A ragged rabblement of rakehells, 1566
Guard your horses!
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been looking into the rather mixed success of 18th century highwayman John Poulter’s criminal career (see here and here). I mentioned in passing that he had included a short dictionary of ‘thieves’ cant’, the slang used by the underworld he was part of. This has a long history, going back to at least to the 16th century. Every historical path I follow for these articles inevitably leads me to others, and all this led me back to another guide to thieves’ cant and the different types of criminal from that earlier century.
Our writer this week, then, is one Thomas Harman. We don’t really know much about his life, not even his dates of birth and death. He came from Kent, certainly: his grandfather Henry had been a clerk to Henry VII and became a significant Kent landowner, and Thomas’s father William developed this property portfolio. Thomas benefited likewise, and had notable civic roles, overseeing parts of the Thames and the sewer network of his home county.
It seems surprising therefore that he is remembered almost entirely for his 1566 book A Caveat or Warening for Common Cursetors Vulgarely Called Vagabones – a study of various types of vagrant and criminal, especially as he describes himself rather untruthfully there as a “poor gentleman”. His dedication, to his neighbour the Countess of Shrewsbury, provides some explanation:
I thought it good, necessary, and my bounden duty, to acquaint your goodness with the abominable, wicked, and detestable behaviour of all these rowsey, ragged rabblement of rakehells, that – under the pretence of great misery, diseases, and other innumerable calamities which they feign – through great hypocrisy do win and gain great alms in all places where they wilily wander, to the utter deluding of the good givers, deceiving and impoverishing of all such poor householders, both sick and sore, as neither can or may walk abroad for relief and comfort (where, indeed, most mercy is to be showed).
…For I, having more occasion, through sickness, to tarry and remain at home than I have been accustomed, do, by my there abiding, talk and confer daily with many of these wily wanderers of both sorts, as well men and women, as boys and girls, by whom I have gathered and understand their deep dissimulation and detestable dealing, being marvellous subtle and crafty in their kind…
In other words, stuck at home due to illness, he got talking to the chancers who came to his door. Bear in mind that ‘vagrancy’ had a specific historical meaning: from the 14th century onwards it referred to people who had supposedly chosen to be ‘idle’ (i.e. be of no fixed abode or occupation) rather than those who were poor or unable to work through no fault of their own, who might be issued with a vagrancy licence. According to the Vagabonds Act of 1547, such idlers could be legally enslaved and beaten, sometimes branded with a ‘V’, and if a serial offender even executed. The descriptions of permitted whippings and ear mutilations from this and subsequent legislation do not make for comfortable reading, and of course some of the ideas behind all this resonate to this very day: how much should the Welfare State support people who do not make conspicuous efforts to seek employment? Not a debate I intend to go into here, and of course compassion was not easily found 500 hundred years ago.
Harman does not sound particularly sympathetic to the vagrant lifestyle, as one might expect of a man in his comfortable position, although possibly to his credit he sometimes took the licences of those who visited him, if he thought them particularly undeserved, and redistributed their money to the ‘deserving poor’ (to use a term more specifically from Victorian times).
Aside from the moral aspects of all this, Harman’s book proved a notable survey of both vagrancy and overt criminal behaviour, and became an instant bestseller. He drew upon an earlier work, The Fraternitye of Vacabondes by John Awdely, but his own direct experience made his own the better book, and it was often quoted (frequently without attribution) by later authors.
Harman’s work consists of 24 short essays on different categories of vagabonds and crooks, followed by the guide to cant I mentioned earlier. Some of it is quite entertaining, so this week I give you one of those short essays, on the theme of opportunistic horse thieves. It is entitled ‘A prigger of prauncers’…1
A prigger of prancers be horse-stealers; for to prig signifieth in their language to steal, and a prancer is a horse. So being put together, the matter is plain. These go commonly in jerkins of leather, or of white frieze, and carry little wands in their hands, and will walk through grounds and pastures, to search and see horses meet for their purpose. And if they chance to be met and asked by the owners of the ground what they make there, they feign straight that they have lost their way, and desire to be instructed the best way to such a place. These will also repair to gentlemen's houses and ask their charity, and will offer their service. And if you ask them what they can do, they will say that they can keep two or three geldings, and wait upon a gentleman. These have also their women, that, walking from them in other places, mark where and what they see abroad, and showeth these priggers thereof when they meet, which is within a week or two. And look, where they steal anything, they convey the same at the least three score miles off or more.
There was a gentleman, a very friend of mine, riding from London homeward into Kent, having within three miles of his house business, alighted off his horse, and his man also, in a pretty village, where divers houses were, and looked about him where he might have a convenient person to walk his horse, because he would speak with a farmer that dwelt on the back-side of the said village, little above a quarter of a mile from the place where he lighted, and had his man to wait upon him, as it was meet for his calling. Espying a prigger there standing, thinking the same to dwell there, charging this pretty prigging person to walk his horse well, and that they might not stand still for taking of cold, and at his return, which he said should not be long, he would give him a penny to drink, and so went about his business.
This pelting prigger, proud of his prey, walketh his horse up and down, till he saw the gentleman out of sight, and leaps him into the saddle, and away he goeth amain. This gentleman returning, and finding not his horses, sent his man to the one end of the village, and he went himself unto the other end, and enquired as he went for his horses that were walked, and began somewhat to suspect, because neither he nor his man could see nor find him. Then this gentleman diligently enquired of three or four town dwellers there whether any such person [had been seen], declaring his stature, age, apparel, with so many lineaments of his body as he could call to remembrance. And una voce [i.e. with one voice] all said that no such man dwelt in their street, neither in the parish that they knew of, but some did well remember that such a one they saw there lurking and huggering two hours before the gentleman came thither, and a stranger to them.
“I had thought,” quoth this gentleman, “he had here dwelled,”—and marched home mannerly in his boots far from the place he dwelt not. I suppose at his coming home he sent such ways as he suspected or thought meet to search for this prigger, but hitherto he never heard any tidings again of his palfreys. I had the best gelding stolen out of my pasture that I had, amongst others, while this book was first a-printing.
Perhaps the modern equivalent might be a prigger of Porsches, a grifter offering parking services at a hotel…?