Rogues and the Law

From William Harrison: Description of England (1587)

The law referred to in the following is the famous statute of 1572. It will be noticed that it includes players among other classes of vagrants, and the passage was constantly quoted with glee by puritan opponents of the theatre. But the law was directed against wandering actors not attached to a nobleman's company such as that of the Lord Chamberlain, to which Shakespeare belonged.]

With us the poor is commonly divided into three sorts, so that some are poor by impotency, as the fatherless child, the aged, blind and lame, and the diseased person that is judged to be incurable: the second are poor by casualty, as the wounded soldier, the decayed householder, and the sick person visited with grievous and painful diseases: the third consisteth of thriftless poor, as the rioter that hath consumed all, the vagabond that will abide nowhere but runneth up and down from place to place, and finally the rogue and the strumpet . . . Such as are idle beggars through their own default are of two sorts, and continue their estates either by casual or mere voluntary means. Those that are such by casual means are in the beginning justly to be referred either to the first or second sort of poor aforementioned, but, degenerating into the thriftless sort, they do what they can to continue their misery, and, with such impediments as they have, to stray and wander about, as creatures abhorring all labour and every honest exercise. Certes I call these casual means, not in the respect of the original of their poverty, but of the continuance of the same, from whence they will not be delivered, such is their own ungracious lewdness and froward disposition. The voluntary means proceed from outward causes, as by making of corrosives and applying the same to the more fleshy parts of their bodies, and also laying of ratsbane, spearwort, crowfoot and such like unto their whole members, thereby to raise pitiful and odious sores and move the hearts of the goers by such places where they lie, to yearn at their misery, and thereupon bestow large alms upon them. How artificially they beg, what forcible speech, and how they select and choose out words of vehemency whereby they do in manner conjure or adjure the goer-by to pity their cases, I pass over to remember, -as judging the name of God and Christ to be more conversant in the mouths of none and yet the presence of the heavenly Majesty further off from no men than from this ungracious company. Which maketh me to think that punishment is far meeter for them than liberality or alms, and sith Christ willeth us chiefly to have a regard to himself and his poor members.

Unto this nest is another sort to be referred, more sturdy than the rest, which, having sound and perfect limbs, do yet notwithstanding sometime counterfeit the possession of all sorts of diseases. Divers times in their apparel also they will be like serving-men or labourers: oftentimes they can play the mariners and seek for ships which they never lost. But in fine they are all thieves and caterpillars in the commonwealth, and by the word of God not permitted to eat, sith they do but lick the sweat from the true labourer's brows, and bereave the godly poor of that which is due unto them, to maintain their excess, consuming the charity of well-disposed people bestowed upon them, after a most wicked and detestable manner.

It is not yet full threescore years since this trade began but how it hath prospered since that time it is easy to judge, for they are now supposed, of one sex and another, to amount unto above 10,000 persons, as I have heard reported. Moreover, in counterfeiting the Egyptian rogues, they have devised a language among themselves, which they name 'canting', but others 'pedlar's French', a speech compact thirty years since of English and a great number of odd words of their own devising, without all order or reason, and yet such it is as none but themselves are able to understand. The first deviser thereof was hanged by the neck -- a just reward, no doubt, for his deserts, and a common end to all of that profession.

A gentleman [Thomas Harman] also of late hath taken great pains to search out the secret practices of this ungracious rabble. And among other things he setteth down and describeth three and twenty sorts of them whose names it shall not be amiss to remember whereby each one may take occasion to read and know as also by his industry what wicked people they are, and what villainy remaineth in them.

The several disorders and degrees amongst our idle vagabonds1

  1. Rufflers.
  2. Uprightmen.
  3. Hookers or anglers.
  4. Rogues.
  5. Wild rogues.
  6. Priggers of prancers.
  7. Palliards.
  8. Fraters.
  9. Abrams.
  10. Freshwater mariners or whipjacks.
  11. Dummerers.
  12. Drunken tinkers.
  13. Swadders or pedlars.
  14. Jarkmen or patricoes.

