- Rogues, Conycatching and the Scribbling Crew
By the end of the sixteenth century, as contemporaries were acutely aware, print was fast becoming a mass medium. The growth of the book trade in England provoked mixed reactions. Many were suspicious of the expanding marketplace, fearing that the audience for whom cheap print catered was ill-equipped to deal responsibly with the ideas which could now circulate in abundance, and that popular tastes would corrupt literature and learning since 'every grosse braind Idiot is suffered to come into print', and 'every scandalous tongue and opprobrious witte . . . will advance their peddling wares of detracting virulence in the publique Piatza of every Stationers shoppe'.1 Other writers celebrated the opportunities offered by the press to supplant the moralizing, edifying impulses that dominated much cheap print with material that was provocative, funny, dangerously 'popular', and profitable. There was, of course, no simple shift from anxiety to acceptance of cheap print and mass audiences; histories of the book and of reading have shown how complicated and halting were the cultural changes consequent on the invention of print. There were however developments in the climate for cheap books over the decades around the turn of the century in England, influenced by local factors such as the end of the English war with Spain and the recession (albeit temporary) of antagonism over reform in the church, as well as by the bigger picture of increasing literacy and print production. While many writers continued to resist and criticize the opportunities offered by cheap print to titillate and thrill (even as they exploited them), some began overtly to celebrate the particular qualities of the popular press. This essay will use the 'cony-catching' genre – pamphlets about the rogues and tricksters of contemporary society and the 'conies' (rabbits) who were their victims – to track shifts in attitudes towards, and within, the popular press.
Cony-catching or rogue pamphlets were collections of anecdotes and descriptions of the different villains that supposedly inhabited the country, with details of the tricks they played and their habits, organization and language.2 They were unbound, costing a few pence each. The early rogue pamphlets dated from the 1550s and 1560s, and were reprinted on occasion throughout Elizabeth's reign.3 Their claims to inform and benefit the [End Page 1]
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commonwealth formed part of the efforts of the press to promote print as a morally advantageous technology. Their earnest tone and insistence that their exposure of the tricksters would inhibit roguish practices enabled them to maintain a moral high-ground while providing stories that could, additionally, amuse and titillate – a strategy employed too by other genres of reportage, including witchcraft, murder, and prodigy pamphlets.
Such elevated claims were necessitated by anxieties about the cheaper forms of print: proliferation and the search for bigger audiences were thought to engender scurrilous and unworthy material. The report to the Stationers' Company of the commissioners who investigated printing privileges in the 1580s articulated concerns for the survival of scholarly works in the face of competition from the 'vaine small toies' of the cheap press.4 Around the same time, a series of alarmingly popular anti-establishment pamphlets signed 'Martin Marprelate' launched an attack on the episcopacy and the corruptions of the Church of England. The novelty of Marprelate's complaints lay in the medium and idiom in which they were presented: cheap texts and a vigorous and engaging style, inviting a new, popular audience to join the debate about the Elizabethan Church.5 Marprelate's challenge to church and state supplemented the posited danger to learning; the perceived threat from popular print became more serious.
In the 1590s, the pamphlet quarrelling of well-known Elizabethan writers (many of whom had earlier joined the attack on Marprelate, including Robert Greene, Thomas Nashe, and Gabriel Harvey) served to expose the press further as a potential tool of instability and discord. Harvey wrote with irritation (and a considerable degree of hypocrisy) about the squabbling in print:
I neither name Martin-mar-prelate: nor shame Papp...