Rogues in Real Life

A plague of rats and other misguided bounties

There’s an oft-quoted passage in Terry Pratchett’s Soul Music illustrating the mentality of Ankh-Morpork and the practical genius (or extremely efficient common sense, if you will) of Lord Vetinari:

“Shortly before the Patrician came to power there was a terrible plague of rats. The city council countered it by offering twenty pence for every rat tail. This did, for a week or two, reduce the number of rats – and then people were suddenly queuing up with tails, the city treasury was being drained, and no one seemed to be doing much work. And there still seemed to be a lot of rats around. Lord Vetinari had listened carefully while the problem was explained, and had solved the thing with one memorable phrase which said a lot about him, about the folly of bounty offers, and about the natural instinct of Ankh-Morporkians in any situation involving money: ‘Tax the rat farms.’”

So this actually happened (minus the taxing) in Vietnam under French colonial rule, aka French Indochina, around 1900. There was an outbreak of the bubonic plague, brought by rats which hopped on the new colonial trade routes along with all the people, and then shacked up in Hanoi’s brand new sewers –  ironically built to improve the city’s hygiene. They found no predators there but plenty of food, so they multiplied like an invasive species. And they carried the plague, to both cities. (Hanoi, in typical colonial fashion, was separated to the “European city”, spacious and luxurious, and the Vietnamese one, with all the overcrowding you expect. But that was only topside: the sewer system ran through the whole city.)

So rats were immediately identified as a lethal threat, and locals were hired for the extremely unpleasant and dangerous task of going through the sewers and killing them. When that wasn’t enough (rats multiply… a lot), someone had a bright idea:

“To fight the infestation citywide, the colonial administration added vigilantes to its team of professional killers. Appealing to both civic duty and to the pocketbook, a one-cent bounty was paid for each rat tail brought to the authorities (it was decided that the handing in of an entire rat corpse would create too much of a burden for the already taxed municipal health authorities). Unfortunately, this scheme backfired. Despite initial apparent success, the authorities soon discovered that the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. As soon the municipal administrators publicized the reward program, Vietnamese residents began to bring in thousands of tails. While many desk-bound administrators delighted in the numbers of apparently eliminated rats, more alert officials in the field began to notice a disturbing development. There were frequent sightings of rats without tails going about their business in the city streets. After some perplexity, the authorities realized that less-than-honest but quite resourceful characters were catching rats, but merely cutting off the tails and letting the still-living pests go free (perhaps to breed and produce more valuable tails).

Later, things became even more serious as health inspectors discovered a disturbing development in the suburbs of Hanoi. These officials found that more enterprising but equally deceptive individuals were actually raising rats to collect the bounty. One can only imagine the frustration of the municipal authorities, who realized that their best efforts at dératisation had actually increased the rodent population by indirectly encouraging rat-farming. Evidently, this was not what the French had in mind when they encouraged capitalist development and the entrepreneurial spirit in Vietnam. Faced with such fraudulent schemes, the colonial regime scrapped the rat bounty program. In the end, the campaign failed miserably.”

Michael G. Vann, “Of Rats, Rice, and Race: The Great Hanoi Rat Massacre, an Episode in French Colonial History (French Colonial History, Vol. 4, 2003). See also Vann’s graphic history, illustrated by Liz Clarke, The Great Hanoi Rat Hunt: Empire, Disease, and Modernity in French Colonial Vietnam (Oxford University Press, 2018), and his interview on the Infectious Historians Podcast Episode 28: “The Great Hanoi Rat Hunt”.

What I find fascinating is that, as far as I can tell, the article I cited above is the one which introduced English speaking audiences to that incident, and it was written 9 years after Soul Music. So in all likelihood,Terry Pratchett didn’t know about it. (At least, that’s my best guess.) But he may have know similar ones, from fact or fiction.

  • There’s an anecdote that in Delhi under British colonial rule, the government offered a bounty for dead cobras. This led directly to cobra-breeding, and their population dramatically increased. [x]
  • I saw someone claim that the exact same thing with the rat tails happened in early 20th century Brazil, with the efforts of Oswaldo Cruz to battle the bubonic plague. I don’t know if it checks out or if it’s a myth. [x]
  • There was apparently an old joke about Ioannis Metaxas, the Greek fascist dictator (late 1930s), that he went to Bulgaria on a state visit, and saw forests everywhere and was very impressed, so he asked the King of Bulgaria “how do you do it? how do you get so many forests? we hardly have any!”. The King said “easy, I shot all the goats.” The dictator comes back to Greece and proclaims a bounty for goatheads. Immediately everyone starts breeding goats. [x]
  • From the Autobiography of Mark Twain: “Once in Hartford the flies were so numerous for a time, and so troublesome, that Mrs. Clemens conceived the idea of paying George a bounty on all the flies he might kill. The children saw an opportunity here for the acquisition of sudden wealth. … Any Government could have told her that the best way to increase wolves in America, rabbits in Australia, and snakes in India, is to pay a bounty on their scalps. Then every patriot goes to raising them.” [x]

And there’s probably more. What I didn’t find in any of them was taxing the farms. That’s probably all Pratchett.

An overlooked thieves’ tool: the dark lantern

“Deacon Brodie’s Dark Lanthorn and False Keys. (From the originals in the Museum of The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.)” | The Trial of Deacon Brodie, 1906

A dark lantern was a type of hand lantern with a sliding shutter, so that the person holding it could adjust how much light it shed, if any. In the early modern period, it was very useful for thieves and assorted shady people lurking about in the dark. Court records even mention them as evidence: “he had a Dark-Lanthorn, and a bunch of Pick-lock Keys”, we read in an Old Bailey report from the 1680s. (The variant lanthorn was “folk etymology based on the common use of horn as a translucent cover”.) 

