Rise of the Rogues

By Stephen Basdeo

Every culture has had retold tales of criminals. Ancient Egypt had its apiru, Ancient Greece had its lestes (bandits), and even the Bible tells a tale of a deadly bandit attack. England, of course, gave birth to the legend of Robin Hood.

One of the provocative points raised by Lesley Coote in her new book Storyworlds of Robin Hood is that, when the Gest of Robyn Hode was printed in 1495, it was as a work of fiction. Early modern readers did not care if Robin was real or not. Besides, the greenwood world governed by an un-numbered King Edward was wholly unrecognisable to readers in the 1490s while the sentence of outlawry had ceased to have any negative consequences on an individual’s life. The Gest of Robyn Hode was to all intents a piece of historical fantasy fiction that was set in a remote “medieval” and feudal past.[1]

The Spanish Empire over time (c) Wikimedia Commons

Yet in sixteenth-century Spain something truly remarkable happened. Stories of criminals, instead of being set in a remote medieval past, began to set in the “modern” town and their characters increasingly bore resemblance to “real life”. What we witness in sixteenth-century Spain, therefore, was the rise of the anti-hero. Stories of these new anti-heroes emerged during the gradual breakdown of feudalism: the old bonds of loyalty and fealty which each class owed to one another were disintegrating in the face of emergent capitalism and individualism.[2] By the sixteenth century, money mattered just as much as birth in Europe, and to succeed one has to work hard. These anti-heroes would work hard, but the work they would do was sometimes unlawful. Unlike stories of outlaws, these anti-heroes were not heroic in any sense but eked out a living by conning people and making their way in a new commercial world.

The picaro or rogue had arrived in popular culture.

F.W. Chandler neatly summed up the rogue’s modus operandi (MO):

He may cheat cards or snatch purses. He may forge a cheque or a will. He may beg with a painted ulcer, or float a commercial bubble. He may scheme for title and fortune by means of a worldly marriage, or pocket his hostess’s spoons. He may prey on the government as smuggler and illicit distiller, or turn counterfeit utterer. He may play quack, levy blackmail, crack a safe, or even rob on the highway.[3]

“Floating a commercial bubble” or forging a cheque is something that would have been completely alien to Robin Hood, were he a real person. Indeed, the only activity from the list above that an outlaw would recognise would be highway robbery, but as Chandler says, after the sixteenth century rogues rarely went robbing on the road.

The first rogue novel ever published was Lazarillo de Tormes in 1554.[4] The whole novel is told from Lazarillo’s point of view.[5] He was born in Tejares, a village near Salamanca. When he is young, his father is arrested for ‘bleeding the sacks’ of the townsfolk’s grain. His father is punished by being conscripted to serve in the army, where he dies. Lazarillo and his mother then move to Salamanca and she makes money by cooking meals for students and washing stables boys’ clothes. His mother gets to know one of the stablemen quite well – a black slave who is always coming to the house and bringing his mother gifts such as bread and pieces of meat. Lazarillo soon finds himself with a mixed race baby brother. Eventually, the slave’s master catches him stealing food to give to Lazarillo’s mother. The slave is whipped and basted with hot fat as punishment, and his mother is also given 100 lashes and ordered never to approach the slave again.

Title page to Lazarillo de Tormes

Lazarillo’s mother finds new employment at inn and there she raises her two sons. One day a blind man comes to the inn and asks if he might take Lazarillo off her hands and serve as his guide. Without much compunction, Lazarillo’s mother agrees and says to him that

now you must look after yourself.[6]

The blind man and Lazarillo then set out to leave Salamanca. As they reach the edge of the city, the man gives Lazarillo a beating, for no other reason than to ‘show him who’s boss’ and to make him ‘sharp’. After another few days, the blind man starts to teach Lazarillo thieves’ slang, and says:

I won’t make you a rich man, but I can show you how to make a living.[7]

Under the ‘protection’ of this man, Lazarillo experiences what we now call child abuse or neglect. Although the blind man obtains some not inconsiderable sums of money, he keeps poor Lazarillo half-starved. So Lazarillo has to learn how to use the man’s blindness to his advantage. As it is Lazarillo who has to prepare and cook both their meals, he makes sure that he gets the best bits of bread and meat, while leaving the inferior cuts to the blind man. The blind man, furthermore, keeps the pair’s bread supplies in a padlocked sack. Lazarillo simply bleeds the sack and eats some of the bread while the man is sleeping, and sews it back up. In addition, the blind man is a con man – he pretends to be a Holy man who says prayers for people who are sick and dying (all for a fee, of course). But the man’s customers always give payment to Lazarillo, who is supposed to check the amount, so Lazarillo simply siphons off funds to keep for himself. While at meal times the blind man keeps a tight hold of his wine cup, Lazarillo finds a long straw and sucks some of the wine out of it. Eventually the blind man cottons on to this trick, and starts keeping the cup of wine between his knees at meal times. So Lazarillo devises a new plan: at every meal he complains about being cold and asks to sit on the floor between the man’s knees for warmth. While sitting on the floor, Lazarillo makes a small hole in the bottom of the wine cup and sits there drinking the drops which fall out. After a few weeks, the blind man catches Lazarillo out again, and one day as he is sitting between his master’s knees waiting for the wine to drop out, the blind man simply smashes the cup between Lazarillo’s teeth, knocking several of his teeth out and cutting him in the face quite badly.

