Home  »  Volume III: English RENASCENCE AND REFORMATION  »  § 14. Awdeley’s Fraternitye of vacabones

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

V. The Progress of Social Literature in Tudor Times

§ 14. Awdeley’s Fraternitye of vacabones

Vagabondism was a menace to society, and the curiosity which people feel in anything alarming was satisfied in 1561 by Awdeley’s Fraternitye of vacabones. Again we see the power of literary tradition. Awdeley, apparently, found no more appropriate title than one as old as Wireker; but those who expected a satire on social types assembled under this denomination were disappointed. Under an old name, he followed up the idea of the German Liber Vagatorum, and produced an anatomy of vagabond life and vagrancy. The tract is divided into two parts; the first consists of a series of concise definitions of thieves’ cant and contains startling revelations, how the “Abraham man” walks this earth feigning madness and calling himself Poor Tom, how the “washman” lies in the highway with artificial sores produced by spickwort or ratsbane and how these and suchlike impostors have not only their own language but are organised into an independent community with the “upright man” at their head, who domineers over the society and takes the lion’s share of the booty.

The most jejune of descriptions would be welcome when accompanied, as these were, by sensational disclosures of a mysterious and dangerous class. But, in the second part—the company of “cousoners” and shifters—Awdeley deals with three types of the gentleman thief. Here, the definitions which reveal the insidious refinements of the well dressed adventurer necessarily expand into narrative; but Awdeley was quite unconscious that he had found a vein of humour and episode which has not even yet been exhausted. His tales are concise explanations of a process of deception; his only object is to give information.