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«THOMAS DEKKER AND THE SPECTRE OF UNDERWORLD JARGON Abstract My paper seeks to locate Thomas Dekker’s handling of underworld jargon at the interface ...»

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Abhishek Sarkar

Jadavpur University




My paper seeks to locate Thomas Dekker’s handling of underworld jargon at the interface

of oral and literary cultures. The paper briefly looks at a play co-authored by Dekker and

then examines two ‘‘coney-catching pamphlets” by him to see how he tries to appropriate

cant or criminal lingo (necessarily an oral system) as an aesthetic/commercial programme.

In these two tracts (namely, The Bellman of London, 1608; Lantern and Candlelight, 1608) ´ Dekker makes an expose of the jargon used by criminals (with regard to their professional trappings, hierarchies, modus operandi, division of labour) and exploits it as a trope of radical alienation. The elusiveness and ephemerality of the spoken word here reinforce the mobility and deceit culturally associated with the thieves and vagabonds – so that the authorial function of capturing cant (whose revelatory status is insistently sensationalized) through the intrusive technologies of alphabet and print parallels the dominant culture’s project of in-scribing and colonizing its non-conforming other. Using later theorization of orality, the paper will show how the media of writing and print distance the threat inherent in cant and enable its cultural surveillance and aesthetic appraisal.

In a memorable scene of Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker’s play The Roaring Girl; or, Moll Cutpurse (1611), the eponymous protagonist talks in cant (the jargon of the underworld) with two low-life characters named Trapdoor and Tearcat. This is meant to amuse her new upper-class acquaintances – Jack Dapper, Sir Beauteous Ganymede, and Sir Thomas Noland. The character was based on the real-life, contemporary figure of Mary Frith (c. 1584–1659) who donned male garb and managed a racket of thieves and prostitutes in London. The play projects her as endorsing and safeguarding the hegemonic norms of class, gender, and sexuality in her own eccentric manner. In the same vein, her agency neutralizes the menace of cant within the fictional economy of the play and converts it into a device for entertainment. Hence her rendition of a canting song (10.221–34) is one of the thematic high points of the play.1 The play at this point registers the pull of two conflicting forces (both of which are symbolized by cant) – the deviousness of the criminal milieu on the one hand and the attractiveness of their way of life on the other. The same tension between moralistic distaste and aesthetic engagement informs Thomas Dekker’s own rogue tracts which he used for the play (Stafford 331). A song from Thomas Dekker’s Lantern and Candlelight may be quoted in full, along with the author’s own translation, to show its links with the one

sung by Moll Cutpurse:

The ruffian cly the nab of the Harman beck, If we maund pannam, lap or Ruf- peck Or poplars of yarum. He cuts,‘‘Bing to the Ruffmans!” Or else he swears by the lightmans To put our stamps in the harmans.

The Ruffian cly the ghost of the Harman beck!

If we heave a booth we cly the jerk!

If we Niggle, or mill a bousing Ken, Or nip a bung that has but a win, Or dup the gigger of a Country cofe’s Ken, To the queer cuffin we bing And then to the queer Ken to scour the Cramp-ring, And then to be Trin’d on the Chats, in the lightmans, The Bube and Ruffian cly the Harman beck and Harmans.

Thus Englished.

The Devil take the Constable’s head, If we beg Bacon, Buttermilk or Bread, Or Pottage, ‘‘To the hedge!” he bids us hie, Or swears (by this light) [in] the Stocks we shall lie.

The Devil haunt the Constable’s ghost, If we rob but a Booth, we are whipped at a post If an Alehouse we rob, or be [taken] with a whore, Or cut a purse that has just a penny and no more, Or come but stealing in at a gentleman’s door, To the Justice straight we go, And then to the Jail to be shackled. And so To be hang’d on the gallows [in] th’daytime: the pox And the Devil take the Constable and his Stock. (Lantern and Candlelight, 220–221) Theatre is situated at the intersection of oral and literary, immediate and distanced, embodied and disembodied performances. The boy-actress playing Moll would transmit cant orally to the playgoers, and it would perhaps capture traces of the original oral valences of canting – valences reinforced by the liminality of the theatre and the dubious repute of the acting profession in early modern London. On one level, in Dekker’s rogue tracts (namely, The Bellman of London, and Lantern and Candlelight, which I would like to look at in this essay), the cautionary and authoritarian programme of capturing cant seems to be symbolized by the distancing, de-personalizing medium of the printed word.2 But such a project ultimately becomes an alibi for tapping the carnivalesque potentials of the canting crew.

