Vagrancy, Homelessness, and English Renaissance Literature
Thanks to cony-catching pamphlets and other rogue literature, the vagrant poor of Renaissance England have acquired a patina of comic good humor and a reputation as sturdy rogues who were adept at living on the fringes of society. Unearthing the sources as well as the effects of this reputation, Linda Woodbridge shows that the prevailing image of the vagrant poor was essentially a literary fabrication pressed into the service of specific social and political agendas. Looking at texts such as Thomas Harman's influential Caveat for Common Cursetors, Vulgarly Called Vagabonds, Till Eulenspiegel's A Man Called Howlglas, and Walter Smith's Twelve Merry Jests of the Widow Edith, Woodbridge identifies a well-established literary tradition of treating vagrants as comic figures. This literary practice, she maintains, has informed both the legal and the historical treatment of vagrancy, erasing pity and compassion for the homeless by depicting them as robust, resourceful, conniving tricksters. Her study culminates in a close look at one literary work that does invoke compassion for the homeless, placeless poor: Shakespeare's King Lear. powerful to promote causes as diverse as humanism, bureaucratic centralization, and the Reformation. She suggests that literary images of the vagrant poor influenced the Poor Laws in England, laws that carefully distinguished between the deserving, domiciled poor, who were to benefit from charity, and the undeserving, vagrant poor, who were to be treated with scorn and suspicion as loafers feigning poverty and affliction. Woodbridge also examines political and philosophical tracts that incorporated the romanticized language of rogue literature and looks at social changes, such as a new emphasis on domestic space and privacy, that left the houseless even further out in the cold. Tracing the conversion of harmless fiction into powerful fact, Vagrancy, Homelessness, and English Renaissance Literature offers a sobering commentary on a view of the homeless that has become our legacy.
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