Masterless Men and Vagabond Roguery

Beggar 240px-Bellange_beggarBy James Horrox

The figure of the uprooted wanderer has provoked intense fascination throughout modern European history. As shadow figures for the powerful, vagrants, travellers – ‘masterless men’, some were called – have for centuries attracted a stigma consistent with indolence, criminality, blasphemous practices of various kinds, even treason.

Embodying an inversion of the established order, at the head of which was the divinely-installed monarch, for the authorities of Elizabethan England their very existence became a form of lèse-majesté, and hence a sign of disorder in the cosmos. By Tudor times, legislation enacted to extirpate the scourge of itinerancy from the English countryside extended not just to beggars and the ‘idle poor’, but to tinkers, pedlars, unlicensed actors, peripatetic astrologers and those who took to the road in search of work (and from here it is arguably not so far to the precarious world of the contemporary ‘free lance’ – the mercenary soldier of 21st century Western capitalism).

However, historians have often remarked on the sometimes ambiguous attitudes displayed by civilised society towards the wanderer, and in particular on a certain schizophrenia over whether the mobility inherent in their way of life was something to be despised or desired. They have certainly always been cause for concern among the powerful: lack of attachment to any one place made crossing boundaries and transgressing categories part of their nature, enough in itself to cast the itinerant as a threat to the structures of monarchical domination; the figure recalls Edgar as Poor Tom in King Lear, where vagrancy, suffering in body and mind, reversals of fortune, all call into question the supremacy of power.

Equally, it might reasonably be assumed that much of the stigma heaped upon wanderers by people who lived out their entire lives tied to the place they were born reflected a secret envy of the freedom of those perceived to be unburdened by such attachments. As the historian Peter Marshall argues, the impulse to imagine and search for what is not – a kind of ‘utopian’ curiosity – is an inherent part of what makes us human, with us “ever since our ancestors on the African savannah first lifted up their heads and wondered what might be over the horizon or on the other side of the mountain range”. It requires no great leap of the imagination to speculate that those who repress this impulse in favour of ‘security’ may come to resent, envy, even fear those who embrace it.

The term ‘security’ in its etymology shows the close link between being “free from care” and “firmly fixed”. From se cura (se “free from” + cura “care”) the term in its double meaning conflates the condition of being safe and free from danger with being fixed, static, bound. The security that comes with rootedness, in other words – to a particular place, employer, patch of land, ideology, whatever – comes at a price. “Free from” and “free to” are two very different things, and as John Lucas points out, one reaction to the unfreedom of one’s own rootedness is to wish it upon others, as “a way of fixing them unproblematically, whether socially or economically, or both.” Hence, officialdom’s traditional response to the menace of ‘masterless men’ has been to attempt to eradicate the possibility of wandering, the rationale behind the various vagrancy laws passed since the early modern period being that all the concerns associated with itinerancy would be eradicated if wanderers could be tied to a place. As Linda Woodbridge puts it: “a centre was needed, a home to which to return: legislation specified that vagrants be sent back to their home parishes”.

There is something of Dionysus that resonates in all this. Known as ‘He who comes and goes’, because of the suddenness of his epiphany and disappearance, as a wanderer across borders of cities and countries Dionysus aroused suspicion and mistrust wherever he went. According to the legend, when the god returns from his wanderings to Thebes, the city of his birth, accompanied by a cohort of rowdy followers, the Theban king, Pentheus, infuriated by the citizens’ worship of Dionysus, orders him and his entourage to be thrown into prison. The chains could not hold them however, and Dionysus bursts out of prison and emerges in the city, shaking the buildings to their foundations. Despite warnings from the old prophet Teiresias not to deny Dionysus, Pentheus persists in trying to repress him and his cult, and he pursues his followers up into the hills where he meets a grisly demise at the hands of the maenads and (naturally) his own mother.

The story of Pentheus, who denies Dionysus, the god of joy and ecstasy, preferring to take refuge in the security systems of the state, provides a mythic backdrop to Peter Marshall’s words, suggesting an alternative explanation for the obsession with vagrancy that emerged during the early modern period: namely, that the vagrant presented a deeply pathologised face of a soul which an increasingly iconoclastic age sought at all costs to repress. As against the rewards of fixity, the myriad economic devices deployed against the ‘free lance’ could no doubt be seen, at a push, as contemporary substitutes for the bodily harm meted out against the figure of the wanderer that so troubled Tudor officialdom. But the story of Pentheus’ denial of Dionysus and his subsequent punishment perhaps holds a different message. Perhaps an addiction to that approach to life which favours security in all situations over the freedom to roam can be returned to the pattern of Pentheus-Dionysus. Perhaps self-subjugation to the promise of security, with all the sacrifices it demands, reflects a sickly identification with the mythical king Pentheus, a figure whose very name marks him out for tragedy, and embodies his own fate.

(first published on