Information for this post was taken principally from Steve Mentz’ and Craig Dionne’s introduction to an edited collection of essays in the book Rogues and Early Modern English Culture (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2006) with further information gleaned from Hal Gladfelder’s Criminality and Narrative in Eighteenth-Century England: Beyond the Law (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001).
Before the sixteenth century, there was no such thing as a ‘rogue’. The idea had not entered into popular culture, and the word was only coined in the 1560s. Rogues were different to the outlaw of medieval times. Whereas the medieval outlaw was placed literally beyond the protection of the law and often lived apart from normal society (think of Robin Hood living in the greenwood), the situation with the rogue was different. The rogue was not part of any criminal underworld but rather signified a figure that remained a part of normal society but simultaneously saw no problem with breaking the law.
The rogue was out to get all he could from modern society, usually by swindling, embezzling, and occasionally robbing people. In effect, the rogue was a deviant representative of the self-fashioned gentleman, and representative of wider changes in English society: the breakdown of feudalism and the emergence of capitalism. The rogue owed loyalty to no one but himself, and he was determined to ‘make’ himself through any means necessary. The term soon became a catch-all term for a variety of social deviants and outcasts: rural migrants, urban con-artists, thieves. But it was not always a negative term: for instance, one of Shakespeare’s rogue characters, Sir John Falstaff, is represented as a jolly fat knight who spends a lot of his time drinking and whoring. The rogue could be a figure of fun.
But the rogue could also have negative connotations. The Elizabethan period saw the emergence of English rogue fiction. This was marked by the translation into English of the Spanish work Lazarillo de Tormes (1586; original Spanish edn. 1554), as well as works of a more English flavour such as Thomas Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller, or The Life of Jack Wilton (1594). Whereas Falstaff in Shakespeare’s play is associated with the Royal court, the majority of English rogue fiction depicts socially marginal protagonists struggling to survive within an emerging capitalist world. The main associates of the protagonists in English rogue literature are usually the lowest of the low: conmen, cut-purses, petty thieves, prostitutes. Personal gain is these characters’ main object. Jack Wilton in Nashe’s work, for instance, ‘engages in a series of rogueries, some designed to get money, some to get revenge, others for the rough pleasure of practical joking’ (Gladfelder, 2001, 34).
Rogues in Elizabethan popular literature were more often than not associated with the ‘underworld’. There is, and there was, no physical space in society where there exists an underworld. Rather the idea was constructed in popular culture. Increasingly after the 1550s such literature began to describe the underworld ‘as an autonomous social space with different classes or “degrees” of thieves, each with its own distinct language and tradition (Mentz and Dionne, 2006, 2). Although these people were not outlaws, in the sense that Robin Hood and his men were, they were simultaneously a part of society, in that they lived among the law abiding population, yet they were different to law abiding people.
In conclusion, there is no doubt that ‘rogues’, or people who engaged in ‘rogueish activities’ (cheating, swindling, embezzling, etc.) existed before the 1560s. But it was only in the Elizabethan period that the idea of the rogue was articulated in popular culture. These men were not outlaws and did not live in the forest as Robin Hood and his men. Rather they lived among normal people. While they did rob people, their modus operandi was more subtle: they cheated you out of money; played tricks on you. They were the product of an emerging capitalist society which praised the personal gain of the individual over the good of society. Ultimately rogue literature would give birth to the criminal biography of the eighteenth century: the precursor of modern crime fiction.