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  • Print publication year: 2019
  • Online publication date: October 2019

Introduction: Rogues and their Historians


Upon a cheating Companion.

He that was borne out of a Bastard race,

Betwixt a beggar and a Gentleman,

A filthy Carkasse and an ougly face,

And plaies the foole before Maid Marian:

Can seeme as sober as a Millers Mare,

And can not blush at any villany:

In every Market shifteth for a share,

And sits himselfe for every company:

Hath all the Cards upon his fingers ends,

And keeps a knave in store for many a tricke.

Will be a traitor to his truest friends,

And lives not by the dead, but by the quicke.

Upon his Tombe what memory will passe?

Here lies the damnedst Rogue that ever was.

This epigram by Nicholas Breton captures many of the cultural assumptions about the rogue in early modern England. According to this, the worst kind of rogue is a ‘cheating companion’, an opportunist who haunts places where people congregate in order to ply his trade, or as it was commonly expressed in the early modern period, to ‘shift’. This rogue is portrayed as a criminal: he is a villain, he dissembles (‘plaies the foole’), and he cheats at cards. At the same time, Breton repeatedly evokes the idea of fellowship, using words such as ‘companion’, ‘company’, and ‘friends’. The rogue may be castigated for being a false companion, even a traitor, but it is clear that he is not viewed as a marginal figure. Breton's observation that the rogue belongs to ‘a Bastard race, betwixt a beggar and a Gentleman’ accentuates the rogue's ambiguity, showing that even his social status resists definition. As we will see, ‘rogue’ was a protean term which could signify various roles, including the beggar, the cheater, the outlaw, and even the prodigal son.

Because of its multivalence, the figure of the rogue, the quintessentially urban criminal, fascinated early modern culture. In his/her various incarnations as trickster, victim of society, or threat to it, the rogue can be found in a variety of early modern texts, from plays, ballads, romances, and pamphlets, to moralising tracts and sermons, proclamations, and civic regulation. This monograph will provide a systematic examination of this figure and of rogue pamphlets, combining the history of the book with the history of crime and urban order.