At the beginning of Jests to Make You Merie (1607), Thomas Dekker defines a jest as:
the bubling vp of wit. It is a Baum which beeing well kindled maintaines for a short time the heate of Laughter. It is a weapon wherewith a fool does oftentimes fight, and a wise man defends himselfe by. It is the food of good companie, if it bee seasoned with iudgement: but if with too much tartnesse, it is hardly disgested but turne to quarrel. A iest is tried as powder is, the most sudden is the best. It is a merrie Gentleman and hath a brother so like him, that many take them for Twins: For the one is a Iest spoken· the other is a Iest done.
This definition highlights many issues which will be significant in this chapter: it connects jests with laughter and wit, and it suggests that their use in social interactions can distinguish wise men from fools, lead to merriment and good company, but also to a quarrel if the jest is too malicious. Finally, a jest can be a funny story or a trick or prank.
This chapter will show how rogue pamphlets employed jesting in all the different forms Dekker suggests. It will highlight the ways in which rogue pamphlets appropriated the form (and often content) of the jest-book, in order to narrate stories about witty trickster criminals. These stories led to the ‘bubbling up’ of laughter, but could also work in various ways, something that Dekker seems to recognise: on the one hand, authors could use laughter as satire, a way to correct abuses evident in society at large. On the other, laughter could foster good fellowship, a feeling of community and merriment. I argue that these different functions coexisted in rogue texts and the ambivalence of laughter allowed the creation of an ambivalent image of criminals.
This focus on laughter complicates previous treatments of rogue pamphlets, which argue that such pamphlets were intended to incite fear or disgust towards the ‘criminal underworld’. Such approaches combine narratives of state-building and hegemony (privileging an ordered society by constructing the ‘anti-society’ of criminals to act as an anti-symbol), of self-representation needing an ‘other’ to act as its mirror.