A Caveat for Common Cursetors, 1567


A Caveat for Common Cursetors, written by Thomas Harman (fl. 1547–1567), was first published in 1566. It was one of the earliest in a series of pamphlets that sought to expose criminals, and warn the public about the threat of itinerant men and women. This genre of writing became known as ‘rogue literature’.

How does A Caveat relate to Ben Jonson’s plays?

The pamphlet aimed to reveal the tricks vagabonds used to deceive and solicit/steal money from gullible victims, otherwise known as ‘gulls’.

The action in both Volpone (1607) and The Alchemist (1612) focusses on the dynamic relationships between con artists and their gulls.

(D2v) disguise and disease 

In Tudor and Jacobean England clothing was an indicator of status, and there were laws detailing what people at different levels of society were allowed to wear.

The woodcut shows Nicholas Blunt, aka Nicholas Jennings, in two very different outfits. The depiction on the left shows him as an Upright Man, the king of the beggars who faked being a dispossessed gentleman or veteran of the European wars in order to demand charity. Blunt’s smart clothing would have convinced the public that he was a respectable man, fallen on hard times.

The Alchemist utilises this idea of clothing as a social and professional indicator. The central characters, Subtle, Face and Doll, are continually changing costume to suit the personas they assume. Subtle wears the robes of an alchemist to look authentic and inspire the trust and awe of the victims. Face poses as a Captain, and has a sword (a forbidden accessory for the lower classes). His appearance elevates his perceived social status, and he is therefore able to lure the gulls to the house and convince them of Subtle’s powers.

The image on the right shows Blunt/Jennings in the garb of a Counterfeit Crank, a type of beggar that feigned epilepsy to gain sympathy and charity. He presents a shocking spectacle dressed in rags, with mud and blood on his face.

Jonson used and elaborated on this tradition of counterfeiting illness as a means of acquiring money to great effect in Volpone. Volpone, the greedy anti-hero, pretends to be ill and near death, duping members of Venetian society into giving him expensive gifts as they compete to be named his heir.

(G3v – G4r) ‘pelting language’

A Caveat includes a list of specialised vocabulary used by the rogues and vagabonds, known as cant. Harman published this mini-dictionary to familiarise the public with this secret language, thereby destroying its purpose and power. 

While the rogues in The Alchemist do not use criminal cant, they do, however, exploit language to con their victims. The con artists’ use of technical alchemical language

not only convinces the gulls, it also allows them to communicate privately in front of their victims. Surly, the sceptic, recognises this when he says: ‘what a brave language here is, next to canting!’ [2.3.42]

What is ‘rogue literature’?

Rogue literature was printed in pamphlet form, which was quick and inexpensive to produce. The stories were shocking or sensational, and appealed to a broad readership. In this way, pamphlets were an Elizabethan equivalent of modern tabloid newspapers.

A Caveat is remarkable for its era because of Harman’s use of investigative techniques, including interview-style transcripts of his conversations with beggars. However, the extent to which Harman is providing a fair or truthful representation of early modern poverty has been widely debated by critics. The present theory is that while the pamphlet has its roots in fact, Harman exaggerates and invents to create a compelling read for his audience.

Full title:
A Caueat or Warening for Commen Cursetors vulgarely called Vagabones, set forth by Thomas Harman, Esquiere, for the vtilite and proffyt of his naturall Cuntrey. Augmented and inlarged by the fyrst author here of. Anno Domini. M.D.LXVII. [With woodcuts.] B.L. [1567]
1567, London
Book / Quarto / Woodcut / Illustration / Image
Thomas Harman
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library

Full catalogue details

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