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Becoming Criminal: Transversal Performance and Cultural Dissidence in Early Modern England.

Becoming Criminal: Transversal Performance and Cultural Dissidence in Early Modern England, by Bryan Reynolds. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. Pp. xi + 217. Cloth $43.00.

Defending the way he deploys evidence of sixteenth-century English criminality, Bryan Reynolds suggests an analogy with research into the mafia: "if there were a scholar writing, say, in the twenty-fourth century, would he or she have ample material for a sociohistorical study of the twentieth-century's Italian-American mafia's criminality and culture?" He answers with "a resolute yes," since Future Scholar would have access to our "popular films," "printed, broadcasted, televised, and internet news and information sources," "FBI, police, and court records,... testimonies from convicted mafiosi" (2-3). If Reynolds's imagined future scholar disconcertingly lumps together "popular" (i.e., fictional) films and "police and court records," so does Reynolds himself: Becoming Criminal routinely treats fiction as the same kind of evidence as police records. He does recognize the possibility of myth, citing common contemporary beliefs about the mafia, such as that it is in cahoots with the Roman Catholic Church, runs the Teamsters Union, and directly influences the White House and the FBI (6). Historians don't agree, he says, about whether these beliefs are based on fact, but it doesn't really matter, since "the pervasiveness of these claims in the popular mind makes them essential analytical material for any sociohistorical study of twentieth-century America's mafia. Ideas are the stuff of subjectivity; they influence people.... Some popular 'truths' have a profound impact on people without also having much credibility in terms of an academically approved history or a readily substantiated historical reality" (7). While I agree that beliefs, even if erroneous, comprise an important datum of history, the light they shed is on those who believe them, not on the subject of belief. And after this point in the book, Reynolds doesn't trouble himself further with the epistemological status of truth claims about criminality--whatever information on criminal behavior he finds in print from the sixteenth century, whether in court documents, sensationalistic pamphlets, or stage plays, he treats as simply and unequivocally true. Only rarely does he call upon evidence like the early modern equivalent of police records: the vast majority of his evidence comes from either the popular genre called rogue literature or from contemporary plays, especially comedies such as The Roaring Girl or A Jovial Crew, which he seems to regard as legitimate evidence of actual criminal practices. And although he teaches in a department of drama, Reynolds is interested in the plays for the light they shed on criminal practices, not vice versa.

This bizarre methodology is not new--it was often practiced in the earlier twentieth century by such fact-and-fiction-mingling writers as Frank Ayledotte (Elizabethan Rogues and Vagabonds [1913]) and A. V. Judges (The Elizabethan Underworld [1930])--but by the year of our Lord 2002 one could wish for something a little more sophisticated. Reynolds's methods are roughly equivalent to making a scholarly study of murder among the early twentieth-century English gentry by close examination of the works of Agatha Christie. Or to making a technical study of the training and methods of wizards by perusing Harry Potter books.

Reynolds dubs his methods the "'investigative-expansive mode' of analysis," a fancy term for pretty much what Ayledotte proudly announced he was doing in 1913--lumping literary texts in with texts more traditionally the province of historians. (A vice encouraged by the new historicism, I fear.) Ayledotte called his study "the first book to treat Elizabethan rogues and vagabonds from the point of view here taken, piecing together historical and literary material so as to make as complete a picture as possible of their life" (v). Ayledotte proudly admitted to having used the work of Thomas Harman, primarily, "as a basis for a detailed account of rogue customs" (27), and Reynolds too relies heavily on Harman and those who plagiarized Harman (and also on Ayledotte); he styles Harman's Caveat for Common Cursetors a "groundbreaking account of criminal culture" (29). The work of Harman, however, like that of Robert Greene, upon whom Reynolds also draws liberally, is basically a stitched-together collection of anecdotes, closely resembling prose jest collections of the period; and even if one were to accept these stories as Harman's own experience with vagrants--a dubious procedure since many are available in jest books of the period--one should still take into account that Harman has absolutely no claim to objectivity. This owner of three manor houses had every reason to hold conservative opinions about the poor, and indeed, his every syllable bespeaks an antivagrant agenda, unsettlingly prophetic of a modern American idiom of law and order, of getting tough with welfare bums.

