“Lazarillo de Tormes” (1554)


The anonymously-authored Lazarillo de Tormes was first published in Spain in 1554.[1] It is a picaresque novel – a term derived from picaro meaning ‘rogue’ or ‘rascal’. The genre emerged in Europe at a time when the gradual breakdown of feudalism was occurring: the old bonds of loyalty and fealty which each class owed to one another were disintegrating in the face of emergent capitalism and individualism. Picaresque novels such as Lazarillo de Tormes, then, often took socially marginal figures as their protagonists and depicted their struggles to survive in a new social and economic order.[2] By the sixteenth century, money mattered just as much as birth in Europe, and to succeed one has to work hard – a sentiment expressed by Lazarillo himself in the introduction when he makes a snipe against the aristocracy:

I’d also like people who are proud of being high born to realise how little this really means, as Fortune has smiled on them, and how much more worthy are those who have endured much misfortune but have triumphed by dint of hard work and ability.[3]

Personally, I find the argument that the genre was ‘a response to the breakdown of feudalism and the culture that sustained it’[4] much more convincing than those scholars who say the form was merely adapted from Arabic literature, in particular the Arabic maqama, and through it try to claim an Arabic origin for the birth of the novel (I have, however, given the citation to one work which makes such an argument in the interests of balance).[5] Jaakko Hämeen-Anttila weighs up the arguments for an Arabic origin in his new book and concludes that some limited influences from the Arabic maqama can be found in the picaresque novel, but that the maqamas simply were not popular enough to have ever had any significant influence upon the picaresque.[6]

Lazarillo’s Early Life

The whole novel is told from Lazarillo’s point of view. 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.

Lazarillo and the Blind Beggar

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’.[7] 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.[8]

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 Depiction of the Blind Man sticking his fingers in Lazarillo’s Throat.

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?[9]

After this, Lazarillo abandons the blind man, and runs to the city gates to get out before they close and he makes his way to Torrijos.

Lazarillo and the Priest

Lazarillo spends a few days begging in Maqueda, and then a priest passes by. He asks Lazarillo if he would like to be employed as a servant, to which Lazarillo enthusiastically says yes. But the priest is even more stingy than the blind man, especially with food. The priest keeps all of the good food locked in a wooden chest, and Lazarillo is only permitted to eat one onion every four days, although the priest himself dines on the finest food. One day while the priest is out a tinker calls and asks Lazarillo if anything needs repairing in the house. Nothing needs repairing, but Lazarillo begs him to try and open the chest. Luckily, the tinker has a key which just about fits the lock on the food chest, and he kindly leaves it with Lazarillo. For the next few weeks Lazarillo takes little bits of bread at a time, which greatly restores his strength and health after having lived on a diet of one onion every four days. Eventually, the priest begins to notice the gradual depletion of the bread:

If I hadn’t locked this up myself, I’d swear someone stole it.[10]

So the priest begins to meticulously record every morsel of food that goes in and out of the chest. Lazarillo now has to come up with a new scheme – he decides to make little holes in the side of the chest and make it appear as though mice have been getting in and eating the bread. The priest finds these holes and simply covers them up. But then more holes appear, making the priest think that he has a mouse infestation – this continues for a matter of weeks and eventually the chest is full of many holes. The priest lays many mousetraps but they catch nothing, all the while more and more bread is going missing. The priest asks his neighbours for advice and they tell him it is most likely a snake that is getting in and making the holes, which understandably makes the priest even more worried. Eventually Lazarillo’s scheme is discovered, however: at night Lazarillo sleeps with the key in his mouth; however, the key drops partially out of his mouth while he is sleeping with the consequence that his breathing begins to sound like hissing. The priest is awakened by this hissing noise and panics, thinking that it is the snake. He gets his club and walks towards where the noise is coming from, and he sees that Lazarillo’s key matches the padlock to the food chest. He beats Lazarillo with a stick for this and puts him out of doors, and Lazarillo’s six months with the priest thus comes to an end.

Lazarillo and the Gentleman

Lazarillo then makes his way to Toledo and begs for a few days. The people of Toledo appear to be quite stingy towards beggars, and all that he gets is advice ‘to get a job’:

Because charity not only begun at home but stayed there too.[11]

Eventually, a gentleman comes to speak to him who offers him a job as his servant. Lazarillo gets excited because he thinks that the gentleman is rich and that he will have all the food in the world that he wants. However, when he gets to the gentleman’s lodgings, it is bare and there is no food in there. Moreover, there is only a single bed in the apartment, and Lazarillo has to sleep in the same bad with his new master. Lazarillo soon realises that he has fallen in with an impoverished aristocrat who only ‘keeps up appearances’ by wearing fine clothes and walking about town.

Spanish gentleman
A Late 16th-century Spanish Gentleman

However, the gentleman is never cruel to Lazarillo like his previous two masters were. Lazarillo gladly tends the house while his master goes out, fetches water from the river, and when Lazarillo goes begging for food outside he always shares what he gets with his master. One day Lazarillo comes home with 4lbs of bread, a cow’s foot, and some wine for which his master is very grateful. Lazarillo muses upon his life so far, and decides that he likes this master best – the other two masters had plenty of food but were cruel and never shared it, but the gentleman cannot give what he has not got, and never tries to steal the food from Lazarillo. As they are talking over their ‘feast’ of bread and wine, Lazarillo asks the gentleman about his history. Lazarillo is told that the gentleman was forced to move here after a dispute with another man of lower rank in his home town. The man in question apparently spoke too casually to him, even though the man of lower rank was actually richer than the gentleman. When the gentleman came to the town, his original thought was that he might obtain a salaried position as another nobleman’s servant, but upon second thoughts he deemed such a position to be beneath him, and there were no positions available anyway. This is essentially a critique of the aristocracy – Lazarillo finds it strange that an aristocrat could be so vain as to endure virtual starvation because certain jobs which entail dealing with certain people are deemed to be beneath him.