Late 17th century playing card: “The jack (then called the knave) illustrates the discovery of Guy Fawkes in the cellar underneath Parliament – ‘Guy Faukes found at the Celler door with dark Lanthorn and Matches.‘” | British Museum

In 1605, Guy Fawkes was caught red-handed under the Parliament with 36 barrels of gunpowder, a slow match, and a dark lantern, and today that lantern can be seen at the University of Oxford.

Guy Fawkes’ lantern | Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

A 1787 fencing manual tells us that the shady people who carried dark lanterns would use them in combat to suddenly blind their opponent. I’m not sure we should take that too seriously, given that you need both hands to open or close the shutter while holding the lantern, which would make a Stab Surprise unpractical. Maybe it was a generic “grab literally anything in your off-hand” move, without mucking about with the shutter, or maybe the trick was “distract them and run”. Or it’s wholly made up, who knows. (I don’t trust anything fencing manuals tell us about the criminal underworld.)

“The Guard of the Sword and Cloak oppos’d by the Sword & Lanthorn” | Domenico Angelo’s The School of Fencing (1787)

The other type of people who found dark lanterns useful was cops. By the Victorian era they were more or less standardised, and policemen carried them on patrol.

A dark lantern with an advertisement for “Bull’s Eye or Dark Lantern, with Signals” | Dark Lantern Tales

Here’s a detailed description from Dark Lantern Tales: “Typical dark lanterns were about the size and shape of a small modern thermos bottle, and had a fount for oil in the bottom. A cap with a wick (or wicks) was mounted directly to the top of this reservoir, and in most models the cap also served as a port to fill it. In the cylindrical body of the lantern, a shutter could be rotated to block light from coming through a large “Bull’s Eye” lens on the front. At the top of the lantern was a vent that allowed exhaust from the flame to exit but retain the light. These distinctive vents were usually made with two metal disks that were stamped into flutes that taper to the middle. The effect is sort of a ruffled top to the whole device. At the back of the lantern were wire handles to protect the user from the hot sides (policemen and watchmen kept them lit for upwards of six hours while on patrol), and usually a clip to hang the lantern on the user’s belt. There are anecdotes that describe patrolmen keeping a lit lantern on their belt beneath their great coat to stay warm in very cold weather.”

“An 1890s Dark Lantern showing shutter open and closed” | Dark Lantern Tales

Dark lanterns found their way in D&D too. In 5e, the list of adventuring gear includes “hooded lanterns” which do something similar, though you can only reduce the light, not hide it completely. Of course, for the groups that even bother with lighting conditions, the problem is more often solved by asking your friendly spellcaster to cast Light on a pebble or something, and hiding it or holding it at your convenience. And earlier, in 3.5, “Dark Lantern” was an Eberron prestige class (a modified assassin), and also a magic item from Tome of Magic which created shadowy illumination.

Tome of Magic: spoooky Dark Lantern illustration by W. England

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What’s a Thieves’ Guild and where did it come from?

In a nutshell, Fritz Leiber invented the Thieves’ Guild, and D&D pilfered it. As for where Leiber got the inspiration, we can certainly speculate.

Thieves’ House

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser #1: “Ill met in Lankhmar”, art by Mike Mignola

The OG Thieves’ Guild is located in the city of Lankhmar, where Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (the OG fantasy rogue) operate. It’s first mentioned in the short story “Thieves’ House” (1943), which was later republished in the collections Two Sought Adventure (1957) and Swords Against Death (1970). Ankh-Morpork and its own Thieves’ Guild (which hilariously operates like a proper historical guild, recognised and regulated by the state) is inspired by Lankhmar, too.

“The house had a bad reputation. People said it was the den in which the thieves of Lankhmar gathered to plot and palaver and settle their private bickerings, the headquarters from which Krovas, the reputed Master Thief, issued his orders—in short, the home of the formidable Thieves’ Guild of Lankhmar.”

The Guild is powerful, merchants pay tribute to it, and Krovas the guildmaster just hates it when independent thieves attempt to make a buck, too. In the story, said independent thieves are our (anti-)heroes, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. And that notion of a trade monopoly obviously comes from historical guilds, whose entire point was that no one was allowed to practice a trade unless they were members of the relevant guild.

Rogue Literature

So where did Fritz Leiber get the idea of a Thieves’ Guild? We can’t know for sure, but his parents were Shakespearean actors and he was into Elizabethan theatre, and do you know the book The Rogues and Vagabonds of Shakespeare’s Youth? If Leiber did, he knew rogue literature, and that explains both Thieves’ Guilds (not the term, just the content, the term is all his) and Thieves’ Cant.

English rogue literature is an early modern (rather than anything medieval) and largely urban genre, which appears around 1600 with pamphlets describing the wicked ways and language of beggars, thieves, and conmen, all out to get the upstanding, respectable, and all too gullible good people of (usually) London. Around 1700, the first cant dictionaries appear, and Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722) is probably the first novel of the genre. Meanwhile, there are a lot of plays that are at least inspired or informed by it, from Shakespeare himself to John Gay’s The Beggars’ Opera.


Now, if we take the early Elizabethan pamphlets at face value (and we should NOT, since all our sources were outsiders who aimed to shock – and titillate! – their law-abiding audience), thieves and beggars were organised in associations or fraternities with strict hierarchies. There were ranks and offices, and elaborate initiation rites and oaths to the devil, and codes of conduct and chains of command, and even kings of thieves with prima nocta privileges. And lots and lots of greed.

Most of that is bullshit, it’s made up or wildly exaggerated. Some of it makes a lot of sense, though, if you take out the fanciful stuff. A certain level of organisation is necessary for urban crime to work. After all, thieves need fences and beggars need real estate (I mean, they need to call dibs on their spots and somehow ensure that other beggars will respect that). And we should keep in mind that rogues (people without masters) and vagabonds (people without homes) were a world apart from respectable society: not only did they not enjoy whatever protections the state extended to its subjects, but they were considered criminal elements merely for existing without masters and without homes. So their only recourse was each other. A fraternity where all the thieves of London somehow worked together is mere fancy, but there was certainly a lot of mutual aid (if you were lucky) and internal exploitation (if you weren’t).


