In 1618 an epigram by John Harington was published called A Prophesie when Asses shall grow Elephants, a thinly veiled critique of the changing mores of the English people:
When making harmful gunnes, unfruitfull glasses,
Shall quite consume our stately Oakes to ashes…
When Monopolies are giv'n of toyes and trashes…
When clergy romes to buy, sell, none abashes,
When fowle skins are made fair with new found washes,
When prints are set on work, with Greens & Nashes
A major part of Harington's critique targets consumerism and the commodification of things which are either too significant or too trivial to have a price: trees are destroyed to produce ‘unfruitful glasses’, monopolies are given for trivial wares, the Church peddles forgiveness and, finally, printers produce texts by Greene and Nashe. These two authors are lumped together and viewed as emblematic of a particular kind of writing, both trivial and for the market: hence the emphasis on print and not writing. Robert Greene's name came, for Harrington and his contemporaries, to be a byword for writing for print, a trend that has subsequently coloured the way scholars of early modern history and literature view rogue pamphlets, as ‘popular’ and ‘low’.
Rogue pamphlets occupy an ambivalent position in early modern studies. As we saw in the Introduction, this relates to the definition of such texts: literary scholars focus mostly on ‘rogue literature’, a narrow selection of texts about urban tricksters, examining them as a literary development which complemented the drama of the Elizabethan and early Jacobean period. The texts included in this ‘rogue literature’ are gleaned from two canon-setting anthologies, The Elizabethan Underworld, edited by A.V. Judges, and Rogues, Vagabonds, & Sturdy Beggars, edited by Arthur Kinney. Historians often discount these cony-catching texts as fictional, while mining them for references relating to the criminalisation of the poor, or to illustrate the state of life in the metropolis.
In this chapter, I aim to situate rogue pamphlets as part of cheap print produced in London. Rather than focusing on cony-catching tales from the 1590s and early 1600s, this book examines a wide range of pamphlets relating to rogues in London, published between 1590 and 1670.