Lazarillo’s time with the gentleman eventually comes to an end, however, when the rent collectors arrive at the lodgings. They demand two months’ rents, and the gentleman asks them to return later that evening and he shall give them the money. During this time the gentleman simply absconds. A constable is summoned and Lazarillo is arrested in his master’s place, as the rent collector thinks that he has colluded with the gentleman to hide away his money, but luckily Lazarillo’s neighbours vouch for his innocence and he is set free.

Lazarillo and the Pardoner

Lazarillo’s fourth employer was friar, but he does not spend very much time with this one and eventually he falls in with a Pardoner – a man who sells papal 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’.[12] This employer, Lazarillo discovers, is a real rogue:

He studied the salesman’s art, and he knew some really clever tricks.[13]

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

Woodcut depicting the sale of indulgences.

The sale of indulgences really highlights the perceived corruption of the Church in sixteenth-century Spain. And criticism of these business practices was not limited to Spain – it was the sale of indulgences, or the ‘aggressive marketing practices’ of Pardoners such as Johan Tetzel that partially inspired Martin Luther to write his Ninety-Five Theses, thereby initiating the Protestant Reformation. The episodes which Lazarillo recounts of the cruel priest, as well as the evidently corrupt practice of the sale of indulgences, amounts to a scathing critique of the Catholic Church – a risky thing to write in sixteenth-century Spain, whose government was a leading light in the Counter-Reformation, and a country in which the fearsome Inquisition had long flourished also.

Lazarillo the Civil Servant

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’.[14]


Why, then, is this seemingly minor work of literature even worthy of discussion? This work marked the emergence of picaresque fiction. The genre spread throughout Europe and quickly made its way to England where it evolved even further into the rogue novel. From here its influences spread into seventeenth- and eighteenth-century criminal biography and also contributed to the birth of the novel in England. The picaresque marked a departure from established modes of fiction writing – instead of depicting heroic leaders or aristocrats, picaresque writers dealt with something resembling ‘real life’. This is something which the authors of sixteenth-century rogue literature, as well as later authors such as Richard Head, Alexander Smith, and Charles Johnson would carry into their narratives, and the examination of ‘problematic lives’ reached its apex in the works of Daniel Defoe, whose novels such as Moll Flanders (1722) told the story of marginalised people, as well as the works of Henry Fielding, whose Joseph Andrews (1742), Jonathan Wild (1743) and Tom Jones (1749) similarly dealt with subjects from low life. Even in some of the Victorian era’s famous novels can the picaresque be felt, for example, in both Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1838) and G. W. M. Reynolds’ The Mysteries of London (1844). Thus what we witness in Spanish picaresque fiction is nothing less than the breakdown of feudalism and the emergence of a capitalist society, as well as the birth of (in a limited sense) the novel.


1. 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).
2. See Hal Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative in Eighteenth-Century England: Beyond the Law (Baltimore: John Hopkins, 2001), p.34.
3. Anon. ‘Lazarillo de Tormes’, p.4.
4. Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative, p.34.
5. See Jareer Abu-Haidar, ‘Maqāmāt Literature and the Picaresque Novel’ Journal of Arabic Literature Vol. 5 (1974), pp. 1-10
6. Jaakko Hämeen-Anttila, Maqama: A History of a Genre (Harwassotwitz Verlag, 2002), pp.298-299.
7. Anon. ‘Lazarillo de Tormes’, p.7.
8. Anon. ‘Lazarillo de Tormes’, p.8.
9. Anon. ‘Lazarillo de Tormes’, pp.16-17.
10. Anon. ‘Lazarillo de Tormes’, p.23.
11. Anon. ‘Lazarillo de Tormes’, p.29.
12. Edward Peters, A Modern Guide to Indulgences: Rediscovering This Often Misinterpreted Teaching (Hillenbrand, 2008), p.13.
13. Anon. ‘Lazarillo de Tormes’, p.48.
14. Anon. ‘Lazarillo de Tormes’, p.60.

Image Credits:

Header Image: Wikimedia Commons

Spanish Gentleman: http://historyoffashiondesign.com/late-16th-century-europe-570-to-1600-page-2/

Goya: Wikimedia Commons

Indulgences Woodcut: http://faculty.history.wisc.edu/sommerville/361/361-08.htm

Curteous Outlaws and Elizabethan Rogues: The 16th-Century Context of “A Gest of Robyn Hode”

A conference paper to be delivered at the Forthcoming MEMS Festival, University of Kent, 17-18 June 2016.