Reynolds believes that the reliability of rogue literature is established by its consistency from text to text. For example, "I must accept Awdeley's account of the vagabond divorce as fact: the divorce ceremony is attributed elsewhere to rogues and vagabonds, as in The Bellman of London" (57). A more plausible explanation for consistency among these texts, however, is the fact that they routinely plagiarized from each other. Thomas Dekker's The Bellman of London, Lanthorn and Candelight, and O Per Se O, and Samuel Rid's Martin Markall, Beadle of Bridewell, all texts from which Reynolds draws a good deal of his "information," are generously plagiarized from the work of Harman. Robert Greene's exposes of strategies for cheating at cards and dice, published in the 1590s as fruits of his own firsthand experience and taken as gospel by Reynolds, are heavily plagiarized from Gilbert Walker's A Manifest Detection of Dice Play (1552). The borrowings in these texts undermine their authors' repeated claims to have based them on experience. This crucially affects their status as historical "fact." (1)

Armed with his "'investigative-expansive mode' of analysis," Reynolds dispenses for the most part with the findings of modern historians. (Among the few he mentions is A. L. Beier, and even with Beier's work he is very selective.) This is too bad, since as it happens, the findings of modern historians--in court and parish records and other archives--seriously contradict the representations of "rogue literature" and plays about criminals and beggars. A number of early modern beliefs about the mobile poor have been shrewdly questioned and even wholly discredited by modern historians: the belief that beggars and vagrants were organized in highly disciplined societies or fraternities with kings and hierarchies of the underworld; (2) that they schooled each other in a number of intricately graded criminal specializations; (3) that they were politically seditious and economically radical, a true threat to the stability of the state; (4) that they were witty scam artists who faked disability, or fiendishly clever masters of disguise, capable of infiltrating decent society; (5) that they were secretly rich, with caches of money stowed away; (6) that they were sexually rampant and promiscuous, keeping women as sex slaves; (7) that they were unemployed by choice, preferring to live in idleness off the labors of others; (8) and that they spoke their own language, thieves' cant.9 But all these beliefs Reynolds still holds, fervently and unreflectingly. He is seemingly unaware that set against what historians have learned about the actual lives of the early modern vagrant poor, English rogue literature appears as a major site of misrepresentation. As historian J. A. Sharpe summarizes,
 The first impression to strike anyone turning from the statutes and
 the rogue literature to court archives ... is that the vagrant emerges
 as a much tamer phenomenon from the second than from the first. The
 large bands of vagrants ... are absent; there is little evidence of a
 'fraternity of vagabonds'; and the justices examining vagabonds seem
 not to have been in any way concerned about such matters. Most of
 those apprehended do not seem to have been the professional rogues
 legislated against in Parliament, but were usually unremarkable
 representatives of the lower, and hence more vulnerable, strata of
 society.... This stratum of mobile poor must have irritated many
 contemporaries, but it is difficult to see it as a universally
 subversive threat. (143-44)

Reynolds occasionally draws "information" from vagrancy statutes as well as from rogue literature, and note that in the quotation above, Sharpe groups together "the statutes and the rogue literature" as twin sites of misrepresentation, twin sources of the erroneous impression that vagrants constituted a "universally subversive threat." As I argue in my book Vagrancy, Homelessness, and English Renaissance Literature (2001), which Reynolds nowhere cites, the similarities between official statute and trashy literature comprise more than an odd coincidence: rogue literature (the tabloid of its day) influenced statutes. The word "rogue" itself seems to have migrated from rogue literature into the Poor Laws.

Even modern historians have sometimes been guilty of drawing on the fanciful works of Thomas Harman and other "rogue literature" authors for "information." In 1977, J. S. Cockburn used Harman alongside records of court assizes as valid sources of historical information on "vagrant criminals and their methods" (Crime in England, 1550-1800, 62-63). In 1983, David Palliser adduced Harman's information about rogues when attempting to gauge the number of vagrants on sixteenth-century roads and the extent of their criminality (The Age of Elizabeth); the same year, Peter Burke wrote that Harman was "moved by a curiosity not unlike that of modern anthropologists" ("Urban History and Urban Anthropology of Early Modern Europe"), and in 1994 Robert Jutte concurred (Poverty and Deviance in Early Modern Europe). In 1988, the sole source Roger Manning gave for concluding that "there did exist a small hard core of 'sturdy beggars' and 'lusty rogues' whom no law could compel to do honest labour" was Thomas Harman (Village Revolts, 160). But in the case of historians, one usually has to dig into footnotes and fine print to discover that the ultimate source of information was Harman. Reynolds's use of rogue literature and plays as "evidence," in contrast, is utterly unabashed and exposed for all to see.

