Introduction

Linda Woodbridge

 

     1. "Vagrant subjects" have attracted serious scrutiny over the past few years, in monographs, articles, and a special issue of English Literary Renaissance. (See, for example, works by Beier, Carroll, Woodbridge, Fumerton, Dionne and Mentz, Pugliatti, Reynolds; English Literary Renaissance 33 [2003)].) The thought-provoking essays in this issue of Early Modern Culture re-open several "vagrant" themes.

     2. Both Patricia Fumerton and Sandra Logan explore the paradox that the aristocracy behaved rather like the vagrants they excoriated: both groups were idle and restlessly mobile. Fumerton observes that aristocrats who condemned the poor as idle were conspicuously idle themselves:

Being "idle" in the sense of not laboring physically for a living was traditionally a point of pride for the upper sorts. But many now found themselves inopportunely so. Gentry and noble youths had industriously flocked to the universities and Inns of Court in the hope of thereby securing respectable advancement in the Church or State, and found the doors often closed. Numbers quite simply exceeded demand.

And Fumerton reminds us that aristocrats both caused mobility among lower classes (by dismissing large numbers of servants and retainers, charging extortionate rents, and enclosing common lands) and practiced mobility in migrating from country estates to the city. Logan shows that the wealthy could flee urban outbreaks of the plague, repairing to uninfected country homes, while the poor were immobilized in plague-stricken city neighborhoods by public health measures and by their very poverty. (Logan's pointed comparisons with Katrina-stricken New Orleans bring the situation vividly home to readers.) In both idleness and mobility, then, we find (in Fumerton's words) an "uncanny likeness . . . between high and low." Nicely illustrative of blurred boundaries between the high and low is a woodcut representing a manor house in one text, a famous brothel in another.

     3. From a post-structuralist standpoint, this uncanny likeness is unsurprising. Post-colonial theorists in particular have long posited that dominant groups actively generate the unsavory characteristics of subjugated peoples by projecting upon them their own disowned vices. Thus a conquistador, whose soldiers routinely rape women in defeated territories, might write home describing the "natives" as incontinently lustful. (Pretty much what Shakespeare does to Caliban.) It is the man who feels queasy about his own behavior whose mental gyrations transfer it to another; and the early modern upper crust had clearly begun to feel queasy about its own idleness and mobility. Not doing manual labor had traditionally been a point of pride for aristocrats; but now not only were they failing to find any occupation, but during the Reformation idleness was increasingly coming under attack. What better moment to scapegoat the poor for idleness? And aristocratic mobility was now also besmirched: some observers grumbled that aristocrats neglected their estates to flock to the capital, and conversely, many English humanists were embarrassed that their aristocrats lived rustically in country estates to start with, and had to trek up to the city to attend the court. The Renaissance was largely an urban phenomenon, and elsewhere in Europe a more sophisticated noble class dwelt year-round in cities. Thomas Starkey winced at the thought that European polite society might consider English aristocrats mere bumpkins:

Our gentlemen must be caused to retire to cities and towns, and to build them houses in the same, and there to see the governance of them, helping ever to set all such thing forward as pertaineth to the ornaments of the city. They may not continually dwell in the country as they do. This is a great rudeness and a barbarous custom used with us in our country. They dwell, with us, sparkled in the fields and woods, as they did before there was any civil life known or stablished among us; the which surely is a great ground of the lack of all civil order and humanity. (161)

What better moment for the upper crust to blame the poor for uncouth mobility? I suggest that the "uncanny likeness . . . between high and low" was more than an interesting paradox: the supposed unlovely characteristics of the "low" were often generated by denial and projection on behalf of the "high." And that circumstance should occasion readerly vigilance in evaluating claims made by literate, educated classes about those who lacked the means to represent themselves to posterity.

     4. Martine Van Elk exercises an admirable vigilance in probing archives of the governors of Bridewell workhouse, who recorded interrogations of those arrested for vagrancy. The examiners, Van Elk maintains, were penning stories: "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." Noting that the examinations followed "a predictable sequence of identification, the statement of the charge, a confession or refusal to confess, and . . . a punishment or discharge," she posits that interrogators imposed on the testimony a literary structure like that of romance, with its anagnorisis revealing previously-hidden identity. The idea that judicial testimony was shoehorned into preëxisting literary structures is intriguing and fairly persuasive -- several of us who have studied such testimony have noticed how suspiciously its assumptions reproduce those of rogue literature. It is true that like vagrants' stories, romance deals with wandering and possesses a moment of anagnorisis, although romance ends in recognition scenes, where Van Elk's judicial accounts begin there, more like spiritual confession followed by penance. And for another possible literary model, although plays (to which the term anagnorisis is native) typically end rather than beginning with recognition scenes, many plays incorporate a narrative which has the effect of putting climactic recognitions up front -- the "argument" prefixed to many Renaissance plays and sometimes to individual acts in plays.