A number of excellent scholarly examinations have been carried out upon A Gest of Robyn Hode, notably by Stephen Knight, Thomas Ohlgren, John Marshall, and Alexander Kaufman, as well as older discussions by James C. Holt and R. B. Dobson and J. Taylor.[1] For the most part, these essays have focused upon the content of the Gest within its medieval context. It is the most significant of all the early Robin Hood poems, and at 1,824 lines long is certainly the longest, in all likelihood being a compilation of various Robin Hood tales to which somebody, at some point, gave unity.[2] It is the first time that Robin’s social mission is coherently articulated, being a man who ‘dyde pore men moch gode’.[3] The Gest is definitely of medieval origin, dating from the mid-fifteenth century.[4] It was not printed, however, until the early sixteenth century: one edition was printed by Jan Von Doesbroch in Antwerp around 1510; a further edition was printed by Wynken de Worde between 1492 and 1534; Richard Pynson also printed an edition of the Gest, with his death in 1530 obviously making his edition some time before that date; and William Copland printed an edition c.1560.[5]

Awdley Title Page
Title Page: John Awdley’s The Fraternity of Vagabonds (1575 Edn.)

When the Gest was being printed, a new type of criminal was emerging: the rogue and the vagabond. These felons did not live apart from society, as the greenwood outlaws of the past did. Instead they were a part of society, and were relatively indistinguishable from the law-abiding. This paper suggests that changes in the nature of crime, and its concomitant cultural expression – the emergence of rogue literature – contributed to the idealisation of Robin Hood and his gentrification. This paper will therefore discuss the Gest in the context of it being printed alongside sixteenth-century rogue literature, such as Robert Copland’s The Highway to the Spitalhouse (1535-36), Gilbert Walker’s Manifest Detection of Dice Play (1552), John Awdley’s Fraternity of Vagabonds (1561), and Thomas Harman’s A Caveat for Common Cursitors, Vulgarly Called Vagabonds (1566). This is not to say that these works are taken here to represent a ‘true’ picture of crime during the early modern period. Instead these texts are viewed as ‘factual fictions’: they were real to contemporaries, being an outlet ‘through which the various classes of the “middling sort” of Tudor and Stuart England projected their anxieties’.[6] People needed to believe in the myth of a good outlaw, even if such a myth was ultimately based upon a fiction, because real, contemporary criminals were altogether more menacing.


The medieval period certainly had its fair share of crime,[7] and it is of course during the medieval period that tales of Robin Hood and Adam Bell first emerge. The sentence of outlawry literally placed an offender beyond the protection of the law. But the sentence itself began to lose much of its potency by the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.[8] It was a sentence that existed prior to the establishment of the legal precepts of habeus corpus. It fell into disuse by the late medieval period because the social and legal system of England was changing from one based upon the exclusion of felons, to one based upon the confinement of offenders.[9] Thus by the time that the Gest was printed, it would have been rare to find somebody who had been placed beyond the law: in the early modern period all people were subject to the law.

Gest illustration
Illustration from A Gest of Robyn Hode (c.1500)

Additionally, when the time the Gest was being printed, the breakdown of medieval economic and social structures was occurring and society was on its way to becoming capitalist. As a consequence, the perceived increasing numbers of supposedly ‘masterless men’ were becoming a problem for the Tudor state, and were legislated against in the Vagabonds and Beggar’s Act (1495):

Vagabonds, idle and suspected persons shall be set in the stocks for three days and three nights and have none other sustenance but bread and water and then shall be put out of Town. Every beggar suitable to work shall resort to the Hundred where he last dwelled, is best known, or was born and there remain upon the pain aforesaid.[10]

The problem remained a source of irritation to the authorities throughout the century. While the ‘rogue’ had appeared as a named literary type in Awdley’s Fraternity of Vagabonds in 1561, by the next decade the Vagabonds Act (1572) was also legislating against this new type of criminal:

All the partes of this Realme of England and Wales be p[rese]ntlie with Roges, vacabonds and sturdie beggers excedinglie pestred, by meanes wherof dailye happenethe in the same Realme horrible murders, thefts and other greate owtr[ages], To the highe displeasure of allmightie god, and to the greate anoye of the common weale.[11]

J. Thomas Kelly writes that ‘poverty existed as a widespread and dangerous phenomenon of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England’.[12] But at the same time as the poor were getting poorer, the rich were gaining more wealth,[13] and a new type of ideology was emerging: individualism. Rogues and vagabonds, due to the breakdown of medieval social and economic structures owed loyalty to nobody. It is for this reason that Hal Gladfelder, writing about rogue literature, says that the genre’s emergence, and its portrayal of socially marginal people struggling to survive within a new economic system, was a response to the breakdown of feudalism.[14] The rogues, vagabonds, and cony-catchers present in Tudor rogue literature were essentially deviant proto-capitalist entrepreneurs.[15]

Outlaws and Rogues – Modus Operandi

There are some similarities between the ways in which greenwood outlaws such as Robin Hood and the rogues and vagabonds in Tudor rogue literature operated, As illustrated in the Gest, when Robin wishes to steal from somebody, he first invites them to dine with him in the forest. The traveller is treated to a sumptuous feast, and at the end of it Robin asks him to pay for the meal.[16] If the traveller pleads poverty and is found to be lying to Robin, when the traveller’s effects are searched he is robbed of all the money about his person.[17] Similarly, trickery is employed by many of the various types of rogues in the works of Walker, Awdley, and Harman. Often this was done, as illustrated in cases of Cheaters and Fingerers, described by Awdley, through conning unsuspecting victims out of their money while gambling.[18]

Thomas Harman’s The Unfortunate Traveller (1594)

