thieves’ cant

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.

1600s

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).

1700s

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)

Elsewhere

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.

Conclusion

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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Thieves’ Cant Masterpost

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Thieves’ Cant by Jessica Trevino

D&D resources

English Thieves’ Cant and Slang

French Argot

Other Languages

Profanity makes everything better

Bits and pieces and other

Bibliography here.

Archive tags: thieves’ cant, slang, argot, words of the trade, profanity makes everything better.

Polari, gay and thieves’ cants, speaking in cant as an act of defiance and assorted musings

Anonymous asked: The thing you posted about slang dictionaries and its neglect got me thinking. Is it really a bad thing if people ignore slang and cant like that? Back before the 60s , there was a cant used by the pre-modern LGBT community in the UK, called Polari. It was obscure to most and probably helped a lot of people stay safe for decades. Then it showed up on a radio show and plenty of its words became common, possibly outing people. It might even have cost lives if the law wasn’t changed 2 years later.

You have a point there, but it doesn’t quite work that way, you’ll be happy to know. 🙂

Speaking in Cant makes it difficult for outsiders to understand what you’re saying – not what you are. It’s not a secret code designed to pass for innocent communication when intercepted, and to conceal the speaker’s true identity as member of the Secret Club. On the contrary, it’s an identifier. If you speak it in public, you pretty much announce to the world that you move in strange circles. Outsiders may not know what you’re on about, or even in which circles you move, exactly, but they know for sure you’re not mainstream. If Polari, or Thieves’ Cant, was meant to conceal your identity, it would sound like vanilla English, and mean something different only to those in the know.

Polari, like Thieves’ Cant, sounds nothing like vanilla English.

So if you hear a man say “As feely ommes we would zhoosh our riah, powder our eeks, climb into our bona new drag, don our batts and troll off to some bona bijou bar. In the bar we would stand around with our sisters, vada the bona cartes on the butch omme ajax who, if we fluttered our ogle riahs at him sweetly, might just troll over to offer a light for the unlit vogue clenched between our teeth” [*], it may sound like gibberish to you but there’s one thing you know: that’s not a man in the closet. He can’t be outed, he’s out already, and gives no fucks whatsoever.

It’s true that Polari started losing steam at the exact moment (and partly because) it became a thing in mainstream media, in the late 1960s. But to my knowledge no one was outed because of that, and it certainly couldn’t have cost lives. The law that you mention is the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalised homosexual acts in England and Wales (in certain cases; it would a very long road until full equality). Until then the penalty was prison, not execution, geez. (The hair-raising practice of chemical castration, that Alan Turing went through, was offered voluntarily as an alternative to prison.)

In any case, before that law came into effect, being openly gay would get you to all sorts of trouble, but it’s not like they’d arrest you without due process and take you out back and shoot you. The law punished gay sex, not dressing and talking and flirting. So there was a whole gay (sub)culture, and many many people chose to flaunt it rather hide it, even in the face of appalling discrimination.

…And that’s where Cant as an identifier comes in. Cant is a language, and language is built by – and in turn builds – communities, collective identities. Groups that the mainstream culture shuns and/or the law harasses build communities of their own, and sometimes develop a language of their own. One that may hide what they say but doesn’t hide what they are, it declares what they are, loud and clear. People who speak in cant don’t do it to move incognito through a hostile society. They refuse to be assimilated, and to even pretend they’re like everyone else. (If that was the goal, they’d simply talk like everyone else.) Speaking in Cant is an act of defiance, plain and simple.

Now, inserting a couple of cant terms in your speech, usually to obscure an illegal or otherwise unacceptable thing you want to say in passing, may simply be an act of self-preservation. And for that function, it’s indeed a bummer when mainstream media makes it known to a general audience. Cant has one strong defence though: it changes so quickly. It evolves faster than slang, with evolves faster than informal, which evolves faster than formal. Journalists picked up that phrase and now it’s common knowledge? No worries, we’ll make up another one on the spot. And since it’s primarily a spoken language, it varies wildly from place to place and group to group. It’s not like all the thieves in England ever used the same terms at the same time, or all the gay people in England for that matter.

Polari in particular didn’t go that way, and eventually declined for a number of reasons. Mostly because society moved on, and in gay communities the need for defiance was gradually replaced by a yearning for acceptance. There’s no right or wrong here: two roads diverged in a wood, and they both lead to claiming your dignity and freedom.

…I got more to say but this is way too long. So, bullet points.

