Impostors, Monsters, and Spies: What Rogue Literature Can Tell us about Early Modern Subjectivity

Linda Woodbridge
Pennsylvania State University

Woodbridge, Linda. "Imposters, Monsters, and Spies: What Rogue Literature Can Tell us about Early Modern Subjectivity." Early Modern Literary Studies Special Issue 9 (January, 2002): 4.1-11 <URL:>.

  1. In his rogue warning A Caveat for Common Cursetors, Thomas Harman, a leading author of rogue literature who claimed to have interviewed a number of vagabonds, reports having done detective work to unmask an impostor, Nicholas Jennings. For collecting alms by falsely claiming to suffer from epilepsy, Jennings is put into the stocks, which Harman calls "condign punishment." The Renaissance believed in punishments fitting the crime--chopping off thieves' hands, bridling gossips' tongues. Why were the stocks considered condign punishment for vagrants, along with that even greater immobilizer, the prison Bridewell? Because, I suggest, the main crime of vagrants was mobility. Vagrancy alone was enough, without other crimes: a statute of 1547 instituted a "three strikes and you're out" provision for vagrants; for a first offence, a vagabond was to be whipped and bored through the ear; a third offence merited death, and many were hanged under this statute. Mobility was so threatening because, I suggest, vagrants wandered in an age whose official ideologies prized settled domesticity; they shifted roles and identities in an age officially committed to rigid occupational categories and starting to be concerned about stability of identity. The geographic mobility of vagrants came to stand in for social mobility, a new fluidity of social class, and for even larger instabilities of the age. The word "place" meant both social rank and geographical location; in the synecdochic thinking of the age, those with no fixed place to live came to represent other cultural dislocations occasioned by the Reformation, humanism, class re-alignments, or proto-capitalism. So the first thing we can learn about early modern subjectivity from early modern vagrancy is that even in such public documents as vagrancy legislation we can tease out the traces of anxiety over unstable identity. For many people, identity was no longer comfortably tethered to a village, a trade, a niche in a well-established social hierarchy, and the psychic disturbances occasioned by this instability were, I argue, projected onto the most visibly untethered, vagrants.

  2. Another notable feature of Harman's story about Nicholas Jennings is the unmasking of an impostor. Jennings is not only a phony epileptic, he is even a phony vagrant--as Harman eventually discovers, Jennings actually owns a home! That the unmasking of imposture, the shining of a bright light onto occulted identities and hidden practices, is a crucial trope in the period says much about subjectivity. Many theorists have noted in the early modern period a changing subjectivity, a new interiority. Puritans saw God by their own inner light, diary-keeping flourished, household architecture began evolving private rooms. People had secret inner selves to protect, as never before. I think this new subjectivity is intimately connected with the age's preoccupation with imposture.

  3. The genre in which Harman wrote, which posterity has dubbed rogue literature, consisted of warnings to the public against petty crimes and tricks of street people, mainly in a comic vein, with a thin veneer of moralizing. The promise of disclosure animates the whole genre. Robert Greene and other "cony-catching" writers claim to have infiltrated the criminal underworld to disclose its secrets to a vulnerable, non-streetwise public, and Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair offers a kind of parody of this motif as its bumbling Justice Overdo disguises himself to infiltrate the fair's criminal subculture, but proves unable to distinguish between a fine young gentleman and a cutpurse.

  4. In A Caveat for Common Cursetors, Harman italicizes his conviction that some thing lurk and lay hid that did not plainly appear (Sig. Aii). In later rogue literature, the lantern shedding light on dark practices became a controlling image, as in Dekker's Lantern and Candlelight. The lantern of truth-seeker Diogenes came to symbolize the rogue writer's relentless spotlight on hidden evils. Harman's formula is an English version of the Latin tag Aliquod latent quod non patent, "Something is hidden which is not obvious," cited by Jack Wilton as he unveils his secret history in Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller (255); another version of the saying, Multa latent quae non patent, "Many things lie hidden which are not exposed," appears as thieves' cant is decoded in a piece of rogue literature by Robert Greene (Notable Discovery 177). This repeated phrase hints at the centrality to rogue literature of bringing hidden practices to light. Roguery at home here touches shoulders with representations of aboriginal peoples abroad, as well as with new "scientific" discourses. Exploring the period's fascination with bringing secret things to light, Patricia Parker sees a link between "the anatomist's opening and exposing to the eye the secrets or 'privities' of women and explorers' 'discovery' or bringing to light of what were from a Eurocentric perspective previously hidden worlds" (240). Both had elements of prurience and voyeurism. Their "shared language of opening, uncovering or bringing to light" also characterizes monster literature, to which exploration literature was related; a 1600 geographical history contained "a map of Africa folded and closed upon itself, which, when opened up, brings before the reader's gaze the land of monsters, of Amazons, of prodigious sexuality and of peoples who expose those parts which should be hid" (Parker 240-41). Like the texts on monstrosities in newly-discovered lands, rogue literature brings hidden practices to light; it too finds (among vagrants) monstrous human beings, prodigious sexuality and ragged, naked immodesty; and it often exoticizes vagrants as un-English. Parker relates this cluster of ideas to the age's passion for eye-witness accounts and to the growth of domestic spying: "This shared language of 'discovery' as informing or spying on something hid . . . [gives] many of these exotic histories their affinities with . . . the growing domestic network of . . . informers and spies, charged with reporting on the secret or hid" (240-41). Writers of rogue literature too positioned themselves as "spies charged with reporting on the secret or hid."

