a colored picture of Frederick Walker's painting named The Vagrants who are sittin around the fire in the meadow

Criminalizing Vagrancy and its Representation in Rogue Literature

Masterless people, paupers, tramps, rogues, rascals, itinerants, the homeless, vagrants, vagabonds and many more labelled groups of people or individuals as such. All these legalized categories refer to the people who are criminalized because of the way they live, not what they do. From the medieval period to the 20th century, vagrants or vagabonds were major targets since they were posing a threat to social norms and moral order. Through the enactment of laws, known as Vagrancy Acts, the authorities tried to put these groups and individuals under control.

Vagabonds referred to idle people who wandered aimlessly without a job or salary. These groups included itinerant soldiers, petty criminals, entertainers, and disorderly people. In other terms, non-normative bodies and people who wandered in an unregulated manner were labelled as vagrants. And they were condemned for being the way they were. Even though they didn’t commit any crime, they were treated as if they were part of criminal organizations.

Local authorities, the laws and the judiciary system were all alarmed at the presence of these people and felt threatened by their mere existence and aimless strolling. Thus, they took a stance against them and targeted them as a socio-political problem, which they tried to solve through penalties, corporeal punishment and laws. These laws functioned to turn them into useful citizens rather than solving their problems. Throughout the article, I will be looking at vagrancy through different mediums. I will focus on law, literature and cinema to see the representations of idle people in different contexts.

a colored picture of a painting named Pass Room at Bridewell which is used as a 7 day prison for the paupers
image source: wikipedia.org

Etymology of Vagrant and Vagrancy:

First, we can start by taking a look at the origin of the words vagrant and vagrancy. According to the Oxford etymology dictionary, vagrant refers to a “person who lacks regular employment, one without a fixed abode, a tramp,” while vagrancy stems from the Latin word vagary, meaning “wander, stroll about, roam, be unsettled, spread abroad”. It shares the same root word with “vague”, which means” strolling, wandering, rambling,” figuratively “vacillating, uncertain”. This might suggest that the non-determinative state of idle people, oscillating between a citizen and an outcast, makes them a vague figure in society.

How did vagrancy become such a big problem?

The factors like wars, plague, growth of the population, bad harvests, dissolution of churches, immigration, and poverty all played a role. Even though poverty was always a problem, in Christianity, Islam and Judaism, it was always a duty to help the poor and give alms. Unfortunately, with the changes in economic conditions, things shifted.

In the 14thcentury, the black death was a nightmare in Europe. It increased the demand and wages to such a level that the rich wouldn’t be able to meet the demand. Through the enactment of new laws, the farmers were forced to accept lower wages and not to go to the urban cities (Ocobock 6). In the beginning, the aim of the laws was to restrict migration and to protect the elite.

The second wave of poverty had come again because the population was growing. Plus, there were not enough jobs and wages. In the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, many soldiers were returning home, jobless, penniless, so they were put into the same category as the vagrants. As mentioned, the church used to help the poor, give alms as part of the charity system. Unfortunately, the church also was not able to manage the growing needs of the poor anymore. Therefore, the whole picture of the management system changed. New laws were enacted. The only help would be given to the deserving poor, which was the new category authorities came up with.

a black and white picture of a vagrant being whipped publicly in 16th century England's streets
image credit: intriguing-history.com

Vagrancy Acts

Vagrancy Acts were formed to restrict unregulated mobility and put idle people under surveillance. They were imposed in different years and modified in time.

1494 Act:

“1494 Act Against Vagabonds and Beggar” stated:

“Vagabonds, idle and suspected persons shall be set in the stocks for three days and three nights and have none other sustenance but bread and water and then shall be put out of Town. Every beggar suitable to work shall resort to the Hundred where he last dwelled, is best known, or was born and there remain upon the pain aforesaid.”

1531 Act:

According to this act, the punishments were much harsher. The vagrants were being whipped in the streets.  It was a public spectacle to intimidate others. Also, this act distinguished between the impotent poor and the deserving poor. The aged, sick and disorderly were in the former group and got a licence to beg.