But there were differences between outlaws such as Robin Hood and Tudor rogues. Firstly, outlaws lived in the forest. There is a sense of unity between the outlaws and the natural world: [19] the first glimpse of Robin Hood and Little John in the Gest sees him leaning against a tree.[20] In another outlaw ballad that is of medieval origin, although not printed until c.1557-58, Adam Bell, Clim of the Clough, and William of Cloudeslie, [21] the poem similarly opens with a celebration of the natural world: ‘Mery it was in grene forest / Among the leves grene’.[22] At no point is it ever implied in the Gest that the outlaws wish to live in the urban environment. The outlaws encounter trouble, for example, whenever they leave the forest and venture into the town:.[23] For example, the outlaws have to make a swift getaway after Robin competes in the archery contest;[24] and after being pardoned by the King and entering his service, Robin finds the world of the Royal court unpalatable, returning to the greenwood after an absence of only ‘twelve moneths and thre’.[25] Outlaws who value freedom see themselves as having no place in urban environments.

In contrast, rogues do not operate within a separate physical space such as the greenwood. At this point it should be noted that rogues were not a homogenous criminal group: Awdley’s Fraternity or Vagabonds and Harman’s Caveat for Common Cursitors, for example, give different names to a number of various types of criminals. They could masquerade as common beggars, as Copland remarked in The Highway to the Spitalhouse.[26] Or as in Walker’s A Manifest Detection of the Most Vile and Detestable Use of Diceplay, when his gentleman ‘haply […] roamed me in the Church of Paul’s’, the rogues that he is introduced to are seemingly gentlemanly tricksters from the shady world of dice play.[27] Awdley in the Fraternity of Vagabonds makes reference to another different type of rogue: the Courtesy Man. This type of rogue, says Awdley:

Is one that walketh about the back lanes in London in the daytime, and sometimes in broad streets in the night season, and when he meeteth some handsome young man cleanly apparelled, or some other honest citizen, he maketh humble salutations and low curtsy.[28]

The Courtesy Man will ingratiate himself into the honest gentleman’s service, but he will then repay their generosity by ‘stealing a pair of sheets or coverlet, and so take their farewell in the morning, before the master or dame be stirring’.[29] Evidently, rogues are a product of the urban environment, and instead of wearing suits of Lincoln Green as Robin Hood is portrayed as doing in the Gest,[30] Tudor rogues and vagabonds go abroad ‘commonly well-apparelled’,[31] spending their days, according to their representations in rogue literature, in the back alleys and courts of the town.[32]

Robin and the outlaws in the Gest do not steal from people indiscriminately, and instead they adhere to a strict moral code. In the first fytte of the Gest, Little John asks Robin:

“Where we shall take, where we shall leve,
Where we shall abide behynde;
Where we shall robbe, where we shal reve,
Where we shall bete and bynde.”[33]

Robin’s reply as to whom the outlaws are permitted to steal from is clear and concise: they are not permitted to steal from any husbandman, nor any good yeoman, nor from any knight or squire. The only people that the outlaws are permitted to rob are corrupt clerics and the Sheriff of Nottingham:

“These bisshoppes and these archebishoppes,
Ye shall them bete and bynde;
The hye sherif of Notyingham,
Hym holde ye in your mynde.”[34]

As Maurice Keen stated in the 1960s, ‘to the poor they [the outlaws] shall be all courtesy […] but to the rich and unjust no mercy is shown’.[35] Although the idea that Robin steals from the rich and gives to the poor is not fully articulated in Gest, it is clear that he and his outlaws do not rob people indiscriminately.

Rogues, on the other hand, would steal from people of all social classes, and their victims could hail from both the poorer and wealthier classes. A ‘ruffler’ in Awdley’s work would, for instance, ‘goeth with a weapon to seek service, saying he hath been a servitor in the wars, and beggeth for his relief. But his chiefest trade is to rob poor wayfaring men and market women.’[36] The ‘frater’ would similarly ‘prey […] commonly upon poor women as they go to the markets’.[37] Robert Greene would say of ‘devilish cony-Catchers’ in 1591 that:

The poor man that cometh to the Term to try his right, and layeth his land to mortgage to get some crowns in his purse to see his lawyer, is drawn in by these devilish cony-catchers that at one cut at cards looseth all his money, by which means he, his wife, and children [are] brought to utter ruin and misery.[38]

Tradesmen could also be targets of these thieves, as Awdley says of the ‘whipjack’ that ‘his chiefest trade is to rob booths in a fair, or to pilfer ware from stalls, which they call “heaving off the booth”’.[39] Alternatively, their victims could be of higher social status, just as the cheats in Walker’s Manifest Detection of Diceplay who spent their nights ‘taverning with trumpets, by day spoiling gentlemen of their inheritance’ (emphasis added).[40] The rogues and vagabonds presented in Tudor rogue literature were people who were willing to make money by cheating and stealing. As the Gest makes clear, these are things that outlaws of Robin Hood’s type also aspired to, admittedly, but the difference was that people knew who outlaws were, and if they were truthful with them, and were not a member of the corrupt classes of society such as the clergy, they might have passed them unmolested.


