towards closure in both legal record and rogue literature cannot, I think, overcome the excessive concentration on transgression, the part that causes revulsion and wonder. The lengthy confessions and narratives of misconduct led early twentieth-century historians to censor the records or express their disgust, much like the governors. Edward Donoghue, author of the only full-length history of Bridewell to date, calls the records "sordid proceedings" and writes with approval that "the punishment generally included a good whipping."18 It is hard not to be more impressed by the detail of criminal or sexual behavior than by the predictable response of the governors. The expected ending, a reestablishment of order through predictable methods of identification and reform, is itself undone by the fascination with the narrative of wandering that precedes it. In other words, the long middle, between the promise of disclosure and the final resolution, troubles convention.

     18. There are other ways in which the imagined conclusion of the court records, i.e. an end to wandering and the beginning of reform, is perpetually undercut. Numerous offenders returned repeatedly before the court, showing that the punishment, discipline, and firm admonishments had not worked. Meanwhile, the number of vagrants brought in continued to increase, and the sexual offenses must have looked never-ending to the governors. Bridewell, it seems, failed to live up to its promise of reforming the individual, let alone the city of London. Occasionally, the records show that there were problems during the examination stage already. A number of offenders were not willing to confess until force had been applied, reversing the proper sequence of identification-confession-punishment. This reversal undermined the view that punishment served the purpose of reform and thus had to come after confession. In these cases, of identification-punishment-confession, violence as discipline was turned into violence as torture. Thomas Whyte, a "boocher and a vagabond," was committed on 9 May 1560 for being "a filchyng knave and a stealer of lynnen of hedges & out of gardeyns." He stood "stowteley . . . in the denyall thereof" during examination but confessed upon punishment that he had stolen a pair of sheets and a shirt (BCB 1, fol. 78v). At times, the desired outcome of confession even failed to materialize, putting into question the effectiveness of punitive violence at all. For instance, Thomas Williams, a Welshman, accused of being a cutpurse, was "well ponyshed but would confesse nothing, and therfor was commytted to the myll" (22 April 1559, BCB 1, fol. 1v). Julian Ducket, a maidservant, was found under a bed in the house of her master, "very suspiciously havyng a nomber of counterfeat keys" and refused to say what her "evill purpose" was other than that she had gone in to get her clothes. The governors resorted to force to no avail: "[she] would tell none other tale although she were well ponysshed" (30 December 1559, BCB 1, fol. 46). Ducket's refusal to rehearse the "tale" that would make her behavior fit within a framework the court could accommodate placed her outside of the conventions the records had set up for themselves. In other words, the objects of discovery occasionally resisted being made legible to the court, maintaining their own subjectivity and mystery through refusing to speak in the terms handed to them.

     19. Equally troublingly, in their reliance on romance-like plot structure and motive, the governors may have opened the door to negotiation by offenders. At times, individuals were willing to confess to something, but not everything, denying aspects of the charge while confirming others. Occasionally, they constructed a different motivation for their actions than the governors expected. On 3 January 1560, John Beale was brought in, for "pickyng of Brasse from the graves & monumeantes of the dead and in the churche of St Fosters, and for the same was her admonysshed upon his repentaunce declaryng that conscyence rather moved him in the hatred of Idolatry then coveteousnes of the matter, was delyvered etc." (BCB 1, fol. 47v). The Puritan leanings of the governors, documented by Ian Archer in Pursuit of Stability, appear to have enabled Beale to make his way out of Bridewell.19 The governors had no way of assessing the veracity of Beale's stated motivation and repentance, nor were they in a position to ask questions about it. Their own method of examining and recording allowed no room for detecting inwardness other than what was conventionally understood. By offering them an unexpected but still acceptable narrative, Beale left the governors with no option but to release him.