1572 Act:

Known as “An Act for the Punishment of Vagabonds, and for the Relief of the Poor and Impotent”, 1572 act states: “That all persons above the age of fourteen years, hereafter set forth by this Act of Parliament to be rogues, vagabonds or sturdy beggars and … taken begging in any part of this realm, or taken vagrant wandering and misordering themselves contrary to the purpose of this present Act of Parliament.”

In the continuation, it also states” judgment shall also presently be executed, except some honest person, valued at the last subsidy next before that time to £5 in goods or 20s in lands, or else some such honest householder as by the justices of peace … shall be allowed, will of his charity be contented presently to take such offender … into his service for one whole year next following; … and if such rogue or vagabond so taken into service depart within the said year from the said service against the will of him that so taketh him or her in service, that then such rogue or vagabond shall be whipped and burnt … as is aforesaid.”

In short, it required the vagabonds to be given as slaves to landowners.. They had to work for reliable citizens at least for one year. If they disobeyed, they would be punished and burned through the ear.

The Poor Relief Act 1601 or Elizabethan Poor Law:

With Poor Relief Acts, vagrancy was categorized and divided into groups dependent on the individuals’ capacity to work. First, there was the able-bodied poor, which referred to ones who could work but chose not to. The second category was the undeserving poor, which included the disorderly, the aged, and the sick. Lastly, the third one referred to rogues and vagrants with incorrigible behaviour. They were supposed to be sent to a prison or a house of correction.

Other solutions 

Transportation of the vagrants to the colonies was another solution. In the colonies, they were given jobs, husbands/ wives to turn into settled citizens. Paul Ocobock states that this was especially practised by Portugal and England: “In Portugal, criminals, vagrants, orphans, women of ill were rounded up, sentenced to exile, and transported to colonies like Brazil and Goa” (12).

Additionally, these laws in the 19th and 20th centuries were transported to the colonial states in Africa and applied there too. The number and variety of institutions such as hospitals, workhouses, and prisons increased.

Rogue literaturea black and white picture of a page on which there is a rabbit, from a coney-catching pamphlet

Literary works became the accomplices of the stigmatization of idle bodies. They played an important role in the construction of the vagrancy threat, and the vagrants’ association with scam- artists. In the 16th and 17th centuries in England, rogue literature was very popular. It tells stories about the world of thieves and other criminals, written in a confessional form with lively descriptions of the everyday lives of ordinary people. To put it differently, it was a reflection upon the Elizabethan underworld. Thomas Harman, Thomas Dekker and Robert Greene were some of the famous writers of rogue literature. Greene was especially well-known for his cony-catching pamphlets.

John Awdeley’s The Fraternity of Vagabonds (1561),  Thomas Harman’s A Caveat for Common Cursitors vulgarly Called Vagabonds (1566), Thomas Dekker’s Lantern and Candle-light are some of the examples from rogue literature. Modern scholarship accepts these underworld representations as at least partly fictional (Boecker 99). In Vagrancy, Homelessness, and English Renaissance Literature, Linda Woodbridge offers a deep analysis of idle bodies and their representation in literary works.

Tom o’Bedlam

For the Elizabethans, Tom o’Bedlam was a con man, a character or a stereotype rogue pamphlets referred to very frequently. We can come across this name even in Shakespeare’s plays.  For instance, in King Lear, Edgar disguises himself as the mad Tom o’Bedlam. Thus, it is a term used in Early modern Britain to refer to the vagrants and beggars who pretended as if they had mental illness.  The background story for this figure actually comes from an anonymous poem, whose speaker is a Bedlamite. And Bedlamite refers to someone who stayed in a mental hospital called Bedlam located in London.

Foucault’s Discipline and Punish:

In this book, Foucault discusses the spectacle of the body as the corpse of punishment and how penalties change through technological surveillance on society. The first part of the novel, which bases the arguments on the spectacle of the body, relates to the vagrants as well, who were whipped  and physically tortured publicly. From there, Foucault starts to build his arguments on the birth of the prison, and the new power system functioning like a network system.

