Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles




Deviance and Power in Late Medieval London

Frank Rexroth

(Translated by Pamela Selwyn)

Past and Present Publications. Cambridge: University Press, 2007

Cloth. xii-411pages. ISBN 978-0521847308. £73.00


Reviewed by Ian W. Archer

Keble College, Oxford



It is always a sobering experience for an early modernist such as myself to venture backwards from familiar territory into the later middle ages. In reading Rexroth’s fascinating book one encounters many features often alleged to be novelties in the sixteenth century: the construction of an imagined underworld, sometimes ascribed to the 1590s but here apparently emerging in the crisis years of 1338-45; the emergence of binary classifications of the poor, often seen as a hallmark of the constructions of poverty in the Tudor poor laws, but here seen as developing in the crisis of labour relations after the Black Death; the close involvement of the urban magistracy in the treatment of illicit sexuality, sometimes regarded as a novelty in the sixteenth century, but here clearly present in a raft of proclamations and disciplinary actions centring on the bawds and procurers who were central to the authorities’ understanding of the underworld; and a tendency for moral entrepreneurs to seek legitimation in religious arguments, often seen as characteristic of Puritan sensibilities, but here evident in the rhetoric of civic moralism. It is a salutary experience, reminding us of the degree to which the institutional divisions between medievalists and early modernists still act as a barrier to our understanding of the processes of change.

Of course in ascribing such importance to the years 1338-45 Rexroth runs the risk of creating his own illusionary paradigm shifting ‘historical moment’. He claims that it is around this time when faced by threats of invasion and domestic dissent that urban authorities, responding to Edward III’s insistence on their responsibility for maintaining the king’s peace, developed the notion of a subversive counter-society operating within their midst. It was characterised by its aggressiveness, its illicit sexuality, and its lack of gainful employment. Beggars and sexual deviants offended against the ideals of purity and transparency (the latter defined as the sense that ‘a thing or transaction should be what it seems to be, and seem to be what it is’ [97]) which he sees as critical to the authorities’ world view.

It is hard of course to claim that concern with urban undesirables of this kind was wholly new, but Rexroth claims that what was novel was the emphasis on the integration of the underworld, on what he calls its infrastructure. This latter point is rather important, but remains somewhat underdeveloped in the argument: he emphasises the concern with the buildings (e.g. brothels and hostelries) in which criminals operated, but readers might be forgiven for expecting rather more from an integrated underworld, imagined or not, and surely some comparison with the rogue literature of the 1590s would have clarified the concept. This is not to deny that something significant was happening in the early years of the Hundred Years’ War, for Rexroth also makes it clear that there were important developments in policing as the ward beadles assumed a more prominent role, and as the wardmotes were placed more firmly under the authority of the mayor and sheriffs. But, as Martin Ingram has suggested, it may be better to think of the chronology of moral regulation in terms of ‘pulses’ of concern, where various concatenations of circumstances, whether economic, religious, political or personal, might produce particularly intense campaigns. Indeed the book demonstrates clearly that the 1380s were another such period where John of Northampton’s controversial mayoralty (1381-3) set new standards for the regulation of sexuality.

Establishing a precise chronology is rendered difficult however by the relative lack of evidence. An early modernist is struck by the relatively low numbers involved. So, an element in the case for Northampton’s moral rigorism is the fact that whereas only two to four persons per annum were pilloried in the preceding period, in the first year of his mayoralty the figure rises to sixteen. But it’s not clear to an outsider whether the plea and memoranda rolls (Rexroth’s underlying source here) can be taken as capturing all such sentences. I think we need a clearer sense of what the limits of the survival of records are. Although the discussion of policing is exemplary (the notion of the beadle as a ‘walking archive’ is arresting), his discussion of the city’s judicial processes is patchy. While there is an interesting treatment of the relations between the church courts and the secular authorities, there is little sense of the jurisdictional complexities of prosecution in the capital, which has implications for the ‘representativeness’ or completeness of any body of materials from which the historian draws data.

That is perhaps an unfair complaint, because Rexroth’s argument does not depend primarily on statistics. He is much more interested in the ways in which criminality was discussed and understood by the authorities, and here his sensitivity to language yields high dividends. Although he eschews the labelling theory favoured by Paul Griffiths in his book Lost Londons: Change, Crime, and Control in the Capital City, 1550–1660 (2008), the two works invite comparison for they share a concern with the means by which contemporaries categorised deviancy. He shows how the underworld was particularly associated with nocturnal activities, his ‘noctivagantes’ being the precursors of Griffiths’ ‘nightwalkers’. He argues that the category of the sturdy beggar became associated with labourers and servants refusing to work; wandering was associated with idleness by the 1440s. He also demonstrates how the authorities tended to merge categories of offence, reinforcing the connections between illicit sexuality, begging, and disorderliness. This was informed by but also reinforced the stereotypes of the nocturnal underworld of unpredictably aggressive and licentious persons who disturbed the king’s peace.

Rexroth is at pains to stress that the underworld was a projection of the ‘urban imaginary’, though this does beg questions about what exactly the realities of crime were. Although the evidence is thin by comparison with later periods, I would have preferred some teasing out of its implications, because the problem with the repeated references to the underworld is that they run the risk of making one begin to believe in the elite’s fantasies. Moreover, one suspects that the terms of the elite’s discourse of criminality were not fully accepted among the city’s inhabitants, for too many of the denizens of this underworld rubbed shoulders with more respectable society, the establishments they ran being key elements of local economic life and sociability. Griffiths’ model of the ‘overlapping circles’ of criminality and respectability, with the implication that these notions were contested, is more helpful than Rexroth’s suggestion that the notion of an underworld was internalised by the wider citizenry.

It is a great boon that the author appends a series of key documents, but what a pity that there is no subject index. It has been translated from the original German monograph Das Milieu der Nacht: Obrigkeit und Randgruppen im spätmittelalterlichen London (1999), and the job has been well done. Just occasionally the author’s penchant for sociological jargon alienates, but it is wonderful to have a book which so clearly locates London’s social history in the frameworks of continental scholarship. It stands, among other things, as a rebuke to the parochialism of much Anglophone practice!




Cercles © 2011
All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.