In The Bellman of London the narrator (identifiable with Dekker himself) visits the countryside and bumps into a conclave of the rogues and beggars of the realm. He spies on the leader of the rogues as the latter instructs a novice.

This is how the narrator comes to learn of the nineteen ranks for men among the regiments of criminals – beginning with uprightmen (truncheon-wielding sturdy beggars), rufflers (defecting soldiers and serving-men), and anglers (rodwielding pilferers), and ending with jackmen (forgers of licences), patricoes (unauthorized priests) and kinchin coes (vagabond boy children). There are further seven ranks for women, from autem morts (married vagabond women), bawdy-baskets (false haberdashers) to kinchin morts (vagabond baby-girls) (The Bellman of London, 82–90; spelling for early modern texts standardized throughout). The hostess of the inn, where the conference takes place, betrays to the narrator greater details about the various rogues (The Bellman of London, 92–112). The narrator runs back to the city in a righteous rage and meets the Bellman, who is a minor keeper of the law guarding the streets at night with a lantern and a bell. The latter supplies more information about thieves and conmen. The Bellman groups the professional usages of ten different types of swindlers under fancy heads. For example, Cheating Law governs dicing, Barnard’s Law governs cards, Vincent’s Law governs bowling, the Black Art governs the picking of locks, and so on (The Bellman of London, 116–161). He further mentions five ingenious stratagems under the canting appellations of horse-coursing, carrying of stones, fawning, foal-taking and spoon-meat (The Bellman of London, 161–167). In each case, he provides the various code words connected with the ploy.

It becomes clear that Dekker’s tract tries to interpellate the canting rogues only as the object of a knowledge system to which their own agency or volition is immaterial. Its intrusive gaze does not try to recuperate the oral practices/traditions in order to empower the marginalized and displaced (as is the central strategy of most post-Enlightenment or identitarian polemics in the present world). Rather, Dekker’s tract seems to revel in the exercise of exposing the counter-culture, which in fact reinforces the stereotypes about it and transfixes it in a perpetual otherness. Cant, because of its purported unintelligibility, becomes a conspicuous marker of exoticism.

In Philip Massinger’s A New Way to Pay Old Debts (first produced in 1625), Wellborn, a prodigal, accuses an alehouse keeper named Tapwell of entertaining ‘‘whores and canters” (1.1.62). One editor of the play has glossed the word ‘‘canter” as signifying just ‘‘criminals.” Likewise, S. R. (probably Samuel Rid) in the pamphlet Martin Markall, The Beadle of Bridewell (1610) asserts, ‘‘If you can cant, you will never work” (394). The critic Bryan Reynolds seconds this sentiment as he opines, ‘‘Essentially, any proficient speaker of cant, regardless of whether he or she had ever perpetrated a crime, was a verifiable member of criminal culture” (89). This substantiates the criminal status of cant as entrenched in the popular imaginary. In the first pamphlet Dekker mentions cant only in passing and implies it to be the specialized jargon of the underworld, but in Lantern and Candlelight he gives it the status of a full-fledged language – thus identifying its speakers as a separate community or even nation. In the opening chapter, which is entirely about cant, he offers an etymology for the word (Lantern and Candlelight, 217), goes on to discuss how a few canting terms are formed (217–218) and then provides a canter’s dictionary (219–220).

In ‘‘O per se —— O,” the author learns from a clapperdudgeon or ‘‘beggar born,” they are sworn never to disclose their skill in canting to any householder, for, if they do so, the other maunderers or ‘‘rogues” mill [i.e., ‘‘kill”] them (286). The pamphlets claim to do a great service by teaching the public to cant, and making sure that people are not duped by the canters.