As we move on to the 1700s, London’s criminal underworld booms as much as the city itself, and the pamphlets (and now the newspapers!) have plenty of material to talk about. And for a hot second, there arguably is a thieves’ guild, run by a sinister guildmaster, a criminal mastermind who controls the thieves of London with one hand – and with the other, serves law-abiding people and retrieves their stolen property for but a small fee. His name is Jonathan Wild, and like Lankhmar’s Krovas, he hates it when independent thieves try to make a living in his city. And also he’s an utter bastard.

The infamous Thief-Taker General and his elaborate organisation may have been an inspiration for Fritz Leiber’s Thieves’ Guild, or perhaps it was second-hand from Professor Moriarty, who was also partly inspired by Jonathan Wild.

The Court of Miracles

La cour des Miracles” by Gustave Doré, illustration for Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris

In 1939, four years before “Thieves’ House” was published, a very important film came out: The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It included a colourful depiction of the Court of Miracles “where the scoundrels of Paris collect in a lair”, to quote another version. That must have been an influence, so let’s see what it was about.

The Court of Miracles really existed in Paris, and it wasn’t just one, there was a whole mess of them in the general vicinity – except that all this was happening in the 17th century and Victor Hugo took some liberties and projected it back to the 14th. And what he described was a heavily mythologised version of the real thing.

The real thing was, more or less, a collection of slums. It’s where the excess of people went in a city whose population had just exploded. Paris had become a sprawling metropolis again, coming back from the disasters of plague and war, and attracting people from all over. So where will all the rejected and marginalised go? It’s quite simple: if there’s no housing they’ll make a shanty-town and shack up there, and if there’s no jobs they’ll resort to begging and petty crime. What else are they supposed to do? Meekly starve? Fuck you, they won’t.

Out of that reality, we got a mythologised literary version of the Court of Miracles, much like the rogues of England were treated in the pamphlets. Again we read about complex hierarchies, a Prince of Thieves and a King of Beggars, elaborate initiation rites, and a secret thieves’ cant – the argot. And crucially, this underworld has a space of its own: a lair, a den, a headquarters. This feature doesn’t appear in English rogue literature, but Leiber’s Thieves’ Guild has it (it’s in the title!), and so does any D&D-related or inspired thieves’ guild, so I think it’s not a stretch to attribute it directly to the Court of Miracles.

The 1939 film, inheriting Victor Hugo’s anachronisms and liberties, portrays the Court of Miracles as a single, fixed, and secret place in the middle of medieval Paris (which had abruptly become the largest city in western Europe in the 1300s, but then the Black Death hit). The portrayal is stunning and memorable. The scene where the hapless Gringoire is asked to demonstrate his thieving skills by balancing on one leg on a stool and pickpocketing a mannequin full of little bells is iconic. This is the stuff that inspires whole genres, and I believe it did exactly that. The roguish side of Sword & Sorcery and Dungeons & Dragons owes a lot to English rogues and vagabonds, but we shouldn’t overlook their enormous debt to The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939, dir. William Dieterle)


Meanwhile, in 17th century Istanbul, the Thieves’ Guild (“the corporation of thieves and footpads who… pay tribute to the two chief officers of the police”) and the Beggars’ Guild (which had a “sheikh”, i.e. a leader, a guildmaster) once joined a very official procession of the guilds on the city streets. Or at least, that’s what The Book of Travels says. But all the research I’ve read about Ottoman guilds considers this passage uncovincing. There certainly may have been thieves and beggars in the procession, but they didn’t have a legally recognised guild – an esnaf.

Spanish picaresque novels had been around since the mid-16th century, and Cervantes describes something like a thieves’ guild in Seville. A French jargon of thieves, along with assorted poetry and literature, is attested from the 15th century. Rogue characters/anti-heroes appear in Arabic literature from the 9th century, and the early emergence of big cities in the Islamic world leads to various associations of thieves and beggars in places like Cairo and Baghdad. A loose co-fraternity of rogues, the Banu Sasan, pops up in every corner of the Arabic world, from al-Andalus to India.


There’s a lot of material out there, and I barely scraped the surface. Our earth is big and rogues are the salt of the earth, and wherever there’s property there’s also thieves, and whenever a city raises domes and spires to the heavens, that city’s outcasts will converge to its underbelly and mingle and, well, associate. It’s only natural. If you decide to include a Thieves’ Guild in your D&D setting, your character backstory, or your worldbuilding, you can draw inspiration from anywhere, as long as you know where to look and are willing to do a bit of digging.

However, I don’t think Leiber or Gygax were too familiar with… most of that. So as far as the D&D origins of Thieves’ Guilds are concerned, I believe we should stick to Fritz Leiber, English rogue literature, the Court of Miracles, and whatever kernel of historical truth lies behind them. And there you have it.

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Catching rabbits

Later illustration for John Awdeley’s “The Fraternity of Vagabonds”, 1561

The word coney (or coni, cony, etc) meant “rabbit”, and from there, presumably because rabbits aren’t the brightest animals, it came to mean “simpleton, naive person”. And in (thieves’) cant, coney-catchers were the rogues who scammed these persons, by cheating at cards or dice, or with various rackets and confidence tricks. So the coney, the rabbit, was the mark.

Alternatively, maybe the word coney-catcher came first, “by a metaphor, taken from those that rob warrens, and conie-grounds, using all means, sleights, and cunning to deceive them, as pitching of haies before their holes, fetching them in by tumblers, &c.”, and from there coney ended up meaning “mark” as well as “rabbit”.

