Bryan Reynolds. Becoming Criminal: Transversal Performance and Cultural Dissidence in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. 217 pp. ISBN 0 8018 6808 4.

Rebecca Nesvet
University of Gloucestershire

Nesvet, Rebecca. "Review of Bryan Reynolds, Becoming Criminal: Transversal Performance and Cultural Dissidence in Early Modern England". Early Modern Literary Studies 10.2 (September, 2004) 10.1-5<URL:>.

Note added 7/2/05: A response by Bryan Reynolds was published in EMLS 10.3.

  1. In Becoming Criminal, Reynolds deploys the theory of 'transversal power' he unveiled in 1997 to argue that, circa 1520-1640, petty criminals, prostitutes, "sodomites", "fornicators", hereditary and self-fashioned "gypsies", and public theatre company members comprised a "substantially unified criminal culture" (22). [1] These disparate performers of acts of dissidence (in the sense in which Alan Sinfield uses that term) were united in "the transgressive modi vivendi of sociopaths, schizoids, criminals, philosophers, artists, and various other… nonconformists" (18).

  2. Becoming Criminal epitomises what Jonathan Bate has called the dangerously institutionalised devaluation of the pursuit of objective historical facts in the study of English and cultural studies [2]. Reynolds argues that we will accept his thesis if we dispense with antiquated 'traditional' methods of historical inquiry, and instead adopt a new method he and the cognitive neuroscientist Dr James Intriligator invented. Dissatisfied with "the methodology characteristic of most dialectical argumentation, scientific investigation, and Western historiography" (4) - what I believe has been known, since the Enlightenment, as the analysis of collected evidence via deductive reasoning - Reynolds and Intriligator resolved that "the historian should not be constrained by preconceived parameters, the pursuit of totality, or the fantasy of singular truth" (5). People have traditionally accepted unsubstantiable assumptions, "such as the Christian concept of God," as truth, and found themselves subject to their rulers' definitions of that 'truth': therefore, such assumptions "might as well be fact" (7). This rationale can be applied to investigate the enigmas of "romantic love… the Italian-American mafia or early modern England's criminal culture" (7). In an extreme extension of the postmodernist romance with subjectivity, it is fact itself that is Protean. A preface detailing the teenage Reynolds' personal interaction with Italian-American drug dealers and a lengthy digression on the mafia film genre are intended to substantiate this approach.

  3. Reynolds's main argument rests upon two "facts": that all early modern criminologists agree that a unified criminal culture exists, and there is no record of a challenge to that assumption; and that this "consistency of representation" transcends the boundaries of genre (8). These do not hold water. Firstly, the fact that a number of writers agree that something exists does not mean that it does, or ever did. Many medieval and early modern writers inveighed that the ritual murder of a Christian boy, and ingestion of his blood, was a traditional Jewish Passover ritual. This was never seriously challenged in early modern English print. That pelicans fed their offspring their own blood was also widely believed, and not, to my knowledge, publicly questioned.

  4. Reynolds makes a convincing case for the likelihood that England's population of itinerant self-professed "gypsies" were actually indigenous English and Welsh people performing an artificial 'foreign' ethnicity, in which nobody believed. However, his other discoveries are grounded upon under-evidenced generalisation and outright misinformation. For example, he claims that it was not until 1531 that English statute law "consider[ed] vagabonds a real threat to official culture and state power" (101). After Edward I's conquest of Wales, a statute banned minstrels as vagabonds because, Paola Pugliatti (2003) explains, Welsh minstrels's songs perpetuated Welsh mythology and cultural identity, threatening Angevin authority [3]. Later, Reynolds identifies a 1566 statute condemning cutpurses and pickpockets as "the strongest, most comprehensive state evidence for the existence, everywhereness, and transversality of criminal culture" and its "communal, cryptic, and parasitic nature" (106). One might question the objectivity of the writer of this statute, as it calls the criminals a "Brotherhood or Fraternitie of an Art or Mystery." In Elizabethan England, crypto-Catholics and, particularly, their clergy would have been understood as a community or fraternity dedicated to mystery approached through the artifice of ritual. Certainly cryptic, this community's activity would also have been considered parasitic by the Protestant ruling class. Is the statute's description of the society of cutpurses an accurate appraisal, or an attempt to link them with another outlawed culture? Reynolds does not investigate. Failing to properly support with evidence many of his speculative conclusions, Reynolds excuses himself by stating that "just as… early modern chroniclers were forced, and probably capitalized on the opportunity to extrapolate at times because of their limited access to this exclusive and clandestine culture, historical difference… forces us to extrapolate upon the available information" (124).

  5. After reading Becoming Criminal, my first thought was that Reynolds is a brilliant writer, trying to perpetrate a Sokal-style hoax. I really hope this was indeed his intention, because if we seriously validate, practice, and promote his method of making history, we will find ourselves in a world in which reasoning, truth, and responsible historiography are alien. I assume that many of us who research, teach, or study history and cultural studies are well aware of the dystopian potential of such a value-system, and have entered our field in order to counteract that terrible potential as it arises in our own communities and globally.


[1] "The Devil's House, 'or worse': Transversal Power and Antitheatrical Discourse in Early Modern England," Theatre Journal, 49 (1997): 143-67.

[2] Jonathan Bate, "In Defence of Gradgrind," The Condition of the Subject Conference, University of London, July 17-19, 2003, cited in Peter Barry, Editorial, English: The Journal of the English Association 52 (2003): 257-262.<br>

[3] Paola Pugliatti, Beggary and Theatre in Early Modern England (Burlington, Vermont and Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003).

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at

© 2004-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).