A complete picture of early modern crime and the underworld is very difficult to achieve. The changing definitions of crime and what constituted criminal—rather than merely deviant—behaviour provides just one among many obstacles with which the historian of crime is faced. The history of crime falls under two main umbrellas of historical enquiry: legal history and social history; historians have frequently attempted some amalgamation of the two. The methodological debate concerning which is the better tool of investigation—quantitative or qualitative based research—still rages on, but this is, of course, necessarily dependant on the line of questions which are being pursued. Of particular difficulty in any study of criminal activity, regardless of time period, is the ever-present ‘dark figure’ of crime: that unknown quantity of criminal activity which occurred but was never discovered or never prosecuted. The evidence that does exist comes from those cases where a defendant was brought before the authorities to answer a case of wrong-doing, and this might represent only a small portion of the totality of people committing felonies and misdemeanours.
Historians of the early modern period, particularly the seventeenth century, are further impeded by locating extant court records. In many cases the survival of court records at all levels of the legal system are scanty and sporadic. Moreover, following the outbreak of the Civil Wars in the 1630/40s local secular and ecclesiastical courts were barred from sitting, leaving an enormous gap in the records from roughly 1643-1660. Some Constable accounts books have survived from this period, in the North Midlands at least, but these were less concerned with criminal matters as they were with the levying and collecting of taxes. The Star Chamber Court was forcibly closed and abolished in 1641 never to be reopened. My point being that our knowledge of early modern criminal activity is, and will always be, incomplete.
Of course, not all histories of crime are focused on the criminal courts and historians have supplemented their research with examinations of the passing of Acts and Bills, the contemporary accounts of social commentators in pamphlets, sermons and essays, and the popular perceptions of crime in sources such as broadside ballads and woodcuts. But again these types of source material provide their own respective problems when examining criminal history. Here, though, I do not want to get bogged down with a blow-by-blow critique of differing types of source material. What I aim to do is ask the burning question – what is a conny-catcher?
The OED accredits Robert Greene with coining the phrase ‘conny-catching’ with the earliest recorded use in 1591. Greene’s first pamphlet on ‘conny-catching’ was entitled A Notable Discovery of Coosenage, now daily practised by Sundry lewd persons, called Connie-catchers and Cross-byters, and it was printed to be sold in London in 1591. This particular pamphlet was shortly followed by a further four known works on the same subject by the same author. In essence a ‘conny-catcher’ was simply a con-artist, a deceiver, and a swindler and this was manifest through a number of crimes particular to the ‘conny-catcher’.
In Greene’s ‘The Second part of Conny-catching’, also published in 1591, he identified seven types of crime that the ‘conny-catcher’ would commit. These being: the black art—which was lock picking; the Vincent law—which was cheating at bowls; the prigging law—which was horse stealing; the courbing law—which was hooking at windows; the lifting law—which was stealing parcels; the foist—or the pickpocket; and the nippe—or the cutpurse. These crimes, which Greene identified as making up the ‘conny-catchers’ criminal repertoire, were all particularly dangerous to the common man and citizen because of their underhand and devious nature. Greene was especially perturbed by the fact that ‘conny-catchers’ could seemingly dupe the most vigilant of people, praying on their good nature or honesty. Greene, and other contemporary commentators, felt that there was a new crime wave upon London’s citizens with a new breed of sly criminal and this idea was hotly pursued by many turn of the century playwrights, such as Shakespeare in both his the Merry Wives of Winsor and the Taming of the Shrew.
The idea of the ‘conny-catcher’, then, captured the imaginations of men and women and in popular culture from the late sixteenth century and for at least the next sixty years or so, when the term seems to vanish from popular use. But what made this image of a criminal type so long-lived and so widely exported, and did it bear any relation on who were perceived to be real criminals? In short, the imagery of the opportune and cunning thief played on the fears and anxieties of ‘respectable’ citizens concerned about the growing number of vagrants and idle poor in seventeenth century society.
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