     5. In contrast to the suspensefully unfolding play itself, an "argument"spills the whole plot at once. Romeo and Juliet's prologue tells us that an ancient feud breaks out into new violence, and that a pair of lovers from feuding clans are killed, which makes everyone feel so bad that they end the vendetta. Anyone hating to have a play spoiled by someone's giving away the ending is bound to loathe such play-in-a-nutshell prologues. When I ask students what we can infer about Elizabethan culture from the existence of such "arguments," they bemusedly conclude that Elizabethans must not have valued suspense as we do. Elizabethan writers were not so interested in the nouns and verbs of what happened and to whom, which the Argument casually dispenses with, as in the adverbs of how it happened. The fact that judicial accounts did not allow an interrogation to unfold -- "the examinations appear as a finished story rather than an interrogation" -- makes them resemble a play's "argument." But just as Van Elk notes that "the conclusion of the court records, i.e. an end to wandering and the beginning of reform, is perpetually undercut" by vagrant recidivism, so plays often escape the confines of a prologue's "plot." After the official voice of Henry V's Chorus informs us that "all the youth of England are on fire" to rush into war (Act 2, Chorus, line 1), the play itself shows us seedy, aging recruits quarreling in a tavern on the eve of the battle muster. Official accounts which purloin literary structures don't necessarily rise to the level of the literary. As Van Elk notes, recorded testimony is thin on character development, neglecting motivation in favor of "superficial narratives of sin and depravity." All nouns and verbs, no adverbs. No wonder that, as Van Elk observes, a genre committed to producing and recording firm knowledge inadvertently reveals that "any decoding is another encoding." Even if romance was not the only or even the best model for judicial story-telling, Van Elk's recognition that "legal records are a product of motivated, ideologically significant modes of story-telling and narrative technique" represents an important advance over older interpretations which used judicial accounts to authenticate as historical fact the claims of rogue literature.

     6. Both Sandra Logan and A.L. Beier focus on poverty, on conditions in which people worked, and on the criminalization of poverty. Beier teases out attitudes toward poverty from many sixteenth-century texts, vividly capturing a conflicted culture. He is not perfectly clear about whether sympathetic attitudes toward the poor were residual or emergent: did they result from a lingering "organicist" view of the poor as one of society's three estates, whose welfare was the responsibility of those in the highest estate; or was sympathy for the poor in the vanguard of humanist, republican-oriented political thought? Perhaps it is not possible to separate these strands; perhaps the emergent is often piggy-backed upon the residual. But Beier crisply isolates what the sympathetic were combating: a changing view that rejected poverty's traditional spiritual value, a new valorization of property and wealth, even a new belief that poverty was a sin. Logan argues that "the condition of poverty is a condition of punishment avant le crime," that "the impoverished suffer from life-conditions that replicate the forms of punishment associated with criminal activity for the more privileged classes -- the poor suffer a retraction or restriction of rights and privileges as a basic circumstance of existence." Judicial punishments of the period replicated the life of the poor: "the permanent condemnation to hard labor, restricted movement, lack of political voice, limitations on public gatherings or interactions, and sumptuary restrictions -- these were the conditions of the English peasant." The resemblance of basic lower-class living conditions to punishment for crime helped link poverty and immorality in the public mind. To this fruitful insight I would add that the resemblance of judicial penalties to the ordinary life of the poor must have robbed threats of prosecution of some of their deterrent power.

     7. All four essays discuss the charge of idleness against the vagrant poor. Beier discusses Richard Morison's denunciation of voluntary idleness. Fumerton discusses the echo effect between upper- and lower-class idleness. Logan discusses "the perception that destitution is a choice" by those too idle to work. Van Elk discusses the prosecution of those labeled "idle rogues." A question one might pose is, wasn't there a tension between those two persistent charges, idleness and mobility? And the answer seems to be "no." Nowadays we associate idleness with the immobility of the couch potato; but early modern vagrants were accused both of idleness and of incessant travel. As my colleague Garrett Sullivan points out, travel -- given the period's road conditions -- was hardly an activity for the lazy, as its etymological connection with "travail" suggests (personal communication). The connotations of "idleness" have changed over four centuries. William Carroll notes that sixteenth-century writers often speak of the idle rushing dangerously about. Idleness "leads not to inactivity, but to the wrong kind of activity" (5). Idleness was not mere laziness, not the disinclination to do anything requiring effort, but the disinclination to do "honest work." More reprehensible than mere laziness, idleness implied a deliberate choice of wicked over approved activity; the idle man was, in Milton's phrase, "to vice industrious" (Paradise Lost 2:116).

