Literary scholar v social historian?

(Or, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the most sceptical of them all?”)

If you have access to the journal English Literary Renaissance, turn to the special issue of June 2003, focusing on early modern ‘rogue literature’.

It has (among other things) an article by Lee Beier (social historian) and one by Linda Woodbridge (a literary scholar), both discussing Thomas Harman’s Caveat or warning for common cursitors (1566) (extracted in this later text, but not easily available online, it would seem. I’ve been looking at the EEBO 1573 edition).

Beier first up:

In contrast to [literary] critics, social historians have been skeptical about the value of the literature of roguery. While A. V. Judges believed in the 1930s that Harman’s was “the best sixteenth-century account of vagabondage and roguery” and that its author had “all the deftness of the trained sociologist,” a later generation has been less impressed. Paul Slack observed that the gangs of vagrants with hierarchies of leaders and followers and a canting vocabulary “were by no means as common as Harman and particularly his later plagiarists suggested.” Still more forcefully, James Sharpe found that “the literary image of the Elizabethan vagrant evaporates as soon as court records are examined.”* My own research indicates that, while legal records were more reliable guides to the vagrants themselves, the literature was still a valuable source, because it crystallized and reflected the discourses of official and learned opinion. Only recently has Harman’s reputation improved among historians, Paul Fideler observing that, despite its limitations, the pamphlet presents a “unique history of the undeserving poor” and a “series of anti-vagrancy ‘moments’ or preoccupations, each shaped by its migratory, able-bodied poor.”

Literary critics have done scholars a great service in re-examining Harman’s Caveat. Historians had become skeptical about the literature of roguery almost to the point of denying it any value whatsoever. … But neither the historians’ rejection of the texts nor the new literary
approaches is entirely persuasive. Contrary to some historians’ skepticism, the Caveat is a rich and complex text which, while open to a variety of readings, can still be productively studied with traditional historical methods…


In 1972 Arthur F. Kinney noted that scholars were still drawing on Harman: “for years Harman has been considered an early but most successful sociologist, . . . [whose] keen eye for significant detail of dress, food, origin, training, and the sexual life of his subjects . . . [align him] with modern sociology.” In 1977, J. S. Cockburn used Harman’s Caveat alongside
records of court assizes as valid sources of historical information on “vagrant criminals and their methods.” In 1983, David Palliser adduced Harman’s information about rogues when attempting to gauge the number of vagrants on the roads in the sixteenth century and the extent of their criminal involvement; the same year, Peter Burke wrote that Harman was “moved by a curiosity not unlike that of modern anthropologists,” and in 1994—in nearly identical words—Robert Jütte concurred. In 1988 the sole source Roger Manning gave for the information that “there did exist a small hard core of ‘sturdy beggars’ and ‘lusty rogues’ whom no law could compel to do honest labour” was Harman’s Caveat. In 1994, A. L. Beier could still describe Harman as “traditionally . . . the most credible of observers of the canting underworld.” … A fairly regular use of Harman as evidence has continued, then, into our own time…

I am a literary scholar, not a historian, and I am going to argue that rogue literature creates a fanciful world drawing fulsomely on comic storytelling and jest books, a creation of imaginative writers that ought to be inadmissible as historical evidence of social conditions in the real world.

(I’ve omitted the footnotes in both cases. But plenty of names are being named, so you get the picture. As Beier’s argument develops, by the way, his main targets seem to be Stephen Greenblatt and William C. Carroll.)


* This is from Sharpe’s textbook, Crime in early modern England, at p. 143 (2nd edn. 1998). But 3 pages later, Sharpe tells us:

Something of the mentality of these marginal people is conveyed in the Kentish JP Thomas Harman’s report of an interview with a ‘walking mort’ in the 1560s. The justice upbraided the girl for her ‘filthy living and wretched conversation’, and advised her to seek employment. ‘God help!’ she replied, ‘How should I live? None will take me into service. But I labour in harvest time honestly’.

OK, this quoted passage is great; it even sounds plausible in relation to evidence from archives, compared to many of Harman’s caricatures. But why should it be any more reliable than the rest, especially as evidence for the views of the vagrant poor themselves? It gives the distinct impression that historians pick and choose from this sort of source material arbitrarily, uncritically using it when it suits their argument and rejecting it when it doesn’t.


I should add that I read these while preparing next week’s class on ‘respectable fears and myths’, looking at crime in cheap print sources. I may assign an extract from Harman as a primary source (unless I go for a ‘Last Dying Speech’ – I have a real corker, classic Sabbath-breaking and dice-playing –> murder –> the gallows. Fab stuff).

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2 Responses to Literary scholar v social historian?

  1. Chris Williams says:

    I feel a 1000 word essay coming on. But I’m mostway down a stack of TMAs (essays to you all) about the history of crime, and all desire to engage intellectually with the literature of roguery has evaporated. OTOH, I think that a judge’s comments are in a different box to the narratives of a Harman or a Mayhew, come to that. Though neither box has ‘disregard’ on it.

    There’s a bigger issue as well, regarding what history ought to be about.

    Have you read Floricke Egmond’s book on Dutch gangs?

    Back to the last of the TMAs.

  2. Sharon says:

    Yeah, I’m trying to write up some of the thoughts this was sparking off, and not really coming up with anything solid. There’s something odd going on here. Straw man arguments (and a lot of selectivity) on both sides. And yet on some key things they’re in complete agreement and they don’t seem to know it… Oh well. Dutch gangs, hmm?

    Tomorrow I can amuse myself by comparing and contrasting Jim Sharpe and Lincoln Faller on highwaymen. Ha.

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