  • Gay Cants (it’s not just Polari) function exactly as Thieves’ Cants when there’s a gay subculture, part of the underworld. So basically, when homosexuality is criminalised and/or completely unacceptable, socially. And there’s usually a back and forth between the two groups – though the criminal underworld can be just as homophobic as everyone else, so normally they don’t fully merge.
  • If things aren’t so intense though, you often have a gay slang instead, with useful terms and phrases, but not a whole language. (That’s a general observation, since it’s tricky to differentiate between cant and slang.)
  • Polari has also been the cant of carnies. The back and forth thing was in effect.
  • Kaliarda is the Greek gay cant, its first dictionary came out in 1971 (in the middle of a military dictatorship, which really didn’t sit well with the authorities, lol), you can read about it here.
  • Drug slang is a good example of “using slang terms to obfuscate” Vs “speaking in cant as an identifier”. The first is for, say, college kids, not necessarily rich and privileged but not outcasts by any means, who would rather not shout for all the world to hear “MAY I HAVE SOME MDMA PLEASE” – so they talk about buying molly. The second is for drug users who go in and out of jail, and have no reliable way to make a living or any prospect for the future, and all their friends are users, and that’s their community – so their speech is unintelligible to outsiders, but it identifies them as junkies, peers among peers.
  • Drug slang is also a good example for rapidly evolving terms. Nearly all informal terms for drugs started as slang terms known only to a few, and slowly went into mainstream, via “respectable” users and/or the media. When they become common knowledge, a new obscure term will pop up, and so on and so forth. (For all I know, “molly” may already be obsolete in that sense, I’m hardly an expert in English drug slang, I’m just grateful for the Urban Dictionary. :P)
  • The vast majority of early Thieves’ Cant dictionaries in English were from the point of view of respectable rich people regarding disreputable poor people in fear, loathing, and sordid fascination. Same goes for the older dictionaries of French Argot, including those written by cops. (And when I say cops, I mean Vidocq.) But hey, that’s a feature of Rogue Literature in general.
  • I’m shutting up now.

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The Twenty-Seven Ranks of The Canting Crew

Introduction

This following is from A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew (London, 1698), which was “a dictionary of English cant and slang by a compiler known only by the initials B. E.. With over 4,000 entries, it was the most extensive dictionary of non-standard English in its time, and was used as a source by many subsequent dictionaries.” [x]

The dictionary describes a criminal underworld that operates under a complex division of labour, and an even more complex pecking order. Their Ranks, or Orders, scattered in the entries, go from the kingpins on top to the infants at the bottom. It’s fascinating, and a bit depressing.

I looked these Ranks up, took some liberties in modernising (some of) the spelling, put them in order, and present them to you here. So this is my contribution to Rogue Research™. If you spot a mistake, kindly let me know.

~ Rogue

The Twenty-Seven Orders

1. Rufflers: the first Rank of Canters; also notorious Rogues. To ruffle, to disorder any thing.

2. Upright-men: the second Rank of the Canting Tribes, having sole right to the first night’s lodging with the Dells. Go upright, said by tailors and shoemakers, to their servants when any money is given to make them drink, and signifies, bring it all out in drink, tho’ the donor intended less and expects change or some return of money.

3. Hookers: the third Rank of Canters ; also Sharpers.

4. Rogues: the fourth Order of Canters. A Rogue in Grain, a very great Rogue. A Great-be-rogue, a sturdy swinging Rogue.

5. Wild-Rogues: the fifth Order of Canters, such as are trained up from children to nim buttons off coats, to creep in at cellar and shop-windows, and to flip in at doors behind people; also that have been whipped, burnt in the fist and often in prison for roguery.

6. Priggers or Prancers: the sixth Order of the Canting Crew, horse-stealers, who carry a bridle in their pockets, a small pad saddle in their breeches.

7. Palliards: the seventh Rank of the Canting Crew, whose fathers were born beggars and who themselves follow the same trade, with sham sores, making a hideous noise, pretending grievous pain, do extort charity.

8. Fraters: The eighth Order of Canters, such as beg with a sham-patents or briefs for spitals, prisons, fires &c.

9. Priggs: the ninth Rank of Canting Rogues, Thieves.

10. Swaddlers: the tenth Order of the Canting Tribe. To swaddle, to beat lustily with a cane or cable’s end. I’ll swaddle your hide, I’ll bang your back.

11. Curtals: the eleventh Rank of the Canting Crew.

12. Irish Toyles: the twelfth Order of Canters; also Rogues carrying pins, points, laces,and such like wares about, and under pretence of selling them, commit thefts and robberies.

13. Swig-men: the thirteenth Rank of the Canting Crew, carrying small habberdashery-wares about, pretending to sell them to colour their Roguery. A hearty swig, a lusty draught. To swig it off, to drink it all up.

14. Jarke-men: the fourteenth Order of the Canting Tribe; also those who make counterfeit licences and passes, and are well paid by the other beggers for their pains.

