The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XVI. London and the Development of Popular Literature

§ 24. Thomas Dekker

Apart from his dramatic work, Dekker stands alone in this period. He is remarkable not as a satirist but as the first great literary artist of London street life. He discovered how to describe the city populace as a whole in its pursuits and agitations; but, as literature had not yet evolved a special medium for this portraiture, his gift finds expression only in a number of erratic and ephemeral tracts. For instance, like other free lances, he seized the obvious opportunity of producing a celebration of Elizabeth’s death and James’s accession. He entitled this tract The Wonderfull Yeare (1603). But the writer’s thoughts are soon drawn from perfunctory adulation to the more suggestive theme of the plague which raged that year in London. We have a picture of Death encamped like an army in the sin-polluted suburbs. Its tents are winding-sheets, its field-marshal the plague, its officers burning fevers, boils, blains and carbuncles; the rank and file consist of mourners, “merrie sextons,” hungry coffin-sellers and “nasty grave-makers”; the two catchpoles are fear and trembling. The invaders storm London, massacring men, women and children, breaking open coffers, rifling houses and ransacking streets. There are passages of almost unparalleled horror describing the rotten coffins filling the streets with stench, or the muckpits full of putrid corpses, among which the worms writhe in swarms. There is originality in this conception of death, but much more in Dekker’s description of the narrow London streets at night time, filled with the groans or raving of sick men, with glimpses of figures stealing out to fetch the sexton or sweating under the load of a corpse which they must hide before “the fatall hand writing of death should seale up their doores.” Then, we watch the stampede into the country, and note the touches of meanness and heroism which a commontion always brings to the surface. The tract ends with the humorous side of the plague, discovered in some witty though rather grim anecdotes, one recounting how the death of a Londoner at a country inn threw the whole village into the most grotesque disorder, until a tinker consented, for a large sum, to bury the corpse.

One of Dekker’s next productions was an attempt—very common in this age—at appealing to the people by a denunciation of sin. He adopted one of their popular allegories and, at the same time, gratified their love of pageantry, in The Seven Deadly Sinnes of London (1606), representing the triumphal entry of these into the capital, each drawn in a symbolic chariot and each welcomed by its special adherents. But all moral or theological sentiment is overshadowed by the fascination of city life. The sins are no longer those of the Roman Catholic church, but such as would strike an observer of street scenes. We have “Politick bankruptisme,” the practice of merchants who pass through the court to avoid paying their debts; “Lying,” which begets the minor cruelties and backslidings of life, notably oaths, which are “crutches upon which lyes go”; “Candle light,” by which London streets are illuminated like a theatre, so that merchants and ’prentices alike are tempted to dissipation and thieving; “Sloth”; “Apishnesse” or dandyism; “Shaving,” or the exaction of undue profits, and “Cruelty,” which is rampant in extortionate prisons, among exorbitant creditors, merchants who take trade from their own ’prentices, relatives who abandon their own kith and kin in plague-time, and fathers who force their daughters to uncongenial marriages. While there is nothing profound or new in this view of London life, the booklet abounds in good humour and felicitous conceits. Above all, we have graphic views of the city, both in the hurry and rush of midday traffic, and glimmering with its taverns and gloaming alleys in the night-time.

