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

§ 25. Grobianism

It has already been shown how young men of wealth or birth were attracted to London by the hope of advancing their fortunes or of gaining experience. This class formed a new order in society, without traditions, recognised status or code of manners. No aggregate of human beings, with the possible exception of rogues and vagabonds, seems to have attracted so much attention. Sir Humphrey Gilbert had suggested the organisation of a gentleman’s university, devoted to the cultivation of refined manners and courtly accomplishments; the essayists had given much attention to the pursuits of monied youth; Peacham wrote a whole book on the subject; and, by 1633, Milton had constructed a complete scheme of education, which should combine the soldier’s, courtier’s, and scholar’s training all in one. But, at present, the playhouses, drinking taverns and ordinaries of London were filled with inexperienced boys, who had been taught something of their duty to their king and country, but no other rules of deportment in these novel situations than resenting an insult and holding their own with their equals. New conventionalities had not yet been evolved to meet new conditions, and public opinion was content to condemn them as gulls, roaring boys, coxcombs, wood-cocks, cockneys and popinjays. Social pamphleteers had satirised them again and again; and Dekker, while engaged on a translation of Dedekind’s Grobianus, conceived the idea of turning the German’s old-fashioned satire on the boorishness suggestive of an Eulenspiegel into a pasquil on the modern English type. Following his model, he produced an ironical book of manners, entitled The Guls Hornebooke (1609), which begins by closely following the original, but gradually develops into an independent work.

The booklet surpasses other attacks on the gallants and fops of the age, because Dekker has penetrated beneath their conduct so as to satirise their motives. We see that the Jacobean gull’s irresponsible actions are entirely dominated by the desire to assert his personality, and these efforts rendered odious by lack of breeding and vulgarity of surroundings. Dekker sarcastically explains to the gull how this ambition can be realised by his making himself offensively conspicuous at places of public resort. Incidentally, we accompany the young man of leisure through a typical day’s occupations, from the business of dressing to the stroll in St. Paul’s; thence to the “ordinary” for the midday meal; then to the play-house, followed by the tavern and the nocturnal prowl through the city. The book had no great sale, because the scenes were too familiar, and the invective too mild; but, for the modern student, no better picture can be found of Jacobean London, with its literary cliques, its publicity and the scope it gave to the free play of personality.

The public’s insatiable demand for novelty reduced professional free-lances to the most amazing shifts to win popularity. In this respect, Dekker’s A strange Horse Race (1613) is an almost unique production. He begins with an account of Roman “pageants” (that is, gladiatorial displays), dwelling particularly on the quips and jeers with which the populace greeted the hero of a triumph. These anecdotes introduce a popular encyclopaedia, in which the knowledge of the day is vulgarised under the attractive conceit of a race. Astronomy is taught under the guise of races of the heavenly bodies, and physiology as the races in a man’s body, earth, water, air and fire all competing. Then there are races of minerals; lead striving to overtake tin, tin silver and silver gold, which is the victorious metal, “the eldest child of the sun.” From the physical, he turns to the moral, world. Once more, we have a pageant of the vices and virtues, but still in the form of a race. The vices of an enriched bourgeoisie are pitted against the old-fashioned virtues of modesty and contentment. Among others, Blasphemous Insolency challenges Innocent Humility; the temperate Spaniard races the English drunkard; epicures run from a “cry of sergeants”; the lawyer from his own conscience; the vicar for four benefices, which he wants to enjoy at the same time; and the tailor vainly strives to keep up with Pride. As practically all the vices are beaten, the devil, out of chagrin, falls so sick that he makes a will after the manner of the sixteenth century mock Testaments.