Epilogue: Vagrant Times

  • Kellie Robertson
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


Today, if you stand just west of London’s Holborn Circus looking south, you would find yourself at the top of Fetter Lane, watching the weekday denizens of the City rushing to appointments at the nearby law courts and financial firms that dominate this neighborhood. Had you stood here in the mid-sixteenth century, you would have found yourself at the top of “Fewterlane” just a stone’s throw from its intersection with “Cursitor Street.” Stow claimed that “Fewterlane” in the sixteenth century “was so called of Fewters (or idle people) lying there.” So too Thomas Harman’s A Caveat for Common Cursitors (1566) reminds its readers that ‘cursitor’ is a synonym for ‘vagabond,’ “derived of this Latin word curro,” hence, a “runner” or “ranger” about the country.1 This suggestive intersection—where Beggar’s Lane once met Vagabond Street—has been obliterated, initially, by semantic drift and then, more indelibly, by the postwar building boom (though one of the few legible remains of this area’s formerly down-market identity can still be found in a building on Fetter Lane that houses the eponymous pub “Vagabundos”).


Corporal Punishment Vagrant Time Early Modern Period Labor Legislation Labor Historian 
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  1. 1.
    For Stow’s etymology, see Gillian Bebbington, London Street Names (London: B.T. Batsford Ltd, 1972), p. 130. Harman’s etymology of “cursitor” appears in his prefatory epistle to A Caveat of Common Cursitors, Vulgarly Called Vagabonds, reprinted in Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars, ed. Arthur F. Kinney (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990), p. 113. The semantic origin of Cursitor Street, however, most probably lies, as Bebbington suggests (p. 107), not in Harman’s preferred usage but in the fact that the early modern office of the Cursitors—the twenty-four clerks who wrote out in court hand (de cursu) the common-form writs— stood on the corner of Cursitor Street and Chancery Lane in Elizabethan London.Google Scholar
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    Modern critics writing on rogue literature include Stephen Greenblatt, “Invisible Bullets: Renaissance Authority and Its Subversion,” in Shakespearean Negotiations (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), pp. 49–52;Google Scholar
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    Linda Woodbridge, “Imposters, Monsters, and Spies: What Rogue Literature Can Tell us about Early Modern Subjectivity,” Interactive Early Modern Literary Studies Dialogues (1999): 4.1–11 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/iemls/dialogues/01/woodbridge.html>. It is not only literary scholars but historians who make these claims. A.L. Beier, Masterless Men: the Vagrancy Problem in England 1560–1640 (London: Methuen, 1985), p. 146, asserts that “vagabonds posed new and perplexing problems to early modern governments.”Google Scholar
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    Both David L. Farmer, “The Statutes of Labourers,” in The Agrarian History of England and Wales III, 1348–1500, ed. Edward Miller (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 487 [483–90], and Chris Given-Wilson, “Problem of Labour,” p. 89, see the 1490s as the end of the medieval wage and labor legislation. For the relevant statutes of 1495 and 1497, see SR, vol. 2, pp. 569, 585–86, and 637; for the 1503 statute, see SR, vol. 2, pp. 656–57.Google Scholar
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    See Farmer, “Statutes of Labourers,” p. 490. The legal historian Holdsworth makes the same claim; see A History of English Law, 3 vols. (London: Methuen, 1936–56), vol. 2, pp. 463–64. For the 1563 statute, see SR, vol. 4, pp. 414–22. For a discussion of the later Elizabethan statutes on vagrancy, see A.L. Beier, “Vagrants and the Social Order in Elizabethan England,” Past and Present 64 (1974): 3–29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    On the 1536 statute and its draft, see G.R. Elton, “An Early Tudor Poor Law,” Economic History Review n.s. 6 (1953): 55–67;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    The standard work on enclosure has long been R.H. Tawney, The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century (London: Longmans, 1912).Google Scholar
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    and D.M. Palliser, The Age of Elizabeth: England under the Later Tudors (London: Longman, 1983), esp. pp. 178–.Google Scholar
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    Thomas More, Utopia, trans. and ed. Robert M. Adams (New York: Norton, 1975), p. 14.Google Scholar
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    Jeremy Rifkin, The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labour Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era (New York: Putnam, 1994).Google Scholar
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    For a discussion of this term, see also Maurizio Lazzarato, “Immaterial Labor,” in Michael Hardt and Paolo Virno, eds., Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), pp. 133–47.Google Scholar
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    For an analysis of affective labor as immaterial labor, see Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, and Ronald A.T. Judy, “Dossier: Scattered Speculations on Value,” Boundary 2 26 (1999): 75–100, esp. pp. 93–98.Google Scholar

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© Kellie Robertson 2006

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  • Kellie Robertson

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