  5. We might relate all this observing and discovering to the dawn of modern science. But the monster stories should make us wary of equating this rhetorical posture of truth-exposure with modern empiricism. Even contemporaries were skeptical of explorers' "eye-witness" accounts of monsters, and the enterprise of spying into abuses was epistemologically tainted by the very belief in exotic monsters. Yet generations of historians have drawn on rogue literature for information on real-life poverty and vagrancy in the period.

  6. Harman's posture as worldly-wise investigator of vagrants' deceits, his stance as a reporter with direct, first-hand knowledge of the underworld, is undercut by the fact that most of his evidence comes from earlier literary exposés of vagrancy such as Awdeley's Fraternity of Vagabonds and ultimately the late-fifteenth-century Liber Vagatorum. Since Harman wrote in 1567, his claims to up-to-the-minute reporting ring false; and the Liber Vagatorum's air of being an exposé of tricks "nowadays" was itself an artifice--many of its rogue scams were copied from an early fifteenth-century text. Can we believe anything Harman says? Did he interview vagrants at all? Robert Greene's exposés of card sharks, published in the 1590s as gleanings of his own first-hand experience, are heavily plagiarized from Gilbert Walker's A Manifest Detection of Dice Play, 1552. The world of rogue literature is not at all what it claims to be and has often been taken to be by historians--that is, a world of tough investigative reporting by fearless crime-fighters infiltrating a dangerous underworld. It is a world where texts spawn other texts--a literary world. Its tales resemble the whoppers concocted about the New World.

  7. The language of prying into secrets--of faraway lands, of vagrant societies--is easy to misread now. As Thomas Kuhn and others have shown, early science was often piggybacked on magical beliefs, and early natural philosophers--forerunners of our "scientists"--often applied the same language to uncovering nature's "secrets" as witch-hunters applied to unmasking occult practices of sorcery, and--we can add--as travel writers applied to secrets of darkest Africa and writers of "rogue literature" applied to underworld practices. William Gilbert, for example, in a pioneering work on magnets, wrote that "the occult and hidden cause" of magnetic variance had "to be brought to light" (229). It is easy for our science-immersed age to misread as thoroughly scientific the writings of early scientists whose own mentalities were often steeped in the occult--for example Harvey, discoverer of the circulation of the blood, treated tumors by laying the hand of a corpse on them. How different in kind from the occult powers of witchcraft did the secret forces of magnetism seem to a mind like Gilbert's? That he performed experiments and used a language of empirical observation may obscure for us much in his mentality that we would call superstition. Writers of rogue literature and exploration literature, too, make empirical claims allegedly based on personal observation; but just as in science, an empirical-sounding language often preceded a fully scientific mentality, so in "rogue literature," a rhetoric of direct-observation crime reporting seems to have preceded any real investigative reporting, and in exploration literature, pamphlets whose titles begin "A True Report" make folklore sound like anthropology. The period was developing the rhetorical habit of appealing to direct observation; for example, Annabel Patterson points out the devotion of Holinshed's Chronicles to eye-witness testimony. But rogue literature's and travel literature's language of empiricism is really little but rhetorical window dressing. The sixteenth century did not distinguish firmly between discovery and invention--indeed, several discourses used the two words interchangeably. If rogue literature's extensive plagiarism suggests that most of its discoveries were in fact inventions, that was the case too with witchcraft and much travel writing. What has long misled scholars is their modern-sounding empirical language.

  8. But rhetorical tropes like the shining of lanterns onto dark practices don't become widespread without some base in everyday experience. I think there was real anxiety about hidden realities, which makes contact with anxiety about mobility most accessibly where Elizabethans fret about unstable social class. Here we encounter fear of hidden wanderers--people who are concealing the fact that they have strayed out of their proper social station. The literature abounds in these Elizabethan Eliza Doolittles--such as Widow Edith, eponymous hero of a jest book about the wanderings of a vagrant woman who, borrowing good clothes and adjusting her manners, infiltrates the household of the Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas More, and receives marriage proposals from his well-born followers. What made England with its vagrants as frightening and barbaric as the New World with its cannibal nomads was that nowadays people were not only always on the move, literally or metaphorically, but once they arrived at a new locale they were passing as established residents.