Goya’s scene from Lazarillo de Tormes

After the incident with the wine cup, Lazarillo vows to get revenge on his master. This often takes the form of leading his blind master over very uncomfortable and rocky roads, which hurts his master’s feet. One day his master throws Lazarillo a scrap of bread while he is cooking a nice fat sausage. Lazarillo is then commanded to go and buy wine for him. While the blind man is fumbling around for coin in his pockets, Lazarillo quickly grabs the sausage and replaces it with a rotten turnip and goes off to but some wine. When Lazarillo returns having eaten the sausage, the man guesses what he has done and starts to beat him, accusing Lazarillo of eating the sausage. Lazarillo protests his innocence but the blind man is not convinced, so he sticks his nose right into Lazarillo’s mouth to smell whether he has eaten the sausage. Lazarillo’s nerves, as well as the fact that a smelly old man has his nose stuck in his mouth, get the better of him and Lazarillo ends up vomiting in the blind man’s face. All the village people laugh at the blind man for this. Soon after this Lazarillo finally gets sweet revenge upon the blind man – one day it is raining heavily in the town square, and the blind man says that Lazarillo must guide him to a place of shelter. Led by Lazarillo, the pair starts running, and Lazarillo allows the blind man to run head first into a marble pillar, and afterwards taunts him saying

“You could smell the sausage but you couldn’t smell the post?”

Lazarillo soon runs away from the blind man and attaches himself to various rogueish characters such as a priest who sells indulgences

A papal indulgence was a printed piece of paper that people could buy in order to ‘reduce the amount of punishment one has to undergo for sins’. This employer, Lazarillo discovers, is a real rogue.

One trick of the Pardoner’s, for example, was to heat a metal crucifix before saying Mass. When people came to Mass and kissed the crucifix it would burn them. The Pardoner would then say that the people who have been burned by the cross have been punished by God, and that the only way to mitigate this punishment would be through the sale of indulgences. Whenever the Pardoner entered a new town, he made friends with the local priests by giving them little gifts such as oranges, lemons, apples and in turn they would direct their parishioners to buy indulgences from him. In Toledo, the Pardoner has a lot of difficulty trying to get the townsfolk to buy indulgences. One day the Pardoner is seen arguing in the market square with the constable, who accuses the Pardoner of being a fraud. A physical fight almost breaks out between the two men but the townsfolk separate the two brawlers and lead them away. The next day the Pardoner is giving a sermon in the local Church and in walks the constable and repeats his accusation. The Pardoner does not reply but starts praying fervently to God that he will expose and punish his false accuser. Suddenly the constable begins to have a seizure and is foaming at the mouth. The parishioners beg the Pardoner to pray for the constable’s forgiveness. He does so and the constable apologises for ever having falsely accused the Pardoner, and suddenly everyone rushes to buy indulgences!

The selling of papal indulgences

Of course, it was all a trick: the charade was planned by the constable and the Pardoner.

Eventually Lazarillo’s fortunes do improve: he stays with an artist briefly, and then is hired by a priest to deliver water to people’s houses. He eventually saves up enough money to buy nice new clothes and leaves that employment because his ability to buy nice clothes means that he is more respectable. He does briefly serve as a constable’s apprentice, but after seeing his master get beaten up by two criminals one night, he decides that a policeman’s life is not for him. Finally, he gets a job in the Civil Service as a town crier and regulator of all the trade in Toledo. Naturally, all the merchants in the city have to be on his good side, and he takes a cut of every merchant’s profit, and becomes very wealthy. Even the Bishop of Toledo eventually notices him, and proposes a marriage between him and one of the Bishop’s maids, to which Lazarillo agrees, and the narrative ends with Lazarillo saying that he is now ‘at the height of my good fortune’.

Essentially Lazarillo went through a series of adversities and became a man, thus this new kind of novel, the PICARESQUE novel, also anticipated the bildungsroman of the later 18th century.

The reading public loved Lazarillo and soon pirated copies were available for sale. Unofficial sequels to Lazarillo were also written, such as Mateo Aleman’s Guzman (1599). Aleman then wrote another sequel in 1605. This was closely followed by Andrez Perez’s Picara Justinia (1603).