The Seven Deadly Sinnes was a brilliant development of the theme revived by Nashe and the author of Tom Tel-Troths Message and his pens Complaint (1600). In the same year, Dekker borrowed another idea from Pierce Penilesse. Nashe, in his second edition, had promised to describe the return of the knight of the post from hell. The hint was taken by “an intimate and near companion,” who produced an eminently insipid pamphlet in 1606. Dekker followed this, in the same year, with Newes from Hell, brought by the Divells Carrier. Again we see the skilful adaptation of an ancient form of thought. Visions of heaven, purgatory and hell had originated in paganism, had flourished all through the Middle Ages in a Christian form and still retained their popularity. Caxton had printed an English version of Deguileville’s Pilgrimage of the Soul and Machlinia had revived the Monk of Evesham. The Kalendrier des Bergers, which contained a description of the punishments of the seven sins as revealed to Lazarus, was frequently translated during the sixteenth century. Ford, the dramatist, in one of his plays, introduces a friar who gives a gruesome account of the tortures of hell, and The Dead Man’s Song treats the same subject in a broadside. “St. Patrick’s Purgatory” was famous all through the sixteenth century, thanks to the disseminating influence of printing; and Calderon, in the seventeenth, made it the subject of one of his dramas. Burlesque versions of visions had existed since Old English times, and continued through popular literature from the Norman fabliaux to Rabelais. After the reformation, these legends, like the sins, lost their theological significance, but the people were still medieval at heart, and literary free-lances were only too glad to avail themselves of the spell which visions still exercised over the popular imagination. Before 1590, some nameless writer represented the famous Tarlton giving his impressions of purgatory, and, in this form, conveyed social satire as well as a collection of good stories. Tom Tell-Trothe’s New-yeares Gift (1593) contains Robin Goodfellow’s account of a visit to hell, and reproduces an oration against jealousy which he heard in those regions. In Dekker’s Newes from Hell, we have a booklet full of brilliant descriptions. The messenger starts for the nether world through France and Venice, stopping only in London, where dissipated youths call wildly to him through tavern windows, and he hears one spend-thrift, in a fit of inebriated veracity, curse the wealthy merchant, his father, who left him money to waste. In hell, he finds the sessions in progress and dead souls being tried by a jury of their own sins. Before leaving, he catches sight of several familiar types of London street life; notably a hollow-eyed, wizened, old usurer, who offers to accept “any base drudgery” if he can create an opportunity for making money. The tract also illustrates the intellectual exuberance of the age, which, even in burlesque, assimilated the imagery and sentiment of different ages and civilisations. Lucian, in Menippus, had pictured a visit to the nether world, which Dekker had certainly read in John Rastell’s translation and travestied in his own fashion. But the place of torment—hideous, inaccessible, pestilential with “rotten vapors,” crawling toads and sulphurous stench—is still medieval and the caricature of the devil reflects the ribaldry of the fifteenth century. In the following year, Dekker added a view of Elysium and the description of a thunderstorm, caused by the conjurations performed to summon up the knight of the post. On the strength of these additions, the pamphlet was issued as a new publication entitled A Knight’s Conjuring.

It is not surprising that a pamphleteer, with Dekker’s curiosity about life and his gift of realistic description should publish some tracts on roguery, and, in 1608, he produced The Belman of London, using the same material as his predecessors. In some respects, the pamphlet is disappointing; it lacks the type of anecdote which is attractive in Greene’s work, and the character drawing which enlivens the Knights of the Post. But the setting has all Dekker’s charm. The title suggests a picture of city life; but the scene opens in the country, where the author, after wandering among the serene pleasures of nature, finds himself in a disreputable farm-house, concealed in a gallery, watching a ragged gang of diseased and misshapen vagabonds devour like savages a steaming feast and initiate new members to their fraternity. The squalor and wretchedness of these outcasts being thus heightened by contrast, Dekker proceeds to tell us, as Harman had done, of their orders, classes and practices. But the account must be made attractive: so it is given by a “nymble-tongd beldam, who seemed to have command of the place,” under the influence of a pot of ale. We then accompany the author back to London and, entering the city at midnight, at last encounter the bellman, whose bell and voice are heard echoing along the shadowy silent streets. This picturesque figure introduces an account of card-sharping, shop-lifting and pocket-picking. The exposure is straightforward and commonplace, but the style is embroidered with quaint and elaborate conceits. The pamphlet enjoyed immediate recognition and, according to Dekker, was plagiarised by The Belman’s Brother. Probably to anticipate further imitation, Dekker produced in the same year a sequel: Lanthorne and Candle-light or the Bell-Mans second Nights-walke, in which, after a number of picturesque episodes, the devil decides to make a visit to London. We accompany him on his rounds and see how “Gul-gropers” cozen young heirs out of their acres by usury, cards and dice; how “Fawlconers” extract gratuities from country knights in return for a counterfeit dedication in a pamphlet; how “Ranckriders,” posing as gentlemen, take up residence at an inn and, when a fictitious summons arrives from a nobleman, borrow one of the landlord’s horses and do not return: how a “Jacke in a boxe” borrows silver on a money-box full of gold, for which is afterwards cleverly substituted one of similar exterior but very different contents. But these are no longer mysterious deceptions which only a specialist can detect. Exposures of villany were becoming more and more exposures of human nature; they appeal to a curiosity about life rather than to the instinct of self – defence. The best passage in the book reveals, not an elaborate fraud which only technical knowledge could unmask, but the picture of an ostler slinking half clothed at dead of night into the stable to steal a horse’s provender.