Villanies discouered by lanthorne and candle-light, and the helpe of a new cryer called O per se O.

Societal changes led to increased acute poverty in late sixteenth-century England. Poor Laws enacted by Parliament collected taxes from the aristocracy to assist the truly needy—but not the rogues, vagabonds, and sturdy beggars, who, instead, were to be punished. Labor-shunning masterless men, disbanded soldiers, and dissolute women in growing numbers infected town and countryside. They led disreputable lives and developed their own social order and distinctive language. Their presence evolved from being a mere public nuisance to a criminal infestation.

The Fraternitye of Vagabondes (1561) was the first English pamphlet focused on the issue, followed by A Caveat or Warening, for commen cursetors vulgarely called Vagabones (1566), by Thomas Harman. He described the various ranks in the social order of vagabonds and provided a short glossary of canting vocabulary. Issued at a time before the fraternity burgeoned, Harman also listed known rufflers and uprightmen (the top ranks of the society) by name. Robert Greene wrote several widely popular “coney catching” pamphlets in the early 1590s, followed by Thomas Dekker’s publications. These works repeated basic information about vagabonds and rogues and described their ingenious scams. They served two purposes: as the preface of the present copy concludes, “Reade and laugh: Reade seriously and get knowledge. Farewell.” 

Little is known about Dekker before he emerged as a playwright and pamphleteer in the mid 1590s. Much of his writing for the stage was collaborative, including works with Ben Jonson and John Marston. Dekker’s most notable play, published anonymously in 1600, is The Shoemaker’s Holiday, a comedy depicting the lives of ordinary citizens of London. His 1608 pamphlet entitled The Belman of London, bringing to light the most notorious villanies that are now practiced… was followed in 1612 by a sequel. It presented new villainies discovered by the bellman and a new crier (aided by lantern and candlelight). The present copy is the revised 1616 edition, which adds a description of life in debtors’ prison, where Dekker was confined from 1612 to 1617. 

Villanies Discovered spans a curious amalgam of topics: gull-groping in the countryside, swindling by horse coursers at the Smithfield Market, villainies of Moone-men (gypsies, depicted as “beggarly in apparel, barbarous in condition, beastly in behauiour, and bloudy if they meete aduantage”), many other scourges, a canting glossary, and newly-printed canting songs (with translations into English). 

Chrzanowski 1616d *

STC 6488

Title List

1479–1550 | 1551–1580 | 1583–1608 | 1609–1675