Often a coney was someone from the country who just came to London, and wasn’t wise to the ways of the big city. Now that’s an easy mark. Rogues could spot them from a mile away, from how they dressed and talked and behaved (they must have looked so lost, imagine someone from a village crossing the London Bridge for the first time, an enormous bridge with a ton of buildings on it, and beyond that a sprawling cityscape: it must have been bewildering), and would immediately approach them and offer help, promise entertainment, etc. And then they’d fleece them.

The old London Bridge, 1616

So the rabbits in the picture, rolling dice and playing cards and getting hooked, are the victims that the rogues “caught”. And the top row, if I’m not mistaken, shows what’s in store for the rogues who get caught: the judge, the whip, and the gallows.

rogue literature: late 16th century pamphlets

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Police is a modern invention. Is that because previously “the army did that job”?

Not really. The army was (and in some places, sadly still is) called in to suppress civil unrest from time to time, but regular police work was never their job. They were basically part-time riot cops with lethal weapons. That didn’t mean you could stop a random soldier and say “excuse me sir, this guy stole from me or whatever, please investigate and arrest him and take him to a judge”. Exception: armies were often sent to capture and/or kill rural bandits, but I consider that a special case. Rural banditry is a category on its own, very complicated, and these military operations often played out like civil war more than police work.

The classic example of policing without police is the medieval English hue and cry – the expectation was that when a crime is committed, the victim will cry out or someone else will spot it and cry out, and people will apprehend the criminals and bring them to justice. I say medieval, but it lasted well into the modern period. There’s nothing even vaguely resembling a professional police force in England before 1750, and it will take a long while before that evolves to what is now recognisable as a professional police force. (Which in turn will spread over many parts of the world, while another large part of the world will copy or inherit the Napoleonic model. I mean, it’s all very very recent, a 19th century thing.)

Now, and this may cause some understandable confusion, in many places (England included) there are offices that seem to perform some police functions. But they don’t constitute a police force. Sometimes their jurisdiction is tiny (a single village, or a few blocks in the city) and they have no coordination with colleagues elsewhere, sometimes their jurisdiction is larger and they can’t possibly keep track of what’s going on, sometimes they do patrols in their spare time without pay and still need to work for a living so please don’t expect much of them, sometimes they’re strictly nightwatchmen and no one’s there to “fight crime” during the day, sometimes they’re contractors who run a protection racket for all intents and purposes, sometimes they hold administrative positions and may or may not form a posse (that generally ends up being another gang) on their own initiative, sometimes they’re the armed guards of a specific person and will only “fight crime” against said specific person and their family and estate, and so on.

And even when you have professionals, people paid by the state to “keep the peace”, they’re often no more than intermediaries for the “hue and cry” process: the neighbours caught the pickpocket and brought him to the constable, the constable brought him to the judge, the judge sentenced him to hang, and the hangman pulled the rope. So who’s the criminal? A question for the ages.

So in any case, rule of thumb: when you read about sheriffs and constables and policemen (whether these are the actual terms or the English translations of offices from somewhere else in the world), if it’s 18th century or earlier, it’s NOT police as we know it today. It’s something else, less powerful, not centralised, with limited scope and duties, and often ENTIRELY optional.

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These are some of the most famous female brigands of Italy. By coincidence, they were all born on the same year, and their criminal activities took place during and after the complete mayhem that was the Unification of Italy.

The first four photos are of Michelina Di Cesare (1841–1868), the next three are of Maria Oliverio (1841–1879), and the last two of Filomena Pennacchio (1841–1915), on the left, along with her two friends and accomplices Giuseppina Vitale and Maria Giovanna Tito.

In Italy, like in Spain, female bandits were uncommon but not unheard of, especially in such tumultuous times. These three women had very different reasons to become outlaws: Michelina was basically driven by poverty, Maria hacked her own sister to pieces with an axe because she “slandered” her (it’s pretty fucked up if you ask me, but that’s Honour for ya: talk shit, get brutally murdered), and Filomena got tired of getting beaten by her husband and stabbed him to death with a pin. So rather than stick around and get caught (or starve), they all chose a brigand’s life.

There’s a lot of complicated context here re: the political situation, but post-Unification brigandage in Italy is a whole field of history in itself, so I won’t get into it. Let’s just say that all three of them operated (more or less) against the new regime, being vaguely pro-Bourbon, and leave it at that. Though I should note that, much like Royalist highwaymen during the English Civil War or pretty much anyone during the Mexican Revolution, people often became robbers first and found a political justification later, especially if there was a faction willing to offer them support in exchange for doing some dirty work or another.

Behind the camera / posing for the camera

But I want to talk about the photographs themselves. These aren’t candid shots, they are photo-shoots, and I am endlessly fascinated by bandit portraits. It’s a whole genre, these portraits, there were tons of them taken in the late 19th and early 20th century, from South America to the Mediterranean and from Eastern Europe to China, wherever bandits thrived and photographers were around. (And I suppose with North American gunslingers too, but y’all already know about those, right?) The bandits stand in front of the camera and pose, rarely with a frown, often with a smile, always with a gun and just brimming with pride.

And I always wonder, what’s the story behind the picture? How did the photographer meet the bandit in the first place, and how did he feel directing a dangerous outlaw? (”Stand over there, head a bit to the right, hold the rifle higher, now hold still please.”) Was he scared? Excited? How did they come to an agreement? Who had to convince whom? And for that matter, who directed whom? Portraits are traditionally credited to the photographer, but any photographer worth his salt will tell you that it’s really a collaboration, and that they can’t possibly take what their subject won’t give.