Late in the book, Reynolds claims that it is actually an advantage that much of his information has come from "literary texts of genres (plays, ballads, and popular pamphlets) that are, because of their fictive qualities, of questionable historical reliability," since it stimulates our imaginations, "encourages the production of imaginary components of our own study of criminal culture," and "forces us to extrapolate on the available information" (124). In other words, as long as we can come up with good, imaginative stories about early modern criminal life, it doesn't really matter whether they are based on fact or fiction. I submit, however, that it does matter. Much has been written lately about the deliberately fostered "culture of fear" in the contemporary United States: I suggest that beliefs about the fearsomeness of "masterless men" in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries also created a "culture of fear," and that those who played up the perils of homeless people had--as they now have--a clear right-wing agenda.

Reynolds would likely deny having a right-wing agenda. After all, he seems largely to approve of the criminal subversions of established society that he discusses. And the effect of Reynolds's "transversal theory" is to grant potent agency to a variety of resistant figures (criminals, witches, fornicators, sodomites, iconoclasts, and the insane). By establishing an "alternative culture," criminals "transcended the social, cultural, and juridical constraints imposed on the populace.... Even if the criminals were arrested and incarcerated, a term in prison was most likely an opportunity for (further) formal schooling in criminal methods and cant, as well as an opportunity to form promising criminal connections" (89). Like Harman, Reynolds grants these outcasts their own world, an antisociety, in which they function effectively and (he seems to suggest) quite happily. But while granting power and happiness to the dispossessed might be a well-intended move, it disables social consciousness. When roguery is glamorized, admiration for rogues' witty trickery, and the notion that they had a "fraternity" to take care of them, grant them an agency and self-sufficiency that render unnecessary public assistance for the poor, or policies to change the economic system so as to ameliorate poverty.

Reynolds largely ignores the fact that this was a time of desperate poverty, and that most criminals and vagrants were desperately poor people. Partly because of attitudes fostered by rogue literature, the sixteenth-century public often assimilated all mobile poor people into the rogue paradigm, as probable criminals. This was hard on the many who had to travel to seek work, in this time of harvest failures and of frequent local industrial depressions. Penalties for vagrancy alone, without any other crime, were extremely harsh. The 1572 vagrancy act had a "three strikes and you're out" provision: the third offense for vagrancy alone was punishable by death, and a number of vagrants were executed under this provision. Reynolds ignores judicial penalties affecting those considered criminal because of their mobility--he simply equates mobility with freedom, happiness, and subversion of establishment values.

Reynolds's nearest approach to the issue of poverty is his suggestion that the poor (or as he calls them, "common people dissatisfied with the era's troubled socioeconomic system") wanted to join up with gypsies, to have "the opportunity to demonstrate some radical independence by violating the law and roaming freely and merrily throughout the realm"; this would give them "a delightful feeling of empowerment" (51). The words "merrily" and "delightful" give a fair sense of the flavor of Reynolds's discussion. He buys into the Renaissance notion of the "happy beggar," one free from all cares. Rogues "enjoyed" a "libertine, communal lifestyle" (90). Here he draws for information on Richard Brome's comedy A Jovial Crew; or, The Merry Beggars (54-55). But to believe that beggars are happy--partly because they are secretly rich--and to envision a life of power and self-sufficiency for criminals was a Renaissance mode of disabling the claims of the poor, of obviating the necessity to build a more equitable society, of denying social assistance to all but the carefully certified, home-staying poor. Like Harman, Reynolds refers to beggars' "pretending to be poor and needy" (82). To buy into such a vision now--in the teeth of a good deal of historical evidence--is to accept premises about welfare queens and professional beggars, about poverty being the result of idleness, nowadays usually associated with the right wing of the Republican party.