Thomas Harman, a wealthy Kentish esquire and civic official adopted the same policing regimen in his pioneering cony-catching pamphlet, A Caveat or Warning for Common Cursitors Vulgarly Called Vagabonds (1566). The persona of the bellman, a night-watchman, which is deployed in the two pamphlets by Dekker, emblematizes the policing gaze that the tracts profess to enact – even if the appeal to law is only meant to legitimate the choice of subject whose exoticism and carnivalesque potentials made it lucrative in the popular print market.

As is the case with oral traditions in general, meaning in cant may be seen as context-bound and restricted to the immediate instant of utterance.3 Dekker’s tracts defuse the original purpose of the cryptolect by trying to fix the enunciation independent of context and universalize it. The intervening technologies rob the argot of its indecipherability and secrecy, enable its cultural surveillance, and even exploit it as fodder for the burgeoning print market. The logic underlying the cony-catching pamphlets’ claim to communal service is that cant in its oral avatar is dangerous and avoidable, but through writing and print it can safely warn the public about the dangers embodied by the canting crew. The intervening media of writing and print in fact distance the threat inherent in cant by eliminating/disrupting the original context where it is meant to be embodied by criminals and deployed in criminal performance.

It is by now a post-colonial commonplace that Christian missionaries tried to establish the superiority of their religion to those of several indigenous oral cultures by emphasizing the permanence and tangibility of the printed Word. Comparably, the cony-catching pamphlets capitalize on the technologies of alphabet and print in order to justify their reliability, and, by contrast, mark the oral practice of canting as illegitimate. In the case of cant, the impermanence and elusiveness of the spoken word reinforce the sense of peripateticism and treachery traditionally associated with thieves and vagabonds. The material parameters of orality in point of fact conduce to the clandestine interests of a criminal milieu, because they ensure that for a particular message the originator and the recipient bodily share the same location in time as well as space, and that the message cannot be disclosed without the active volition or knowledge of its bearer. As against this, a written message can travel when its physical substrate (e.g. the MS scroll, the broadsheet, the book bearing the writing) is transmitted through space and time, and it does not require an embodied and conscious human bearer or preserver. As such, the function of recording cant, which is keenly advertised by these pamphlets, tends to allegorize the dominant culture’s project of monitoring and colonizing its non-conforming other.4 However, the translational noise or error attendant upon the project of capturing cant cannot be measured with any degree of certainty. It is also a relevant question, how sincerely the pamphleteers themselves tried to record actual performances of cant. D. F. McKenzie illustrates a classic case of erroneous communication occasioned by the encounter between a literate

culture and a non-literate one:

When one early [English] traveller [in New Zealand] recorded what he thought he heard as the Maori word for a paradise duck, he wrote pooadugghiedigghie (for putangitangi) and for the fantail diggowaghwagh (for piwakawaka), neither of which forms translates visually the aural beauty of the originals. The place-name Hokianga was rendered Showkianga, Sukyanna, Jokeeangar, Chokahanga. Another village, Kerikeri, was heard and rendered as Kiddeekiddee, Muketu as Muckeytoo.

Those spellings are not only aurally inefficient, but to the English eye they appear crude and culturally primitive, thus reinforcing other such attitudes. (191) The canting crew did not form as pristine and unadulterated an oral culture as the Maori before colonization. But canting in the original situation would seek to operate outside the bounds of literacy. It made good sense for the pamphleteers to sensationalize and demonize the canters, perhaps at the cost of authenticity, because it would make them more attractive for the voyeuristic reading public.

Error creeps into the recording of cant through other ways, too. Samuel Rid in Martin Markall directly finds faults with Dekker’s Englishing of cant, denounces his dictionary as outdated, and draws up a new, improved one with about 130 entries. Against the word chates found in Dekker’s dictionary,

he adds the following note:

Here he mistakes both the simple word, because he so found it printed, not knowing the true original thereof, and also in the compound. As for chates it should be cheats, which word is used generally for things, as, Tip me that cheat, give me that thing; so that if you will make a word for the gallows, you must put thereto this word, trining, which signifies hanging; and so trining-cheat is as much to say ‘hanging things,’ or the gallows, and not chates. (407) Needless to say, the originality or authenticity of Dekker’s material hardly bears close and sustained scrutiny. In fact, Bayman (1) holds the entire sub-genre of the cony-catching pamphlet as a fraud that cashed in upon a false alarm for petty mercenary gains.

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