So sometimes the whole thing was the photographer’s idea, perhaps backed by a newspaper or other publication. It would be too generous to call it “photojournalism”, it was mostly sensationalist tabloids looking for a quick buck. Other times the bandits went and hired a photographer entirely of their own initiative, to construct their public image by themselves and/or to keep the photos as a private memento. There are accounts of bandits basically kidnapping a photographer and marching him through the wilderness to their hideout, where he is treated like an honoured guest – and also forced to take their portraits, or else. Common props (other than guns) are bandoliers, knives, and various trophies. Sometimes they even take an action pose, pretending to be mid-fight, or hiding for an ambush. Sometimes it’s important to shoot on location and depict them in their element, commanding their realm (a very common moniker for bandits is “King of the Mountains”). The possibilities are endless.

And there’s just something so inherently boastful and defiant, to cheerfully pose for a portrait with a smile and a gun and a price on your head.

Post mortem

As for the photo-shoots of these Italian brigantesse, we know the story of two of them. The first one, of Michelina Di Cesare, was shot very professionally in a studio in Rome. Her photos circulated a lot in the press, and were used as propaganda for her, and her gang, and indirectly the Bourbon loyalists (who may have paid for them). That’s probably why she isn’t wearing her normal clothes, but a traditional peasant costume: she’s dressed up as a folk heroine. Sometimes bandits just had to be media-savvy.

The second one, of Maria Oliverio, was unusually taken after her capture (during which she was injured in the arm). It’s unclear whose idea it was, but she was sentenced to death and then pardoned by the king, her sentence commuted to life in prison. As for the third one, of Filomena Pennacchio and friends, we don’t know how it came to be but it’s pretty ironic, considering that Filomena eventually surrendered and collaborated, leading to the arrest of those same friends she posed with. She was sentenced to 20 years in prison, and eventually did 8.

Maria Oliverio’s post-capture photos (the second set) are remarkable. It’s hard to imagine that they were taken without the consent and supervision of the authorities, so I find it extremely strange that they are actual portraits, the kind which glorifies the bandit, rather than the standard gory post-mortem photographs which police so gleefully distributed after they killed (or executed) bandits. These aimed instead to demystify and ridicule and straight up defile the body, turn the person to a thing, strip the bandit from agency, dignity, sometimes even clothes. (Michelina Di Cesare, who was killed in battle, got that treatment too.) But that’s also a whole field of research in itself (just look up bibliographies for “the criminal corpse”, it’s… quite depressing, really), so I won’t get to it either. Perhaps Oliverio’s captors were vaguely pro-Bourbon too, and that accounts for the strangely flattering photo-shoot, who knows.

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The dreaded pirates of Barbary

“From bases on the Barbary coast, North Africa, the Barbary pirates raided ships traveling through the Mediterranean and along the northern and western coasts of Africa, plundering their cargo and enslaving the people they captured.” [wikipedia]

Sometimes people get the impression that the pirates of Barbary were the only pirates and slavers in the Mediterranean, and everyone else was trying to trade peacefully, poor things. And I cannot stress enough how that is NOT the case. At the height of Barbary’s power, maritime raiding was normal, casual, and basically the default for pretty much everyone who sailed that sea, while buying stolen goods (including people) from pirates was a fundamental part of the economy.

Like, the English ship that carried the new ambassador to Istanbul and the ascension gift for the new sultan in ~1600 kept delaying “to take prizes, including some belonging to Ottoman subjects” – which is freaking hilarious. That’s how casual it was. Or, around the same time, the Grand Master of the Order of Saint John (aka the Knights Hospitaller) wanted to give a gift to the Pope, and offered 100 Turkish slaves, taken by piracy. No sweat.

Now, to be fair, the Barbary pirates (or corsairs – it’s complicated) made a living almost exclusively from piracy, whereas Venice and the Ottoman Empire etc also traded normally, and exported their own goods and all that. So a good comparison would be with the aforementioned Knights Hospitaller, who were sitting atop a massive slave market in Malta, and other than raiding ships and coastal settlements, did absolutely nothing productive. Of course, they had the pretext of holy war. But then again, so did Barbary, and neither was as adamant to protect their own and only fight infidels in practice as they were in theory.

Here are the reasons why we have (still!) a biased narrative where evil Barbary pirates disrupt Mediterranean trade all by their lonesome:

  1. Eurocentrism, duh
  2. The primary sources are extremely uneven, for both facts and perspectives.
  3. Perspectives: Western sources include many memoirs and testimonies of people who were enslaved by Barbary pirates, and then were freed or escaped. (Like Cervantes.) We have zero such memoirs by Muslims, and yet we know they were enslaved and sold and bought, ending up as slave workers in agriculture, or domestic slaves, or galley slaves. Same thing for memoirs of corsairs themselves. First person narratives are a huge deal.
  4. Facts: So hey, you know how court documents are a super important source for anything crime-related? For that to happen, the courts need to keep documents, and they generally only do that when there’s a concept of legal precedents, and jurists/judges need to reference them later. Well, the Ottoman legal system held legal precedents SO high, that scribes scraped all the factual information off court cases (who did what to whom, where and when) and kept only the result that judges would need (“when Ottoman subjects of Christian faith fall prey to Ottoman pirates of Muslim faith, the state must compensate them by so-and-so”). And poor historians try to piece together what the heck happened to result in such a guideline. It ain’t easy!
  5. Language: Comprehensive histories of piracy in the Mediterranean were written by people who couldn’t read Ottoman and Arabic documents at all, and didn’t have access to translations either.
  6. Orientalism, duh. As Said summarised it, it’s all “Oriental despotism, Oriental splendour, cruelty, sensuality”, oh my.
  7. There’s an emphasis on late 18th-early 19th century (when the Eastern Question (TM) arises, the Ottoman Empire has basically started to collapse and doesn’t even know it, and Barbary is like a relic stuck to practices that make increasingly less sense in the new balance of powers) – but you can’t extrapolate from that particular mess back to previous centuries, when the balance of powers was a giant clusterfuck.

So, to illustrate WHO exactly was committing piracy in the Mediterranean, I wrote a little song for you (with apologies to Cole Porter).