It is clear that there was an emerging dichotomy between rogues, vagabonds, and greenwood outlaws during the sixteenth century. The changing reputation of Robin Hood between the late medieval period and the sixteenth century illustrates this: in Walter Bower’s Continuation of John of Fordun’s Scotichronicon (c.1440), Bower says that:

Then arose the famous murderer, Robert Hood, as well as Little John, together with their accomplices from among the disinherited, whom the foolish populace are so inordinately fond of celebrating both in tragedies and comedies, and about whom they are delighted to hear the jesters and minstrels sing above all other ballads.[41]

Bower was a member of the Clergy and, judging by the treatment that clerics receive at the hands of Robin Hood in the Gest, it is perhaps no surprise that he treats of Robin negatively. But when chronicles from the sixteenth century are studied, however, the depiction of Robin Hood becomes less ambiguous. In John Major’s Historia Majoris Britanniae (1521), it is said that:

About this time it was, as I conceive, that there flourished those most famous robbers Robert Hood, and Englishman, and Little John, who lay in wait in the woods, but spoiled of their goods only those that were wealthy […] He would allow no woman to suffer injustice, nor would he spoil the poor, but rather enriched them from the plunder taken from the abbots. The robberies of the man I condemn, but of all robbers he was the most humanest and the chief.[42]

Richard Grafton in his Chronicle at Large (1569) incorporated material from Major’s work, and expanded it, and Robin Hood emerges as thoroughly gentrified.[43] Similarly, in John Stow’s Annales of England (1592) he says that Robin Hood and Little John ‘renowned theeves’ known for ‘dispoyling and robbing the rich’, and concluding with Major’s statement that he was the most humane and Prince of all Robbers.[44] Any threatening aspects of Robin’s character would finally be neutered by Anthony Munday in his two plays The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington and The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon (1597-98).

In contrast, the inhabitants of the Elizabethan ‘underworld’ were still being portrayed as foreboding characters at the end of the century. Greene’s The Black Book’s Messenger (1592) almost anticipates the criminal biographies of the eighteenth century by telling, in a moralistic fashion, the story of

Ned Browne […] a man infamous for his bad course of life and well known about London […] in outward shew a Gentlemanlike companion.[45]

Despite his genteel outward appearances, however, he is a threatening figure, and would ‘bung or cut a good purse’ from either a man or woman if he could.[46] Early during the next century, Thomas Dekker’s Lanthorne and Candle-light (1608) represented ‘the laws, manners, and habits of these wild men’ of London.[47] Dekker showed how this supposed underworld, which appeared to mirror legitimate economic and social structures,[48] was divided and subdivided in to ‘ranks’, and had their own ‘canting’ language.[49]

William Head’s The English Rogue (1665)

Some efforts were made to gentrify the rogue, notably by William Shakespeare with his character, Sir John Falstaff.[50] The rogue continued as a literary type in Richard Head’s The English Rogue (1665) which is essentially a ‘fond’ examination of excess and deception in the life of the protagonist, Meriton Latroon, linking the low-born rogue to his aristocratic counterpart, the rake.[51] It would be rare for Robin Hood to receive negative treatment after the sixteenth century. An attempt would be made during the eighteenth century, when criminal biographies such as Alexander Smith’s A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1714) described him as a man of a ‘wicked, licentious inclination’ who ‘followed not his trade’.[52] It was perhaps easier to gentrify the outlaw and make him appear semi-respectable: he robbed according to a clear moral code, and he was easily identifiable. This way of operating set him in contrast to his more menacing, sinister underworld counterparts: the rogues, vagabonds, fraters, cony-catchers, and prigs who existed in urban settings in early modern England.


