Reviews and Critiques by Rictor Norton

Den of Thieves

A review of The Elizabethan Underworld
by Gamini Salgado (J.M. Dent, 1977)

London must certainly be the historian's dream, with its inexhaustible echoes of the past, hardly diminished by the fact that the site of Bedlan, for example, is now occupied by the Liverpool Street underground station. The areas around Aldersgate, Cripplegate, Moorgate, Bishopsgate and Aldgate are no longer so lively, noisy or smelly as they once were, but the street plans remain virtually unchanged, and one can still trace the steps of celebrated highwaymen and notorious bawds.

Gamini Salgado's study of the Elizabethan underworld is a fine companion volume to E.J. Burford's The Orrible Synne (reviewed in Gay News issue 123), though his style is more 'popular' than erudite and antiquarian. It has a great many more illustrations, which provide half the fun, and covers a far wider field, from brothels to fairs, from dice-playing to gypsies, thus enabling one to place the underworld of sex in its broader context.

It's also a good supplement to Burford because Salgado depends heavily upon contemporary creative literature, such as the plays and pamphlets and novels of Thomas Nashe, Ben Jonson, Richard Greene, and more abstruse works such as Dekker's Lanthorn and Candlelight and Harman's Caveat for Common Cursitors or Awdeley's Fraternity of Vagebonds. I find it distressing, however, that Salgado (like many another historian) has not discovered any homosexual fraternity amongst the Elizabethan underworld or any of its subcultures.

The only passage in the book that is remotey relevant to gayness is a brief biography of Moll Cutpurse, Mary Frith, alias the Roaring Girl, 'a notorious baggage that used to go in man's apparel, and challenged the field of diverse gallants' according to a contemporary. 'A very tom-rig or rumpscuttle she was, and delighted and sported only in boys' play and pastime . . ., she could not endure the sedentary life of sewing or stitching' and instead engaged in a wide variety of lucrative and unlawful pursuits, including singing bawdy songs at the theatre. Unfortunately we do not know if the 'rude inclinations' of this female Falstaff included, as did Falstaff's, an occasional fancy for the same sex.

Withal a very lively, informative and entertaining account of such diverse topics as Bartholomew Faire, Paul's Walk (the central aisle of the old cathedral where thieves met to exchange goods and fleece the gallant strollers), prison conditions in Bridewell, jugglers, balladeers, astrologers, alchemists, witches, pickpockets and miscellaneous rogues. Salgado appends a most useful glossary of underworld slang (in which queer = bad, paltry, queer-bird = jail-bird, Queer-cuffin = Justice of the Peace, queer-ken = prison – though the links with the modern gay meaning are not established).

(This review was originally published in Gay News, Issue No. 126, 1977, p. 27. Copyright Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.

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