Turks do it, Greeks do it
Pirates and privateers do it
Let’s do it, let’s raid some ships

In Spain the best upper sets do it
Arabs, Englishmen and French do it
Let’s do it, let’s raid some ships

In Malta Knights of Saint John do it
Not to mention corsairs
Folks from up north do it
Think of the renegades

Some Genoese in the breeze do it
People say in Venice even geese do it
Let’s do it, let’s raid some ships

Tunisians in Barbary do it
Ottomans in the White Sea do it
Let’s do it, let’s raid some ships

Fishermen, lords, rich and poor do it
Christians, Muslims and Jews do it
Let’s do it, let’s raid some ships

Corsicans in the Big Blue do it
It will shock you, I know
The navies too do it
Isn’t that what they’re for?

Shipwreckers in shallow reefs do it
All the sailors in this fucking sea do it
Let’s do it, let’s raid some ships!

P.S. Couldn’t fit in the lyrics: Catalans, Albanians, Sicilians, Armenians, Algerians, Egyptians, Florentines, Moroccans, Flemings FROM THE TOP OF MY HEAD.

[original post; header image: A French Ship and Barbary Pirates (detail) by Aert Anthonisz, c. 1615]

Locks, Rogues, and Thieves’ Tools

Studying the history of locks puts the rogue class in Dungeons & Dragons in sort of a new light because it turns out that prior to around the mid 1800s, the idea of a mechanically secure lock wasn’t really a thing. Basically, the best pre-1800s locks tended to rely primarily on security through obscurity – that is, on implementing elaborate puzzle-box bullshit in order to make it difficult to determine how to access the keyhole and/or withdraw the bolt; with that knowledge in hand, picking the actual mechanism typically required very little skill, to the point that simply having a lock’s maker describe its “secret” to you could be enough to defeat it.
~ prokopetz

Everything I’ve read points to warded locks and spring padlocks being prevalent before the Yale lock, and that was decidedly not “security through obscurity”. There was no puzzle, even if it looked like one. You could construct the most comically complicated warded lock, and a random key with the wards filed off  – a.k.a. a skeleton key – would still open it, as long as it was roughly the right size. (It’s the lockpicking equivalent of Indiana Jones shooting the swordmaster. Impressive swordplay, mate, what form, what skill, what grace, what– oh, you’re dead.) As for padlocks, literature suggests they could be picked, and common sense suggests they could be very easily forced open.

If we’re not talking about warded locks that look fancy, the closest I can think to “elaborate puzzle-box” is a flood of ~18th century novelty locks, mostly British and American, which were impressive in their… novelty, but usually came with fatal flaws security-wise, were unsuitable for mass production, didn’t catch on, and were summarily rendered obsolete by the Yale lock, the modern pin-and-tumbler that we use to this day, which is actually secure. They look very cool, though.

Before that, all common locks could be basically jimmied. Jack Sheppard, famous thief and folk hero, who sensationally escaped 4 times from prison before the bastards hanged him for theft in 1724, was chained with extra care the 4th time he got caught.


But all the same, he managed to pick his own manacles and free his hands, and proceeded to open 6 barred and bolted prison doors in succession before escaping. He was 22 years old, small of stature, and not particularly muscular. So did he use tension wrench and hooks and rakes, and fiddle with each pin to pick it? Nah, the locks weren’t made like that. Did he cleverly solve a puzzle? No, there was no puzzle to solve. Did he use brute force, then? Nope, if that were the case, history’s sensational prison breaks would be the work of the big and strong. How did he do it, then? Well, he had the forethought to smuggle in a small jemmy. And that was all he needed. An improvised tool, a bit of skill, and a lot of nerve.

And baby, that’s a Rogue. That’s a PERFECT summary of a Rogue right there.

I would also like to note that lockpicking is only one of the MANY methods of breaking and entering, and “thieves’ tools” (in D&D and real life) aren’t just lockpicks. They can be:

  • picks, hammers (early descriptions of burglaries, from Rome to Baghdad, mostly involve digging tunnels and breaking walls)
  • skeleton keys (again, warded locks are hilariously vulnerable to these: you try a bunch of them, and one will fit sooner or later; in English they were called “pick-lock keys” at first, then just “pick-locks”, and later in Victorian slang “betties”; not be confused with modern lockpicks)
  • copied keys (another time-honoured tradition, requires that you make nice with a locksmith, or, alternatively, ARE the locksmith)
  • crowbars, jemmies, chisels (it’s called “breaking and entering” for a reason: forcing a door open was VERY common, second only to slipping in unnoticed from an unlocked door or window; padlocks can also be forced open with such a tool very very quickly)
  • “lockpicks” (generic term for various iron tools, usually hooked, with which you can jimmy several types of locks and padlocks; a jemmy can serve as an improvised lockpick)
  • string, wire (I speculate that you can open a spring padlock if you insert a loop in the lock, direct it around the spring and pull, though I have no evidence if this method was historically used)
  • rope (bars in windows could be bent with rope and a stick: you tied the rope between two bars and placed a stick in the middle; then you twisted the stick round and round, the rope basically contracted and pulled both bars until they bent or got dislodged)
  • auger, awl, brace and centrebit (by the Victorian era, serious burglars carried carpenters’ tools and straight up cut holes in wooden doors; they also cut glass panes, instead of breaking them like their more amateur colleagues)
  • modern lockpicks (tension wrench plus small hooks and rakes: the iconic tools everyone has in mind when they think of thieves’ tools; they are for the modern Yale lock – the first lock in common use that’s actually a puzzle to solve rather a thing to jimmy or force open – and they are mostly worthless vs older, more era-appropriate locks)

With that in mind, I think it would be great for players and DMs to stop imagining “thieves’ tools” like a set of modern lockpicks, which are logically useless versus anything that’s not, very specifically, a modern Yale lock. Instead, try picturing Thieves’ Tools like a proper toolkit, with different tools for different jobs, all serving the general purposes of going where you’re not supposed to go, grabbing what you’re not supposed to grab, and tinkering with traps and devices you’re not supposed to touch without exploding on the spot. It’s helpful for your Rogue AND good for verisimilitude!