[1] See the following works by Stephen Knight: Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in the Outlaw Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015); Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003); Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw (Cambridge: Brewer, 1994). Works by Thomas Ohlgren include: Robin Hood: The Early Poems, 1465-1560 Texts, Contexts, and Ideology (Newark, Del.: University of Delaware Press, 2007); ‘The “Marchaunt” of Sherwood: Mercantile Ideology in A Gest of Robyn Hode’ in Robin Hood in Popular Culture: Violence, Transgression, and Justice Ed. Thomas Hahn (Cambridge: Brewer, 2000), 175-190. There is also John Marshall’s research: ‘Picturing Robin Hood in Early Print and Performance: 1500-1590’ in Images of Robin Hood: Medieval to Modern Eds. Lois Potter & Joshua Calhoun Newark, Del.: University of Delaware Press, 2010), 60-82, as well as Alexander Kaufman, ‘Histories of Context: Form, Argument, and Ideology in A Gest of Robyn Hode’ in British Outlaws of Literature and History: Essays on Medieval and Early Modern Figures from Robin Hood to Twm Shon Catty Ed. Alexander Kaufman (Jefferson, NC: MacFarland, 2011), 146-164. Older works include James C. Holt, Robin Hood 2nd Edn. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1989) and R. B. Dobson & J. Taylor, Rymes of Robyn Hode: An Introduction to the English Outlaw 3rd Edn. (Stroud: Sutton, 1997).
[2] Dobson & Taylor, Rymes of Robyn Hode, 74.
[3] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’ in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales Eds. Thomas Ohlgren & Stephen Knight (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000), 80-168 (148).
[4] There is debate about the dating of A Gest of Robyn Hode: James C. Holt originally argued that ‘the Gest was first composed, in something close to its present form, in the fifteenth century, perhaps even as early as 1400’ – Robin Hood, 11. He subsequently revised this estimate, saying that c.1450 was a ‘safer date’ than c.1400 – James C. Holt, ‘Robin Hood: The Origins of the Legend’ in Robin Hood: The Many Faces of that Celebrated English Outlaw Ed. Kevin Carpenter (Oldenburg: Bibliotteks- und Enformationssystem der Universität Oldenburg, 1995), 27-34.
[5] Dobson & Taylor, Rymes of Robyn Hode, 71-72.
[6] Craig Dionne, ‘Fashioning Outlaws: The Early Modern Rogue and Urban Culture’ in Rogues and Early Modern English Culture Eds. Craig Dionne & Steve Mentz (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2006), 33-61 (38).
[7] Andrew McCall, The Medieval Underworld (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1979).
[8] McCall, The Medieval Underworld, 109.
[9] Melissa Sartore, Outlawry, Governance, and Law in Medieval England (New York: Peter Lang, 2013), 14.
[10] Vagabonds and Beggars Act 11 Henry 7 c.2 1494 cited in J. R. Tanner (ed.), Tudor Constitutional Documents, AD 1485-1603 with an Historical Commentary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1930), 469-470. Admittedly this was not the first piece of legislation passed against vagabonds and beggars. Two statutes of Edward III punished ‘who wandered at night or otherwise acted suspiciously’, while another statute of Richard II similarly brought punitive measures against vagrants. But the Tudor legislation against vagabonds and suspected persons was different in several respects: the Reformation had eroded the Church’s welfare provisions for the poor, with the State forced to intervene (often in a haphazard and inefficient manner) in the granting of poor relief to those in need; Tudor legislation was more repressive than earlier laws, given the fact that the Tudor monarchs viewed the poor with suspicion, conscious of the lack of legitimacy for their rule – See J. Thomas Kelly, Thorns on the Tudor Rose: Monks, Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1977).
[11] An Act for the Punishment of Vagabonds 14 Eliz. 1 c. 5 Parliamentary Archives HLRO HL/PO/PU/1/1572/14Eliz1n5 (1572).
[12] Kelly, Thorns on the Tudor Rose, 111.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Hal Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative in Eighteenth-Century England: Beyond the Law (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001), 34.
[15] Brooke A. Stafford, ‘Englishing the Rogue, “Translating” the Irish: Fantasies of Incorporation and Early Modern English National Identity’ in Rogues and Early Modern English Culture Eds. Craig Dionne & Steve Mentz (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2006), 312-336 (323)
[16] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 92-101.
[17] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 117-123.
[18] John Awdley, ‘The Fraternity of Vagabonds [1561]’ in Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars: A New Gallery of Tudor and Stuart Rogue Literature Ed. Arthur F. Kinney (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990), 85-102 (95-97).
[19] Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, 17.
[20] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 90.
[21] For a critical discussion of Adam Bell, see Thomas Hahn, ‘Adam Bell, Clim of the Clough, and William of Cloudesley’ in Medieval Outlaws: Ten Tales in Modern English Ed. Thomas Ohlgren (Stroud: Sutton, 1998), 239-252.
[22] Anon. ‘Adam Bell, Clim of the Clough, and William of Cloudeslie’ in Rymes of Robyn Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw 3rd Edn. Eds. R. B. Dobson & J. Taylor (Stroud: Sutton, 1997), 258-273 (260).
[23] Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, 17.
[24] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 125-130.
[25] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 145.
[26] Robert Copland ‘The Highway to the Spitalhouse [1535-36]’ in Key Writings on Subcultures, 1535-1727: Classics from the Underworld, Volume One 3rd Edn. Ed. A. V. Judges (London: Routledge, 2002), 1-25 (5).
[27] Gilbert Walker, ‘A Manifest Detection of the Most Vile and Detestable Use of Diceplay, and other Practices Like the Same [1552]’ in Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars: A New Gallery of Tudor and Stuart Rogue Literature Ed. Arthur F. Kinney (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990), 59-84 (66).
[28] John Awdley, ‘The Fraternity of Vagabonds, 94.
[29] Awdley, ‘The Fraternity of Vagabonds’, 95.
[30] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 143.
[31] Awdley, ‘The Fraternity of Vagabonds’, 95.
[32] Steve Mentz, ‘Magic Books: Cony-Catching and the Romance of Early Modern London’ in Rogues and Early Modern English Culture Eds. Craig Dionne & Steve Mentz (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2006), 240-260 (240).
[33] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 91.
[34] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 92.
[35] Maurice Keen, The Outlaws of Medieval Legend 4th Edn. (Dorset: Marboro, 1989), 100.
[36] Awdley, ‘The Fraternity of Vagabonds’, 92.
[37] Ibid.
[38] Robert Greene, ‘A Notable Discovery of Cozenage [1591]’ in Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars: A New Gallery of Tudor and Stuart Rogue Literature Ed. Arthur F. Kinney (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990), 155-186 (164).
[39] Awdely, ‘The Fraternity of Vagabonds’, 92.
[40] Walker, ‘A Manifest Detection of the Most Vile and Detestable Use of Diceplay’, 71.
[41] Walter Bower, ‘Scotichronicon [c.1440]’ in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales Eds. Thomas Ohlgren & Stephen Knight (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000), 25-26 (26).
[42] John Major, ‘Historia Majoris Britanniae [1521]’ in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales Eds. Thomas Ohlgren & Stephen Knight (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000), 26-27 (27).
[43] Stephen Knight & Thomas Ohlgren (eds.) Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000), 28.
[44] Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, 48.
[45] Robert Greene, ‘The Black Book’s Messenger [1592]’ in Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars: A New Gallery of Tudor and Stuart Rogue Literature Ed. Arthur F. Kinney (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990), 193-205 (193).
[46] Ibid.
[47] Thomas Dekker, ‘Lanthorne and Candle-light [1608]’ in Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars: A New Gallery of Tudor and Stuart Rogue Literature Ed. Arthur F. Kinney (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990), 213-260 (214).
[48] Craig Dionne & Steve Mentz, ‘Introduction’ in Rogues and Early Modern English Culture Eds. Craig Dionne & Steve Mentz (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2006), 1-29 (2).
[49] Ibid.
[50] Dionne & Mentz, ‘Introduction’, 2.
[51] Ken Gelder, Subcultures: Cultural Histories and Social Practice (London: Routledge, 2007), 8.
[52] Alexander Smith, A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen Ed. Arthur Heyward (London: Routledge, 1933), 408.