  9. The Renaissance, when witch persecution reached new heights, when empiricism was born, the New World explored, when rogue exposés had a literary vogue, and the rhetoric of bringing dark things to light blossomed, was also an age of newly-inward subjectivity. And if people cherished this inwardness in themselves, they seem to have feared it in others. It was all very well to love thy neighbor, but what secrets was thy neighbor harboring? This age witnessed the birth of the idea of "passing." In Shakespeare's first tragedy, Titus Andronicus, a black husband, Muliteus, and his white wife produce a baby so light it can "pass," provoking fear of secret Moors. Widow Edith is a secret vagrant. Nicholas Jennings is a secret home-owner. There were even secret beggars. In terms anticipating the 1950s, with that era's nightmare visions of Communists infiltrating every neighborhood PTA, Edward Hext, a Somerset justice, described the infiltration of decent society by well-dressed beggars, his paranoia approaching that of witch beliefs: "They have intelligence of all things intended against them, for there be of them that will be present at every assize, sessions, and assembly of justices, and will so clothe themselves for that time as any should deem him to be an honest husbandman; so nothing is spoken, done, or intended to be done but they know it" (Tawney and Power 2:345). Though sumptuary laws aimed to force people to dress so as to identify their social class, many successfully infiltrated a higher class through wearing fine clothes, changing their manners and their accents. As Frank Whigham shows, handbooks of civility, aimed at buttressing the position of the elite by "describing" their polite behavior, became how-to books helping upstarts insinuate themselves into higher social levels. Fear of women's mobility, their gadding in the streets among vagrants, reminds us of the fanatical anxiety about cuckoldry--English Renaissance literature offers a good many horn jokes per square inch. If gadding wives kept their own secrets close, how could a husband not suspect that even his own children were strangers passing--passing as his own children? To some degree, nearly everybody was passing, preparing a face to meet the faces that they met; protecting a newly privatized heart. And a suspicion was abroad in the land that nobody really knew his neighbor, so devious was folks' mobility, so great their protectiveness of the private heart. If you pried open the heart even of a true-born Englishman, exposed its dark secrets to your lantern's light, who knows but what you might find Africa, or the land of the Iroquois, within?

  10. The ubiquity of investigation, of spying, of surveillance in vagrancy literature and other discourses at which I've glanced raises a chicken/egg question about subjectivity and interiority. Though Foucault has famously argued that surveillance creates a subjectivity where publicly-sponsored values become internalized, where public shame becomes private guilt, it is equally possible that it was the growing sense of the private, guarded heart of one's neighbors that in the sixteenth century created or at least fostered the urge to investigate, to spy--created a culture of surveillance. The sixteenth century was preoccupied with imposture and with infiltration. Impostors were potentially everywhere; you couldn't be sure who anyone was. Was your neighbor a witch, or a rogue/confidence man, or a light-skinned Moor, or at the very least a social climber who had covered her tracks well? And infiltrators were potentially everywhere--the rogue/confidence man who infiltrated polite society, the cony-catching pamphleteer who claimed to have infiltrated the underworld to expose its practices. The proto-scientific urge to probe nature's secrets, to expose the principles underlying the behavior of magnets or of circulating blood, was a close cousin of the urge to probe other people's secrets, to expose truths and practices underlying genteel clothes and refined accents. Was it the nosiness of the age, its mistrust of surfaces, that gave rise to a particular closeted heart? Or did the closeting provoke the nosiness? Or were nosiness and closeting mutually constitutive?

  11. Not for nothing was the sixteenth century fascinated by that French cause célèbre, the trial of an impostor who for some years successfully impersonated Martin Guerre. Here a wanderer infiltrated a rural village, stole the identity of a man who was once embedded in a family and a tight-knit local social structure, and succeeded in "passing," even passing with Martin Guerre's wife. But vigorous investigators eventually brought the imposture to light and the impostor to trial. The 1561 account by the trial judge, Jean de Coras, was advertised in its subtitle as une histoire prodigieuse, "a prodigious history." As Natalie Zemon Davis notes, "very much in the air these days were collections of 'prodigies'--of wondrous plants and animals, of double suns and monstrous births" (105-6), and it is telling that for readers of the day, the story of an impostor husband and heir occupied the same conceptual space as tales about monstrosity. The possibility of a hidden monstrosity below a normal human skin haunted the age, from Spenser's Duessa hiding bestial body parts under fine clothes to Othello's suspecting monstrous sexuality under his wife's devotion and finding monstrous lies under his friend's "honesty." No wonder Othello's cry is "O monstrous! monstrous!" (3.3.442). The dark side of cherishing the new privacies of the heart in one's own bosom was the fear of finding a monster impostor in somebody else's.

Works Cited

© 2002-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).
(PD 23 January 2002)