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Shipwreckers, or pirates lite


“And so it was that many in England tried to bring ships to capsize with the help of false signals to get their cargo. In 1735 the actions of these wreckers were punished with death.”

~ ltwilliammowettSalvaging a Shipwreck

Shipwrecking goes way back and it isn’t very tech-savvy: the quick and dirty method was to wait on the shore for the waves to bring salvage to you, or climb/dive on the wrecked ship, assuming it crashed on the rocks. (You engineered the wreck by lighting a fire and making it look like a lighthouse, but positioning it inland. If there was a real lighthouse, you could put that fire out. Ships thought the light marked the start of dry land when in reality it was much closer to them, and set the wrong course and crashed.) So this method didn’t yield heavy and bulky loot, it was mostly for things that floated, or could be carried by hand.

I don’t know if anyone has collected the relevant information from different places and historical periods, to give us an idea how widespread it was. But I’ve come across many incidents in the Mediterranean, especially in southern Greece and Italy, the Adriatic Sea, and the Aegean Sea, from the antiquity all the way to the 19th century. The phenomenon appears to spike when piracy in general is rampant, as well as in periods of famine. It’s sometimes considered passive piracy and an entry point to piracy proper: say there’s a bunch of fishermen who can’t make ends meet, so they resort to causing shipwrecks and taking the salvage. (And killing survivors if necessary. Let’s not forget that there were people on board, and in the age of galleys and galley slaves, most of them were sadly chained to the oars.) From there it’s a small step to forming a crew and actively raiding ships. I’ve also found mentions for early modern England and China, and I’m sure I’d have found a lot more if I’d read more.

Geography certainly determines if such a thing is even possible. Ideal locations would have rocky shores and/or insidious reefs, would be in the middle of standard ship routes (hence it’s so common in the Mediterranean, where hugging the ragged shoreline was the normal way of sailing for millennia) but somehow isolated from big ports and centres of government, and occasionally – and preferably predictably – would have terrible weather and bad visibility. In such locations, a shipwreck can easily happen accidentally, and once that happens and the sea washes the cargo to the shore, it’s very tempting for the locals to engineer it and make it happen again. And if the whole local population is starving, well someone will succumb to the temptation for sure.

the archipelago on fire

Treacherous geography: an illustration for Jules Verne’s “The Archipelago on Fire”

Like piracy itself, this custom abruptly loses steam when steamboats come along (pun not intended). And by the time navigators can simply look at their instruments and don’t need to rely on a lookout’s eyesight to know where they’re going, it becomes completely obsolete.

Another interesting thing is the legal concept of salvage, and the notion that just as ships, in certain conditions, can claim stuff they find on the open sea as legitimate salvage, so can people on the coasts claim as salvage whatever the waves bring them from a capsized ship. I haven’t looked it up in detail, but it appears to have been a part of British (?) maritime (?) law for a long time, and even if it weren’t, people on the coasts considered it their right. And if the owners came later and asked for their cargo back, they were like sorry mate, we came here first.

I’ve even read about a recent case, and I’ve been trying to find the article again but I can’t remember the location (probably in England, or maybe Scotland? I’m not sure) so google failed me. By the 21st century, the law said that cargo washing up on the shore is NOT, in fact, legitimate salvage. But nobody updated the custom law, so when a ship capsized a few years back, the locals gathered on the shore and took it for granted that it was their inalienable right to gather the washed up cargo for themselves. They considered it now the village’s collective property. Then the cops came and there was trouble, and I’m pretty sure the villagers ended up keeping at least some of it, though without anyone officially recognising it as legitimate salvage, it was just… handwaved. Custom law is hard to fight!

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The last shall be first, and the first shall be aghast: in which the Plague upends the social order


When the plague hits, someone has to clean up the mess. Carrying and burying the dead, burning anything that might be infected, such tasks were absolutely necessary and of course tremendously dangerous: there’s no faster way to get infected yourself. And yet, the people who chose (or were forced) to do it were consistently vilified in the sources. They were usually depicted as greedy and amoral criminals, despicable thieves and murderers, vultures who thrived on death. (See also: the legend of Four Thieves Vinegar).

Is there any truth to that? Well, there is some, for sure. Sometimes the people tasked with cleaning up the mess would also clean the valuables from the latest victim’s house, sometimes they’d ask exorbitant fees to do the job, and sometimes they’d even hold people for ransom more or less, threatening to mark them as infected (and drag them to a quarantined area, where they’d certainly GET infected). But on closer inspection, such incidents are verified a lot less than simply speculated, and the disdain towards them may have deeper causes.

When a plague first hit, very few would volunteer to clean up the mess. It was close to a death sentence, so people were either forced to do it, or were too destitute and desperate to refuse the offer of wages. Either way, they were already at the margins of society, the lowest of the low. Of that first wave, most would summarily die, and the few naturally immune (or very very lucky) would remain. And those few would have a thoroughly novel experience: for the first time in their life, they had power. The power to bargain for their labour, for starters.

Is that such a crime? And is it any wonder that it horrified the gentry?

To explore further this phenomenon and its perception, I give you two excerpts, both of which concern Italy around the ~1630 outbreak of the plague. The first is theory, from the book Epidemics and ideas: Essays on the historical perception of pestilence. The second is fiction, from the classic novel The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni. Happy reading.