Charles Johnson’s ‘Lives of the Highwaymen’ (1734)

There is no reference in any historical archives to a Captain named Charles Johnson. The name is most likely a pseudonym for a writer whose identity is now lost to us. Some scholars such as J. R. Moore have theorised that Johnson was actually Daniel Defoe (1660-1731), although this has recently been argued against by P. N. Furbank and W. R. Owens in Defoe De-Attributions: A Critique of J. R. Moore’s Checklist (1994). [1] Whoever Johnson was, however, he was a prolific writer, and authored several compendiums of criminal biographies beginning with A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724), before going on to write The Lives and Actions of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734), and Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals (1735).[2]

Johnson title page
Title Page: Johnson’s Highwaymen (1762 edition)

Johnson’s Lives of the Highwaymen was part of one of the most popular genres of early eighteenth-century literature: the criminal biography. It grew out of seventeenth-century picaresque and rogue fiction, and one factor which explains its emergence is the breakdown of feudalism and the social obligations which each class owed one another, and the rise of capitalism. Hence the protagonist was usually a socially marginal person who was scrambling to survive in a new capitalist world.[3] As crime was increasingly perceived as a problem moving into the eighteenth century, people began to take more of an interest in the literature of crime, seeking to understand the criminal, hence the rise of criminal biographies such as Johnson’s.

For his History of the Highwaymen, Johnson appears to have taken inspiration from, and in some cases virtually plagiarised an earlier compendium of criminal lives by Alexander Smith (another pseudonymous author) entitled A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Foot-pads, Shoplifts, and Cheats, of Both Sexes, for Above Fifty Years Past (1714). In turn Smith’s accounts were widely plagiarised from chapbooks and other earlier pamphlets dealing with the lives of criminals.


In Johnson’s collection, as the title suggests, we have the history of some of the most notorious criminals who lived in England during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and indeed some from before the early modern period such as Robin Hood. His accounts are usually very formulaic, and he had a particular style. He would open the account of an offender’s life with a discussion of their birth and parentage. Take the account of the noted highwayman, Claude Du Vall:

Du Vall was born at Dumford in Normandy. His father was a miller, and his mother descended from an honourable race of tailors.[4]

The offender’s parents are always good people. Whether this was true or not is unknown, but Johnson uses accounts of the parents’ lives so that they might act as foils to the offender, who is usually portrayed as a wicked sinner. This is the case with Sawney Cunningham, another highwayman whose life is laid bare for the reader in Johnson’s history:

The precepts of a good education, or the example of virtuous parents, were not wanting to render this individual a worthy member of society; his natural untoward disposition, however, was inclined towards wickedness and luxury.[5]

From then on, Johnson tells the tale of how the criminal fell into an ever deeper circle of vice and sin. The tales of most of the male offenders related by Johnson are usually cast as the tale of an idle apprentice who disdains honest employment. Not even Robin Hood, a noble thief by our standards today, is spared this treatment. Johnson tells us that:

At an early period of his life he was trained to the occupation of a butcher, but his roving disposition was soon disgusted by that industrious employment.[6]

What then follows is a tale of all the major robberies committed by the villain, often narrated in very quick succession. The offender’s crimes begin small, often through the pilfering of farthings and marbles, and then they move on to bolder offences. Crime was viewed almost like it was an addiction in eighteenth-century narratives, much like today how ‘soft’ drugs lead on to ‘harder’ drugs.[7]

One interesting aspect of all eighteenth-century highwaymen narratives is that they are usually portrayed as having robbed alone. For example, of the famous highwayman William Davis alias The Golden Farmer, Johnson says:

He usually robbed alone.[8]

In his narrative of Robin Hood, Johnson makes virtually no reference to any of the ‘merry men’ whom we usually associate with the famous outlaw today, and it is pointed out that:

Robin’s adventures were sometimes of a solitary nature.[9]

This is important because people in the eighteenth century were afraid of organised crime, and the prospect of armed gangs of criminals preying upon travellers was offensive to the popular imagination.[10] The semi-romantic idea of a lone highwayman upon the heath, who robbed travellers with a certain degree of civility and politeness, was an altogether more ‘friendly’ image than a gang of armed thugs.

Towards all of his criminals Johnson has an ambiguous attitude. He admires them and despises them in equal measure. For example, even though Robin Hood is portrayed as a typical idle apprentice, having lived ‘a misspent life’, Johnson exhorts the reader at the end of his narrative to:

Offer for his soul your prayers.[11]

Indeed, Johnson portrays many of his highwaymen as being very generous fellows, as is the case with the seventeenth-century Royalist highwayman, James Hind:

Hind has often been celebrated for his generosity to the poor.[12]

The ambiguously sympathetic portrayals of highwaymen that we see in criminal biographies are a result of the fact that crimes were seen as sins by eighteenth-century contemporaries. These men are not wicked to the bone, but rather have simply made bad life choices which have consequently led them into a life of crime. Such bad life choices include becoming addicted to drink, gambling, whoring and all the other vices available to young men in eighteenth-century towns.