     20. As Paul Slack has reminded us, in a world of imperfect technologies of identification, the authorities had to rely on the word of the vagrant for assessing him or her, as they were "dependent on the vagrant's own testimony for evidence of his place of origin. If he wished to visit London he need only say that he was born there."20 The governors themselves seem willfully blind to the court's superficial reliance on the accused for information. The narrow assumptions about motivation and the veracity of the confession, the court's ordering of narratives into coherent stories following a romance pattern, and the use of conventional phrases and moralistic language hide the more disturbing fact that the mystery of the vagrant cannot be probed through external and material evidence. Both literature and legal record are haunted by the same problem: what if the elaborate disclosures we are witness to give us no insight into the vagrant him- or herself, but only into the desires of the recorder? At court held on 28 May 1575, an Irish boy, John Darmouthe, was brought in for a series of offenses: he had run away from his master, he had been found carrying a piece of gold on him that had been lost and almost caused a group of gentlemen to fight, he was said to be engaged in "occupienge and playenge" with false dice, and he had said, "there is no god." For these offenses, the boy had what the governors call "correction" and was kept until his master came back to the city (28 May 1575, BCB 2, fol. 111v). The narrative framework of the court records can do nothing to eradicate the threat to order this boy represents. The governors have to repress the idea of the law's powerlessness by pretending that there is no alternative truth to the confessions that are being heard, that motivation is straightforward and therefore easily corrected through physical discipline, and that subjects can be understood in terms of moralistic labels. If in representing the encounter between the law and vagrancy, the records were as likely to deploy conventional narrative techniques as the rogue literature, it is only because convention was the court's sole domain. Thus, the records, much like the literature, expose the limits of the law's understanding of vagrancy and Bridewell's own inability to reform.

 

 

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Notes

1 See Craig Dionne and Steve Mentz, eds., Rogues and Early Modern English Culture (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004), 11.

2 For example, A.L. Beier's Masterless Men: The Vagrancy Problem in England, 1560-1640 (London: Methuen, 1985), 8 and J.A. Sharpe, Crime in Early Modern England, 1550-1750, 2nd ed. (London: Longman, 1999), 143. Linda Woodbridge offers a lengthy refutation of various myths about rogues found in the literature in her introduction to Vagrancy, Homelessness, and English Renaissance Literature (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001), especially 6-12. But, for a radically different approach in which the distinction between history and literature gets elided in favor of a theoretical reading, see Bryan Reynolds, Becoming Criminal: Transversal Performance and Cultural Dissidence in Early Modern England (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002).

3 A.L. Beier, "Anti-Language or Jargon? Canting in the English Underworld in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries," Languages and Jargons: Contributions to a Social History of Language, eds. Peter Burke and Roy Porter (London: Polity Press, 1995), 64-101. Paul Slack cites some examples of types of vagrants and organizations that can be seen as similar to those described in Thomas Harman's A Caveat for Common Cursitors (1566). See Poverty and Policy in Tudor and Stuart England (London: Longman, 1988), 96-97. Paul Griffiths discussed various, more diffuse forms of criminal organization and networking in "Overlapping Circles: Imagining Criminal Communities in London, 1545-1645," Communities in Early Modern England: Networks, Place, Rhetoric, eds. Alexandra Shepard and Phil Whitington (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), 115-133.

4 Woodbridge, 10; also 41-43. Beier explicitly discounts this as a possibility, especially for one compelling piece of evidence of canting, a series of interviews held in 1613 with vagrant Mary Roberts and her husband. He writes, "The Roberts interviews are important in showing that their evidence is not a case of nature imitating art; that is, there is no possibility that the legal documents simply reflected the influence of the literature of roguery. The justice of the peace who examined the Robertses specified that the slang words were theirs" ("Anti-Language," 73). More broadly, Woodbridge claims that the rogue literature affected the legal statutes: "the similarities here between official law and trashy popular literature comprise more than an odd coincidence: rogue literature (the tabloids of its day) influenced statutes. . . . the myths generated by rogue literature were the yeast acting upon a dough of public anxieties to produce the bitter bread of repressive legislation" (4).

5 To give a suggestive example, on 28 June 1598, the record notes, "John Barell sent in by Mr Deputye Hidd for lewdnes was dischardged for that he was A broken man" (BCB 4, fol. 26). Charges were at times dismissed if the accused were sick, very young, or very remorseful. The Bridewell Court Books, with their minutes of the meetings of the court of governors, are kept at the Bethlem Royal Archives and Museum. See also the archive section on the website of the Bethlem Royal Archives at <http://bethlemheritage.org.uk/> where the court books can currently be found on-line in a trial version.