The Plague in Florence, 1630.jpg

The Plague in Florence, 1630

1. Plague and perceptions of the poor in early modern Italy

“There was a sense in which the plague, while suspending certain forms of employment, created others through heavy public spending that was partly intended to enforce hygienic measures and partly to forestall the danger of ‘tumult’. On occasions witnesses spoke of the poor as beneficiaries rather than victims of the plague, which had created sinister opportunities for them. The deserted city, with the houses of the well-to-do locked up and abandoned, became the province of the poor. […]

Like carnival, plague inverted the normal world. It did so in its own way, by creating a temporary dependence on the unrespectable poor, especially vagrants and criminals, for the performance of essential services. Plague seemed to offer extraordinary gains to the ghoulish figures of undertakers, fumigators, cleaners and clearers of plague-stricken houses: monatti, beccamorti, picigamorti, nettezini, often characterised as scavenging birds, as the ‘kites’ of Florence and the ‘crows’ of France. Such functionaries were heavily recruited from prisoners, vagrants and galley slaves; but seemingly generous incentives, in the form of high advance payments to members of the ordinary labouring poor, were frequently offered by city governments.

Occasionally, as in Florence in the 1630s, there occurs a suggestion that the poor actually welcomed the plague because it released them from dependence on the uncertain fortunes of the textile industry. ‘It seemed’, wrote one Settimanni, ‘that out of greed for the gain [from becoming bearers of the dead] they thought nothing of death and of the great danger in which they were clearly placing themselves.’ Much the same sentiments were to be repeated in Defoe’s Journal many years later.

It must be confessed that though the plague was chiefly among the poor, yet were the poor the most adventurous and fearless of it, and went about their employment with a sort of brutal courage; I must call it so, for it was founded neither on religion nor prudence; scarce did they use any caution, but ran into any business which they could get employment in, though it was the most hazardous.

Sometimes there was a grudging admiration for the courage of these graveyard workers; surprisingly, a contingent sent from Venice was praised for its skill and care by the chronicler of Cividale, and Dr Bertrand expressed a touching gratitude to the galley convicts who had served Marseilles. Equally often, however, the criminal strain in their natures seemed to predominate, emerging in foul conspiracies and plots to prolong the epidemics which brought them unlooked-for gains. Hence they assumed, in a different form, the role of bearers of the sickness. […]

Mild forms of social revolution seemed to have occurred at the close of plague epidemics, both through a redistribution of wealth and through the emergence of those who had survived an attack of plague as a privileged body insolently sure of their own invulnerability.

Priests and friars who have survived the plague, and persons of low condition who have recovered from it, are both grown very rich, the first by burying, administering the sacraments, and helping the sick, and the second by physicking and serving infected persons – for people in these extreme needs were forced to spend lavishly and without restraint … The fumigators, bearers of the dead, police constables, quacks, thieves and other such people did very well for themselves.’

So testified Dr Benaglio of Bergamo. Like usurers, these persons of low condition had allegedly grown fat on the misfortunes of others, and their being public employees exposed to high risk was no excuse for their offences. A carnival poem of Florence in 1631 celebrated the ‘cunning man of the people (furbo plebo)’, an uppity character sporting gloves and silk stockings and bedecked with flowers: one fit for carnival satire, but more lasting than carnival itself. Reports of the aftermath of plague were punctuated by complaints of insolent domestic servants, artisans and country labourers fully aware of their own scarcity value and demanding exorbitant wages. This was the price of disproportionately high losses among the labouring poor; the contraction of demand through the fall of population was offset by the high spending power of those who had become unexpectedly rich by inheritance.”

~ Brian Pullan, “Plague and perceptions of the poor in early modern Italy”, in Epidemics and ideas: Essays on the historical perception of pestilence (edited by Terence Ranger and Paul Slack, Cambridge University Press, 1992); abridged, emphasis mine


The Plague in Bologna, 1630

 2.  “The Betrothed”

“Every day replacements and reinforcements had to be found for public servants of various kinds, such as monatti, apparitori and commissari. The monatti were employed on the most unpleasant and dangerous of the duties arising from the plague. They collected corpses from houses and streets, and from the lazaretto, carted them to the graveyards, and buried them; they carried or led the sick to the lazaretto, and kept them in order. They burnt or purified infected or suspect belongings. […] The special task of the apparitori was to walk in front of the carts, ringing a bell to warn passers-by to keep out of the way. The commissari were in charge of both the categories mentioned above, and came under the immediate orders of the commission of health. […]

Criminals who neither suffered nor feared the effects of the plague found fresh scope for their activities, and a new confidence of impunity at the same time, in the general confusion and the universal slackening of the forces of order. In fact the powers of law and order often fell into the hands of the worst of those criminals. The tasks of the monatti and apparitori attracted in the main those men for whom the allurements of robbery and licence were stronger than the terror of infection, stronger than all natural feelings of revulsion. Strict rules with severe penalties were drawn up for their guidance, their areas of activity were carefully defined, and commissari were appointed to control them, as we mentioned previously; and in every quarter of the city magistrates and nobles were appointed as delegates to exercise a higher supervision, with authority to deal in summary fashion with anything affecting public order. This system continued to operate effectively for a certain length of time. But as the numbers of those who died, ran away or lost their heads increased from day to day, the lower officials reached the stage of having no one to control them. The monatti, in particular, assumed absolute powers. They entered people’s homes as masters – or as enemies. We need not ask what robberies they committed, or how they treated the poor wretches whom disease betrayed into their hands. But those infected, villainous hands were also laid on the healthy, on the patients’ children, parents, wives or husbands, who were threatened with transportation to the lazaretto if they did not ransom themselves, or get someone else to ransom them, with large sums of money. On other occasions the monatti would demand payment for their legitimate services, refusing to take away putrefying corpses until they had received so many scudi for each one.

There were other stories, which it seems equally unsafe to believe or to reject, in view of the frivolity of some and the wickedness of others. It was said, and even Tadino asserts it as a fact, that the monatti and apparitori used to drop infected clothes off the carts on purpose, in order to maintain and spread the pestilence, which had become their livelihood, their domain, their pride and joy.”

~ Alessandro Manzoni, The Betrothed (1827); abridged

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