Golden Farmer
Engraving of a highwayman from Johnson’s Highwaymen (1762 Edition)

At the end of the tale we are given an account of the criminal’s death, and notwithstanding the sympathetic portrayals of highwaymen that we encounter in Johnson’s narratives, hanging is usually portrayed as a sentence that is justly deserved, as in the case of Tom Sharp, another highwayman:

Tom finished his career, by shooting a watchman who had prevented him from breaking into a shop. After sentence, he continued as hardened as ever, and despised all instruction; but when the halter was placed around his neck, he cried out for mercy, and manifested the strongest signs of wretchedness and wild despair. In this awful state of mind, the cart went forward, and he suffered the due merit of his crimes.[13]

However much an audience may have sympathised with a criminal, they usually liked to see them punished just as much – to see justice done, as Joseph Addison (1682-1719) explained that:

The mind of man is naturally a lover of justice, and when we read a story wherein a criminal is overtaken, in whom there is no quality of which is the object of pity, the soul enjoys a certain revenge for the offence done to its nature, in the wicked actions committed in the preceding part of the history.[14]

Furthermore, the tales Johnson tells are what I like to call “true-ish”; that is to say that, there is some fact interspersed with a lot of fiction. Indeed, the fact that these works were ‘histories’ is a little misleading. Johnson, and Smith before him, were rarely concerned with laying out the ‘facts’ of offender’s life; they simply wanted to entertain. In fact, sometimes they completely invented the narratives. In both Smith and Johnson’s work, for instance, we have the life of that celebrated robber, Sir John Falstaff,[15] and in another place, we have the life of Colonel Jack, based upon a novel by Daniel Defoe.

There is a high degree of sanctimonious moralism in Johnson’s narratives, such as the opening to the account of the highwayman, Walter Tracey:

The adventures of this individual are neither of interest nor importance; but his life, like that of Cunningham, shows how far the advantages of a good education may be perverted.[16]

At the beginning of Colonel Jack’s narrative, Johnson says that:

The various turns of fortune present a delightful field, in which the reader may gather useful instruction. The thoughtless and profligate reader will be stimulated to reformation, when he beholds that repentance is the happiest termination of a wicked life.[17]

Hal Gladfelder says, however, that the moralism in these texts was merely an ‘obligatory gesture’ to the establishment, while what Johnson really wanted to do was to provide sensational entertainment; entertainment that would sell well.[18]

It would be easy to dismiss Johnson’s work as nothing more than cheap Grub Street and of no significance. But these compendia were quite expensive works. Johnson’s original Lives of the Highwaymen was published in folio size and accompanied with fine engravings. It was most likely a middle-class readership which these books were aimed at. Indeed, in Johnson’s Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals, he states in the introduction that:

It will not be without its uses amongst the middling sort of people.[19]

Although largely forgotten about today, criminal biographies did do one important thing: they paved the way for the emergence of the novel. Instead of relating the lives of aristocrats and Kings, criminal biography attempted to show people ‘real life’. This is why many early novels deal with crime: Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722) and Henry Fielding’s Jonathan Wild (1743) are merely two examples of this. Thus criminal biography, although it died out relatively quickly, has left its mark on a genre of fiction that we still read today.

Read the 1762 Edition of Johnson’s Highwaymen here.



[1] P. N. Furbank & W. R. Owens, Defoe De-Attributions: A Critique of J. R. Moore’s Checklist (London: Hambledon, 1994), 133-134.
[2] Perhaps the name Charles Johnson was chosen because in 1712 another man named Charles Johnson had authored a play entitled The Successful Pyrate (London, 1712).
[3] Hal Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative in Eighteenth-Century England: Beyond the Law (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001), 34.
[4] Charles Johnson, The Lives and Actions of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Street Robbers, Pirates (1734 repr. London: T. Tegg, 1839), 140.
[5] Johnson, Highwaymen, 86.
[6] Johnson, Highwaymen, 70.
[7] Andrea Mackenzie, Tyburn’s Martyrs: Execution in England, 1675-1775 (London: Hambledon, 2007), 59.
[8] Johnson, Highwaymen, 21.
[9] Johnson, Highwaymen, 73.
[10] Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 71.
[11] Johnson, Highwaymen, 80.
[12] Johnson, Highwaymen, 137.
[13] Johnson, Highwaymen, 415.
[14] Joseph Addison, ‘Number 491’ in The Spectator: A New Edition, Reproducing the Original Text, Both as First Issued and as Corrected by its Authors Ed. Henry Morley (London: George Routledge, 1880), 699-701 (701).
[15] It need scarcely be explained that Falstaff is actually a Shakespearean character, and therefore completely fictional.
[16] Johnson, Highwaymen, 91.
[17] Johnson, Highwaymen, 275.
[18] Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative, 71.
[19] Charles Johnson, Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals Ed. Arthur Heyward (London: Routledge, 1933), i.

Rogues in Early Modern England

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).

Title Page: Thomas Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller (1594) [Source: Adelaide University]

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.