Title page to the rogue novel Picara Justinia, an unofficial sequel to Lazarillo de Tormes.

Yet the follow ups to Lazarillo made further changes to this emerging genre. Where Lazarillo merely observed roguery around him and was forced to participate in some of their tricks, the main characters in the novels of the seventeenth century became unashamedly rogueish. We find this in Francisco Quevedo Y Villegas’s Historia de la Vida del Buscon Llamado Don Pablos (1608). This tale recounted the story of “Paul the Sharper” who, after an abortive academic career, resolved to make his way in the world by cheating people at cards.

Gustave Doré’s illustration of the insane protagonist of Don Quixote.

The rogue became so popular a figure that soon every author wanted to incorporate a rogue of some sort into their fiction—step forward Cervantes who, in his brilliant Don Quixote de la Mancha (published in two parts in 1605 and 1615) created the character of Gines de Pasamonte. The batty Don Quixote—who has read so many medieval romances that it has turned him somewhat mad, hence he goes off on his own knight’s quest—inadvertently frees Gines from prison. Gines afterwards tells Quixote that he is writing an autobiography that will outshine Lazarillo’s fame:

“Is it so good?” said Don Quixote.

“So good is it,” replied Gines, “that a fig for ‘Lazarillo de Tormes,’ and all of that kind that have been written, or shall be written compared with it: all I will say about it is that it deals with facts, and facts so neat and diverting that no lies could match them.”

“And how is the book entitled?” asked Don Quixote.

“The Life of Ginés de Pasamonte,” replied the subject of it.

“And is it finished?” asked Don Quixote.

“How can it be finished,” said the other, “when my life is not yet finished?[8]

The famous Gines de Pasamonte, the rogue from Don Quixote

As well as having written his ground-breaking novel, which indeed has some claim to being the first proper full-length novel ever written, Cervantes also produced a number of plays whose main characters were rogues. Indeed, rogues seemed to be in every book and every play. Juan Cortes de Tolosa published Discorso Morales (1617), a highly moralising text which railed against roguery (but its author had no issue in venting about the issue to make money); Vicente Espinel later came out with Marcos de Obregon (1618); and Carlos Garcia compiled Desordenada Codicia de los Bienes Agenos (1619), which was—and he probably made half of it up—a collection of the laws by which criminal gangs covered themselves.

Harpias en Madrid — a modern Spanish adaptation of the 16th-century novel.

Yet why should men have all the fun?

Alonso Castillo in 1631 published Harpias en Madrid, which was an exposé of how prostitutes lived in Spain’s capital city, and counselled readers on how to resist these women’s wiles and keep themselves pure.

The bad guys in these stories were more like the real life criminals whom you might meet in real life, unlike the merry greenwood outlaw — they might beat you up and rob you, or con you out of money — and you had to be on your guard. Yet most of these novels had something to say about their societies. Spain in the sixteenth century was, as we have seen, one in which the old feudal bonds were breaking down. A class of “masterless men” was emerging who owed loyalty to nobody and had to fend for themselves—this problem would be even more pronounced in England during and after the Reformation. No wonder, then, that when translations of these Spanish rogue novels appeared in England during the 1600s, English writers took their themes and created entirely new fictional rogue stories in order to expose the crime and vice that existed in the heart of England’s major city: London.


[1] Lesley Coote, Storyworlds of Robin Hood: The Origins of a Medieval Outlaw (London: Reaktion Books, 2020). See also A.J. Pollard, Imagining Robin Hood: The Late Medieval Stories in Historical Context: The Late Medieval Stories in Historical Context (Abingdon: Routledge, 2007).

[2] Hal Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative in Eighteenth-Century England: Beyond the Law (Baltimore: John Hopkins, 2001), p. 34.

[3] F.W. Chandler, The Literature of Roguery, 2 vols (New York: Burt Franklin, 1907), I, p. 4.

[4] Quotations used in this essay are taken from the following critical edition: Anon. ‘Lazarillo de Tormes’ in Lazarillo de Tormes and The Swindler: Two Spanish Picaresque Novels Michael Alpert, Trans. (London: Penguin, 2003).

[5] Part of this post is republished from: Stephen Basdeo [online], ‘ “Lazarillo de Tormes” (1554)’, Here Begynneth a Lytell Geste of Robin Hood, 26 August 2016, accessed 30 August 2020. Available at: www.gesteofrobinhood.com

[6] Anon. ‘Lazarillo de Tormes’, p. 7.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Miguel de Cervantes [online], Don Quixote, Trans. John Ormsby (1885), accessed 30 August 2020. Available at: http://www.online-literature.com/view.php/don_quixote/26?term=lazarillo

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