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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

§ 15. Harman’s Caveat

All the opportunities which Awdeley missed are turned to the fullest account by Thomas Harman. The writer, who describes himself as a “poore gentleman,” sought to supply the place of the suppressed monasteries by keeping open house for mendicants. In this charitable spirit, he came into personal contact with almost every type of pauper, and gradually discovered that his compassion was generally lavished on professional impostors. Having penetrated “their depe dissimulation and detestable dealynge, beinge marvellous suttle and craftye in their kynde,” he gave his discoveries to the world in A Caveat or Warening for Commen Corsetors, vulgarely called Vagabones. The book is put forward as an “alarum” to forewarn honest citizens; but, in reality, it contains the researches of a sociologist. Harman alludes rather ungratefully to Awdeley’s superficial outline as “A small breefe … that made a lytle shewe of there names and usage, and gave a glymsinge lyghte, not sufficient to perswade of their pevishe peltinge.” In twenty-four chapters, varying in length from a few lines to several pages, Harman accumulated important data out of which the character of the sixteenth century thief may be constructed. We learn something as to their dress, food, origin, training and sexual relations. The different departments of a highly specialised profession are explained. Their complicated frauds are fully investigated, and we catch glimpses of the dark shallows of their private life. With the instinct of a scientist, the author appends a list of the chief thieves then living, and gives specimens and translations of their slang.

This spirit of philosophical enquiry is the first sign of modern thought in a popular tract. But, in other respects, Harman’s work has the characteristics of his own age. He was writing for the public which read A C. Mery Tales and The Geystes of Skoggan; so his book is enlivened with curious stories in illustration of thieves’ practices. The principle of recommending exposures to the masses has been formulated by Erasmus quoniam autem rudis ac simplex aetas huiusmodi fraudibus potissimum est obnoxia, visum est exemplo non inamoeno depingere modum imposturae. But Harman has his full share of sympathy for a piece of successful knavery, and he loves an episode which hinges on a trial of wits. His anecdotes mark a pronounced advance on the stories of the jest-books. The actors are no longer chessmen, who automatically bring about a situation; they are living characters, and the author adds to the interest of his book by interweaving personal experiences with his pictures of mendicant life. In such stories as that of the “Roge” (cap. IV) and the “Walking Morte” (cap. XIX), his curiosity as to the eccentricities and humour of villainy effaces his mission as an exposer of abuses.

Awdeley’s and Harman’s books, together with Liber Vagatorum, have influenced a whole class of literature, from Greene’s “conny-catching pamphlets” to The Prince and the Pauper. And yet the Caveat does not anticipate the spirit of the picaresque novel. Though attracted by knavery, Harman has no toleration for the knave. “Lewtering Luskes, lasy Lorells, rowsey ragged rabblement of rakehells” are amongst his designations for this class, and his only methods for “reforming the criminal” are the stocks and the whip.

It is worth noticing that this work, a pamphlet of unquestioned merit, is free from the literary ideals of the court. Harman alludes contemptuously to this “delycat age,” and disclaims all pretensions to eloquence, declaring that he has set forth his work “symplye and truelye, with such usual words and termes as is among us wel known and frequented.”