Even a sprinkling of names like Deleuze and Guattari cannot finally disguise the fact that this book is the product of a sixteenth-century mind. Reynolds not only mines rogue literature for information, Becoming Criminal actually comes to resemble rogue literature. Like Harman, Reynolds translates an alleged dialogue in thieves' cant, in Reynolds's case from Middleton's comedy The Roaring Girl (70-71). ("Through a discussion of the sociolinguistics involved, I hope to make some sense of it," Reynolds earnestly declares (70); although he could have gained such sense from reading the footnotes in any modern edition of the play.) Like much rogue literature, Reynolds repeats cant from earlier works and invents cant terms of his own: "I developed ... the 'investigative-expansive mode' of analysis" (4); "I coined the term 'state machinery'" (9); "I have coined the term 'objective agency'" (24); "I first introduced my 'transversal theory' ..." (157). And like Robert Greene, he claims to have hobnobbed with criminals. In a preface breathless with excitement despite its posture of streetwise toughness (exactly the tone of rogue literature), Reynolds recalls being taken, at age fifteen, to the den of drug dealers, complete with rogue literature's doxies "scantily clad in diaphanous blouses, lingerie, or topless" (x), and rogues conversing in thieves' cant: "Half of the conversation between our hosts and Benny was incomprehensible to me" (x). Like Greene, he assures readers that he was in this world without being of it: when the rogue chief Enzo invited Reynolds to become a drug dealer, "I thanked him but declined the offer" (xi). Henceforth--like Greene--he is an expert, on the basis of two hours' firsthand experience: "Later,... I became intrigued by the many structural similarities between the organized criminality I had experienced and its trans-historical representation" (xi). Luckily for future historians, those twenty-fourth-century scholars investigating the twentieth-century mob will now be able to draw not only on The Godfather and Scarface, but also on the reminiscences of Bryan Reynolds.


1. At one point Reynolds can't help noticing similarities between texts he is mining: Dekker's Bellman of London may be "loosely plagiarized from Harman"; however, he prefers the explanation that it is "comparably informed by knowledge of a social event characteristic of the criminal community" (91).

2. Reynolds's belief that "there was a substantially unified criminal culture of rogues, vagabonds, beggars, cony-catchers, cutpurses, prostitutes, and gypsies" (22), has been discredited by historians such as A. L. Beier, Ian Archer, Catharina Lis, and Hugo Soly.

3. This professionalized system stands in stark contrast to the improvisational, hand-to-mouth subsistence of real vagrants as established by nearly all modern historians of vagrancy.

4. See Steve Rappaport, Worlds within Worlds (1989), 7-20; Paul Slack, Poverty and Policy in Tudor and Stuart England (1988), 101; Ian Archer, Pursuit of Stability (1991), 1-2.

5. As J. A. Sharpe points out, such charges simply do not turn up in real criminal trials of the period (Crime in Early Modern England, 1550-1750, 2nd ed. [1999]), 143-44.

6. Reynolds claims, with no evidence, that rogues could "achieve greater financial reward and social freedom than was typical of early modern England's legitimate working population" (89).

7. Reynolds: "Female criminals were expected to have sex on demand with their superiors, according to the criminal social hierarchy" (evidence: Dekker's rogue pamphlet The Bellman of London and Middleton's comedy More Dissemblers Besides Women). Against the vision of rogue orgies, articulated most vividly by Harman, Beier and other modern historians have shown that most vagrants traveled alone or in groups of two or three--not the scenario of which orgies are made.

8. Reynolds twice quotes a statement in Samuel Rid's (plagiarized) rogue pamphlet Martin Markall: "If you can cant, you will never work" (89, 90). But today's historians most often attribute early modern unemployment not to moral delinquency or merry subversiveness but to economic causes--depressions in the textile industry, harvest failures, enclosures.

9. Against Reynolds's contention that "cant was used by all members of criminal culture, including gypsies" (37), Slack harbors a shrewd suspicion that thieves' cant was simply made up by writers of rogue pamphlets, noting that "references to ["Pedlar's French"] outside literary contexts are extremely rare" (96, 105; see also Sharpe, 145; Woodbridge, 9-10). Noting that the first recorded use of thieves' cant in English occurs not in a court deposition but in rogue literature, Beier acknowledges that evidence for real-life canting is slim, "largely anecdotal," and "secondhand" (70).

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Author:Woodbridge, Linda
Publication:Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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