Bryan Reynolds. Becoming Criminal: Transversal
Performance and Cultural Dissidence in Early Modern England. Cambridge:
Cambridge UP, 2002. 217 pp. ISBN 0 8018 6808 4.
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: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/10-2/revnesb.html>.
Note added 7/2/05: A response
by Bryan Reynolds was published in EMLS 10.3.
- 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).  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"
- 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 .
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
- 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
- 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 .
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
- 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.
 "The Devil's House, 'or worse':
Transversal Power and Antitheatrical Discourse in Early Modern England," Theatre
Journal, 49 (1997): 143-67.
 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>
 Paola Pugliatti, Beggary and
Theatre in Early Modern England (Burlington, Vermont and Aldershot: Ashgate,
Responses to this piece intended for the
Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.
© 2004-, Matthew
Steggle (Editor, EMLS).