An Ungovernable People?

Law and Disorder in Stuart and Hanoverian England.

The history of crime has two spiritual ancestors: one exotic, the other mundane. The former is the literature of crime, the latter the history of the law. The literature of crime exerts an almost universal fascination. Even the most law-abiding citizen seems to derive pleasure from its tales. Whether this enjoyment stems from a vicarious frisson or a feeling of moral superiority, it has kept many an author in pocket and filled many a library shelf. This is not a new phenomenon; fascination with exotic and daring crimes was as prevalent in Stuart and Hanoverian England as it is today. Popular ballads, the broadsheet, 'dying-speeches' of executed felons, compendia of crimes like The Counters Commonwealth of 1617 or of thieves' lives such as Alexander Smith's A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen (1719), together with such low-life novels as Defoe's Moll Flanders, catered to a seemingly inexhaustible appetite for tales of crime and roguery.

Much of this literature is heroic or picaresque. It focuses on such dashing figures as Morgan, the eighteenth-century highwayman, 'a flashy blade' and ladies man, who declared:

I scorn poor people for to rob,
I thought it so my duty;
But when I meet the rich and gay,
On them I make my booty.

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