     8. Sixteenth-century moralists construed industrious travel in search of employment only as suspicious and probably criminal mobility. The censorious Thomas Harman describes a "rogue" who "runneth about the country to seek work, with a big boy his son carrying his tools as a dauber or plasterer"; but, Harman sneers, "little work serveth him" (112). Fumerton has elsewhere written of the difficulty contemporaries had in comprehending serial jobs or migratory seasonal labor, which they could conceptualize only as a desire to work that was woefully intermittent. A homeless woman supposedly related to Harman her unsuccessful attempts to find domestic labor, her discovery that only seasonal work was available. She asked him, "How should I live? None will take me into service. But I labour in harvest-time honestly." Refusing to believe that the jobless are anything but idle, he simply denounced her "lewd life" (100). As Paul Slack writes, "there was no recognition . . . that people wandering or loitering might be trying to find work, not to avoid it" (29).

     9. I am not sure I have ever seen an adequate explanation of why willingness to work became in this period such a primary signifier of Christian and civic virtue, edging out venerable virtues such as self-sacrifice, eagerness for martyrdom, heroic chastity, magnanimity, temperance -- almost even edging out piety -- as the commanding personal virtue. The two-edged term "vocation," as calling by God and as gainful occupation, reflects a conflation of godly good works with paid occupation; but the ubiquity of work as a cultural value goes beyond what theology can account for. The lower classes -- what would in later centuries become the working class -- were urged by their betters to work; the middling sort extolled the virtues of work for all; even the ruling class policed its members to apply themselves to public service rather than frittering away their time scribbling love sonnets. The period's animus against usurers reflects, in part, resentment of their supposed profit without honest labor. As Theodore Leinwand shows, venture capitalists and international traders dodged charges of undeserved windfall profits by trumpeting their unremitting toil (111, 115, 138).Unemployment was misread -- and continues to this day to be misread in popular opinion -- as unwillingness to work, and that was a big problem for the jobless because work was so intensely valued. If the Deity had performed his works of creation during the sixteenth century, he might have thought twice before resting "from all his work" (Gen. 2.2, KJV). Work's tyranny over Renaissance minds as a pervasive cultural value had profound effects on the period's view of poverty, criminal sentencing to hard labor in a workhouse, public policies on relief for the unemployed. We as yet understand this preoccupation but imperfectly; it will repay much further study and thought.

     10. This issue of Early Modern Culture treats a constellation of themes -- poverty, vagrancy, mobility, idleness, work, crime, rogue literature, class disparities. I'll close with a question: is it a good idea to treat this spectrum of topics alongside each other, all as aspects of the topic "vagrant subjects"? All of us who have worked in this area have done this, yes; but is it a good idea? My recurrent fear is that in doing so do we buy into a Renaissance mind set that couldn't hear about poverty without thinking about vagrancy, roguery, crime -- as if they were a seamless whole. I thought about this recently when invited to contribute several pieces to an encyclopedia, and was asked which of them should be cross-referenced to the others. What would it say, I wondered, if one cross-referenced "poverty" to "vagrancy," "rogue pamphlets," "thievery," "beggary," or "the Elizabethan underworld"? As Sandra Logan subtly argues with regard to degrading punishments and the degraded living conditions of the poor, such confluences of category can influence our thinking subliminally. Ultimately I cannot think it was not a good idea to find occasion to bring together four such stimulating essays; but the issue merits thought. Let us work hard at this.

 

 

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Works Cited

Beier, A. L. Masterless Men: The Vagrancy Problem in England. London: Methuen, 1985.

Carroll, William C. Fat King, Lean Beggar: Representations of Poverty in the Age of Shakespeare. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996.

Dionne, Craig, and Steve Mentz, eds. Rogues and Early Modern Literary Culture. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004.

Fumerton, Patricia. Unsettled: The Culture of Mobility and the Working Poor in Early Modern England. University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Harman, Thomas. A Caveat for Common Cursetors, Vulgarly called Vagabonds. First printed 1566. Reprinted in A.V. Judges, ed. The Elizabethan Underworld, second edition. New York: Octagon, 1964.

Leinwand, Theodore B. Theatre, Finance and Society in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Pugliatti, Paola. Beggary and Theatre in Early Modern England. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2003.

Reynolds, Bryan. Transversal Enterprises in the Drama of Shakespeare and his Contemporaries: Fugitive Explorations. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

Slack, Paul. Poverty and Policy in Tudor and Stuart England. London and New York: Longman, 1988.

Starkey, Thomas. A Dialogue between Reginald Pole and Thomas Lupset. Ed. Kathleen M. Burton. London: Chatto and Windus, 1948. Written ca. 1533-5.

Woodbridge, Linda. Vagrancy, Homelessness, and English Renaissance Literature. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001.

 

 

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