6 Woodbridge states that "rogue literature creates a fanciful world drawing fulsomely on comic storytelling and jest books and . . . this creation of imaginative writers ought to be inadmissible as historical evidence of social conditions in the real world" (11). Paola Pugliatti argues that the rogue literature goes as far back as the fourteenth century and places the books in a European context in chapter 7 of her Beggary and Theatre in Early Modern England (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003). She claims the picaresque novel is not a source, as is often thought, because it postdated the first examples of rogue literature. Mentz's essay, "Magic Books: Cony-Catching and the Romance of Early Modern London," appears in Rogues and Early Modern English Culture, 240-58.

7 See especially the introduction to Discovering the Subject in Renaissance England, Cambridge Studies in Renaissance Literature and Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

8 A range of arguments about rogue literature's effects on the reader have been put forward, many of which show the role of these books in helping the reader negotiate the social and especially economic transitions of the period. Jean-Christophe Agnew proposed this reading of the rogue books in his influential Worlds Apart: The Market and the Theater in Anglo-American Thought, 1550-1750 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 61-73. Another key argument along these lines can be found in Craig Dionne's early essay, "Playing the 'Cony': Anonymity in Underworld Literature," Genre 30 (1997): 29-50 and in his expansion on this argument in "Fashioning Outlaws: The Early Modern Rogue and Urban Culture," Rogues and Early Modern English Culture, 33-61. Patricia Fumerton's important book on migrancy places the literature in a much wider context of an emerging mobile economy: Unsettled: The Culture of Mobility and the working Poor in Early Modern England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006). A more literary view is that cited above by Mentz, who reads in particular Greene's pamphlets as "magic books," comforting to the reader because they provide a manual on how to encounter the adventurous, dangerous world of the city and allow the reader to "read" the city through the literary framework of romance.

9 Robert Greene, "A Notable Discovery of Cosenage," Cony-Catchers and Bawdy Baskets: An Anthology of Elizabethan Low Life, ed. Gámini Salgádo (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), 155-92, esp. 174.

10 Fredric Jameson, "Magical Narratives: Romance as Genre," New Literary History 7.1 (1975): 135-63, esp. 140.

11 Patricia A. Parker, Inescapable Romance: Studies in the Poetics of a Mode (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), 4.

12 Paul Griffiths, "Contesting London Bridewell, 1576-1580," Journal of British Studies 42 (2003): 283-315, 287.

13 See Beier, Masterless Men, 164-69 and especially Joanna Innes, "Prisons for the Poor: English Bridewells, 1555-1800," Labour, Law, and Crime: An Historical Perspective, eds. Francis Snyder and Douglas Hay (Tavistock: London, 1987), 42-122.

14 For this reason, some of the people examined and discussed here are not strictly speaking vagrants. I have argued elsewhere that the Bridewell Court Books show not so much the specificity of the treatment and scapegoating of vagrants as their presence on a spectrum of socially unacceptable behavior. "The Counterfeit Vagrant: The Dynamic of Deviance in the Bridewell Court Records and the Literature of Roguery," Rogues and Early Modern English Culture, 120-39.

15 Paul Griffiths, Youth and Authority: Formative Experiences in England, 1560-1640 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 353.

16 Thomas Harman, "A Caveat for Common Cursitors," Cony-Catchers and Bawdy Baskets, 79-153, esp. 117.

17 See especially chapter 4 of Discovering the Subject in Renaissance England.

18 Edward Geoffrey O'Donoghue, Bridewell Hospital, Palace, Prison, Schools from the Earliest Times to the End of the Reign of Elizabeth (London: Lane, 1923), 230-31.

19 Ian Archer, The Pursuit of Stability: Social Relations in Elizabethan London, Cambridge Studies in Early Modern British History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 251-56. Archer uses wills to prove the religious affiliations of the governors during the 1570s "campaign against prostitution" but also argues that religious ideology throughout the period was important to formulating Bridewell's mission. His words on the governors place their morality in the larger context of the Reformation: "For protestants attacks on sin were both a means of indicting the old order and validating the new, for God was clearly on the side of those who were most vehement against sin, and opposed to those who appeared to condone it" (251-52). For another story of "escape," see my account of the records on Mall Newberry in "The Counterfeit Vagrant," 122-23.

20 Paul A. Slack, "Vagrants and Vagrancy in England, 1598-1664," Migration and Society in Early Modern England, eds. Peter Clark and David Souden (Totowa: Barnes and Noble, 1987), 49-76, esp. 51. Griffiths, however, has pointed out that the indices in the court books did help the authorities uncover cases of recidivism, in "Overlapping Circles," 127.

 

 

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