He also proposes arguments about 19th century literary works. However, his take-on states that literary works actually made heroes out of criminals.

a colored picture of a scene from a movie called the Vagabond, in the scene a girl is walking with a rucksack, near the ocean
Vagabond (1985)
image source: panodyssey.com

Vagabonds in cinematic expressions

In addition to literature, the concept of the vagabond is also interpreted by cinematic gazes. Agnes Varda’s Vagabond and Fellini’s La Strada are two examples of the cinematic reflections of the vagabond.

Vagabond (1985) by avant-garde director Agnes Varda

The documentary-like and experimental style of Agnes Varda, this time, records the journey of a vagabond. The original name of the movie, “Sans toit ni loi”, translates as neither shelter nor law. The movie builds upon the interviews with the people who helped the vagabond, gave her a job or a place to stay. Her struggles to survive, others’ treatment of her as an outcast because she doesn’t really want to do anything can be the major concerns of the film.

Fellini’s La Strada (1954)

La Strada is another heart-breaking film, which tells the story of Italian vagrants, performers and disoriented figures. The plot is about a girl called Gelsomina who becomes an apprentice to a circus performer named Zampana. Out of poverty, the mother sells her daughter to this brutal man. She starts working for him and develops a bond, which will drive Gelsomina towards her death eventually. On their journey together, after being kicked out of the circus, they go through hard times. They seek help from the nuns, who give them food and a place to stay.

As an example of Italian neorealism, it is a look at street life, a circus and ordinary people. It is about sharing, even if it is food, shelter or music and entertainment, which either bond or separate the characters.

a colored picture of a homeless man or vagrant trying to sleep in the sitting position due to anti- homeless architecture design
image source:bbc.com

Vagrancy in today’s world

The laws of vagrancy are still being critiqued highly because they don’t offer a solution except criminalizing the poor. They actually try to make the problem invisible. The streets are still open shelter to many homeless people, and it is still an offence to beg and sleep rough. Homeless people and rough sleeping are unwanted scenes in the streets. The solution is “defensive architecture”.

The anti-homeless street architecture is as unwelcoming as the laws. Slanted benches, curved benches, solid dividers on benches, pavement sprinklers and spikes don urban spaces. Their mere function is to prevent the homeless from sleeping publicly.  This city planning does show what Foucault might be referring to in Discipline and Punish. To be more explicit, the methods to control the body have changed shape. There is no more whipping or making the body a public spectacle. Rather, for instance, in this case,  architectural design plays its role in making the idle body disappear from the streets.

Anti-homeless street architecture as an art project

Anti-homeless architecture design has been an influence on art projects as well. For instance, Nils Norman, whose interests lie in urban planning and public art, has projects challenging mainstream urban planning. One of these projects is his photography collection, which documents the anti-homeless or defensive urban architecture.  These photographs and the reality that it shows raises social awareness.

Socio-political significance of vagrancy

Vagrancy was a category that legitimatized the exclusion of a certain group of people from sympathy or any sort of assistance by norm-obedient citizens, judiciary services and government. It was an invented crime by Europe. Vagrants or vagabonds were chosen as scapegoats to prevent settled people from living idly, to produce functioning citizens.

The corpus of work on vagrancy and vagabondage helps us to understand the body on the move as a socio-political context and its exclusion from citizenship rights when it is non-usable to the government and society. It is important to understand where these acts come from and how a state of being is challenged. It still remains a big issue that seeks immense consideration. Even though urban street architecture might try to make them invisible, the problem is still part of our lives.



Beier, A.L, Ocobock, Paul,eds. Cast Out: Vagrancy and Homelessness in Global and Historical Perspective. Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2008.

Boecker, Bettina. “Falsehood, Fact and Fiction in Early Modern Rogue Literature: Robert Greene’s Cony-catching Pamplets.” Poetica, vol.41, No.1/2, 2009, pp.97-125. JSTOR.

Foucault, Michael. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Random House, 1978.

Woodbridge, Linda. Vagrancy, Homelessness, and English Renaissance Literature. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1945.

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