Of the women kind

  1. Demanders for glimmer or fire.
  2. Bawdy-baskets.
  3. Morts.
  4. Autem morts.
  5. Walking morts.
  6. Doxies.
  7. Dells.
  8. Kinching morts.
  9. Kinching coes.

The punishment that is ordained for this kind of people is very sharp, and yet it cannot restrain them from their gadding: wherefore the end must needs be martial law, to be exercised upon them, as upon thieves, robbers, despisers of all laws, and enemies to the commonwealth and welfare of the land. What notable robberies, pilferies, murders, rapes and stealings of young children, burning, breaking and disfiguring their limbs to make them pitiful in the sight of the people, I need not to rehearse. But for their idle roguing about the country the law ordaineth this manner of correction. The rogue being apprehended, committed to prison, and tried in the next assizes (whether they be of gaol delivery or sessions of the peace), if he happen to be convicted for a vagabond, either by inquest of office or the testimony of two honest and credible witnesses upon their oaths, he is then immediately adjudged to be grievously whipped and burned through the gristle of the right ear with an hot iron of the compass of an inch about, as a manifestation of his wicked life, and due punishment received for the same. And this judgment is to be executed upon him except some honest person worth five pounds in the Queen's books in goods, or twenty shillings in land, or some rich householder to be allowed by the justices, will be bound in recognizance to retain him in his service for one whole year. If he be taken the second time, and proved to have forsaken his said service, he shall then be whipped again, bored likewise through the other ear, and set to service: from whence he depart before a year be expired and happen afterward to be attached again, he is condemned to suffer pains of death as a felon (except before excepted) without benefit of clergy or sanctuary, as by the statute doth appear. Among rogues and idle persons, finally, we find to be comprised all proctors that go up and down with counterfeit licences, cozeners and such as gad about the country using unlawful games, practisers of physiognomy and palmistry, tellers of fortune, fencers, players, minstrels, jugglers, pedlars, tinkers, pretended scholars, shipmen, prisoners gathering for fees, and others, so oft as they be taken without sufficient licence. From among which company our bearwards are not excepted, and just cause: for I have read that they have, either voluntarily or for want of power to master their savage beasts, been occasion of the death and devouration of many children in sundry countries by which they have passed, whose parents never knew what was become of them. And for that cause there is and have been many sharp laws made for bearwards in Germany, whereof you may read in other. But to our rogues. Each one also that harboureth or aideth them with meat or money is taxed and compelled to fine with the queen's majesty for every time that he doth succour them as it shall please the justices of peace to assign, so that the taxation exceed not twenty shillings, as I have been informed.

IV M: England Through 1635


1. Rufflers:'First in degree of vagabonds,' a man without a trade who will panhandle if he can, but will not stop short of more direct means if he must; if not hanged he inevitablybecomes an Uprightman in a year or two. Hookers:those who go house to house seeking charity during the day and study the lie of the land. After dark the hooker revisits the marks carrying a staff with an iron hook to reach in through windows to steal clothes and other stuffs. Wild rogues:those born rogues. Palliards:beggars in patched cloaks. Abrams:those who pretend to have been mad and sent to Bedlam, who seek to beg house-to-house for money or food on the strength of the ill-treatment they claim to have received. If there are children, or others likely to be intimidated in the house, they will act out until paid to go away. Dummerers: beggars pretending dumbness. Swadders:pedlars. Demanders for glimmer:female beggars pretending to have lost all that they had by fire. Morts:female beggars not legally married. Dells: female beggars who are still maidens. Uprightmen:the highest rank of rogues. Rogues:beggars pretending to seek kinsmen Priggers of prancers:horsestealers. Fraters:pretended proctors with false licences. A proctor was one who held a licence to collect alms for 'spital-houses.' Freshwater mariners:pretended shipwrecked sailors. Drunken tinkers:thieves posing as tinkers. Jarkmen:clerkly rogues who make false licences and unite their comrades in wedlock. Bawdy baskets:female pedlars. Autem morts:legally married female rogues. Doxies: mistresses to rogues. Kinching morts:young female rogues. Kinching coes:young male rogues. Return to Text