- Vagrancy In English Culture and Society, 1650–1750 by David Hitchcock
Wandering vagrants, unemployed casualties of economic dislocation, troubled English society from the late middle ages to the Industrial Revolution. Many were geographically untethered, and most were reliant on the benevolence of the communities through which they passed. A series of parliamentary statutes from the fifteenth century to the nineteenth formulated the national legislative response to this social problem. The records of Quarter Sessions, parish overseers, and constables reveal the local administrative treatment of poverty and itinerancy. Official policy, buoyed by conventional moral and religious opinion, differentiated between the deserving and undeserving poor, and placed the burden of relief on individual parishes. Popular culture identified many of the "undeserving" poor as "sturdy beggars" or "rogues," and charged them with idleness, deception, and petty criminality. Sources for the history of English vagrancy are fortunately abundant, and David Hitchcock makes imaginative use of them in this welcome study.
Historians of poverty and vagrancy have usually related the problem to changing demographic pressures. The rapid expansion of population in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century was accompanied by sharp rises in food prices, and worsening economic opportunities for the poor sort, plunging many of them into marginality, dependency, and distress. The problem of vagrancy became particularly acute in the Elizabethan and early Stuart periods, roughly 1550 to 1650. Demographic pressures eased in the century after England's civil wars, when a burgeoning economy may have raised general standards of living, though hardship was still widespread. Vagrants became less visible in the [End Page 625] generations following the Restoration, either because there were fewer of them, or because the authorities were less troubled by the phenomenon. Hitchcock argues that vagrancy was just as menacing in his chosen century, 1650 to 1750, when prevailing socio-economic conditions were less deleterious. He does this by making a cultural argument, citing the lively representation of vagrancy and roguery in creative writing, especially cheap print and popular ballads. He also sidesteps the issue by claiming that "the total number of vagrants at any given time is not a statistic necessarily relevant to the contemporary historical experience of vagrancy" (93). Although his sources include records of criminal justice and parish administration, Hitchcock is more interested in the figuration, trope or type of "the vagrant" than in the circumstances of particular vagrant travelers. His conclusion offers more on the "archetypes of the vagabond" than "the historical experience of vagrancy" (150–1).
Whereas vagrancy was primarily a socio-economic condition, roguery implied a moral delinquency. Picaresque story-telling allowed rogues more agency than common vagrants, and it is significant that key selections of Hitchcock's sources relating to their exploits are designated "rogue ballads" rather than "va-grant ballads." Not all vagrants were rogues, and not all rogues were vagrants, but Hitchcock tends to elide the categories, and to treat them all as vagabonds. His analysis of literary material is generally sound and sensitive, with little of the theoretical posturing so common in literary scholarship. Representations of roguery expose the social imaginary of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, and yield a cultural understanding of the vagabond experience, but they shed little light on the real lives of people at the margins. Hitchcock aims to explore both the cultural and social history of vagrancy, but he leans more on texts than on archives. There is much more here on the cultural construction of vagrancy than on documented contacts between vagrants and members of the settled majority. Principal chapters deal with the assumption of idleness, popular ballads, the vagrancy crisis, and the gendering of vagrancy.
The relatively slender sections dealing with the lived experience of vagrancy in particular localities draw on records of local administration and policing. Hitchcock's handling of these sources demonstrates the potential of Quarter Sessions examinations and parish constables' accounts to reveal the "hidden histories" of migration and dependency. His analysis of the social typology and gendered profile of over six thousand migrants passing through the Warwickshire parish...