15. Patrico, or Patercove: the fifteenth Rank of the Canting Tribe, strolling priests that marry under a hedge without Gospel or Common-prayer Book, the couple standing on each side a dead beast, are bid to live together till death them do’s part, so shaking hands, the wedding is ended; also any Minister, or Parson.

16. Kinchin-coes: the sixteenth Rank of the Canting Tribe, being little children whose parents are dead, having been beggars; as also young lads running from their Masters, who are first taught canting, then thieving.

17. Abram-men: the seventeenth Order of the Canting-crew. Beggars anticly tricked up with ribbands, red tape, foxtails, rags, &c, pretending madness to palliate their thefts of poultrey, linnen, &c.

18. Mad Tom: alias of Bedlam, the eighteenth Rank of Canters.

19. Whip-Jacks: the nineteenth Order of the Canting Crew; counterfeit mariners begging with false passes, pretending shipwrecks, great losses at sea, & narrow escapes; telling dismal stories, having learnt Tar-terms on purpose, but are mere Cheats.

20. Counterfeit-Cranks: the twentieth Rank or Order of the Canting Tribe.

21. Domerars: Rogues, pretending to have had their tongues cut out, or to be born dumb and deaf, who artificially turning the tip of their tongues into their throat, and with a stick making it bleed, weak people think it the stump of their tongue; one of whom being asked hastily how long he had been dump? answered but three weeks; this is the twenty first Order of Canters, the word also signifying mad-men.

22. Glimmerer: the twenty second Rank of the Canting Tribe, begging with sham licences , pretending to losses by fire, &c.

23. Bawdy-baskets: the twenty third Rank of Canters, with pins, tape, obscene books, &c to sell, but live more by stealing.

24. Autem mort: a married-woman, also the twenty fourth Order of the Canting Tribe, travelling, begging (and often stealing) about the country, with one child in arms another on back, and (sometimes) leading a third in the hand.

25. Doxies: She-beggars, trulls, wenches, whores, the twenty fifth Rank of Canters ; being neither maids, wives, nor widows, will for good viernals (?), or a very small piece of money prostitute their bodies, protesting they never did so before, and that mere necessity then obliged them to it (though common hackneys). These are very dextrous at picking pockets (in the action) and so barbarous as often to murder the children thus got.

26. Dells: the twenty sixth order of the Canting Tribe; young buxom wenches ripe and prone to venery, but have not lost their virginity, which the upright man pretends to, and seizes: then she is free for any off the fraternity; also a common strumpet.

27. Kinchin-morts: the twenty seventh and last Order of the Canting Crew, being girls of a year or two old, whom the Morts (their mothers) carry at their backs in slates (sheets) and if they have no children of their own, they borrow or steal them from others.

The Five Ancient Orders

1. Cursitors: Vagabonds; the first (old) Rank of Canters.

2. Faytors: the second (old) Rank of the Canting Crew.

3. Roberds-men: the third (old) Rank of the Canting Crew, mighty thieves, like Robin-hood.

4. Draw-Litches: the fourth (old) Order of the Canting Tribe of Rogues.

5. Sturdy-beggers: the fifth and last of most ancient Order of Canters.

[originally published by Rogue on tumblr]

Whipjack

Whipjack (n): a beggar, specifically one who is pretending to have been shipwrecked

[Thieves’ cant]

Whipjacks or Freshwater Mariners: Pretend to be shipwrecked sailors. Most came from Ireland and the west of England, and operated in the counties east of Wiltshire. Some carried counterfeit licences from the Admiralty, which they bought in Portsmouth for 2s. (Distressed mariners were sometimes licensed to seek alms, as were the relatives of those kidnapped by corsairs. False licences, or, in cant, “jarks” were popular, as they were difficult to check.)

The source for the above is A Caveat or Warning for Common Cursitors, vulgarly called vagabonds, a 1566 book by Thomas Harman. It is one of the fundamental texts for rogue literature, and interestingly, “Harman is one of the first writers to use the word rogue, which was adopted in the Poor Law legislation of 1572.”

So it’s Tudor era cant, and the context is Tudor era Poor Laws – some pretty harsh anti-vagrancy measures, which made it a crime to beg or “idly wander” or basically exist while poor and unemployed. (A crime punishable by jail, pillory, whipping, branding, and for a span even slavery…) But loopholes existed, and the whipjack racket took advantage of one such loophole. You pretended to be a shipwrecked sailor, and could then beg for alms (or just… walk) without getting arrested, jailed, pilloried, whipped, branded, or enslaved. Woo-hoo.

[Project Gutenberg has the full text of Harman’s Caveat, along with John Awdely’s The Fraternitye of Vacabondes, with notes and all, in a nice package called The Rogues and Vagabonds of Shakespeare’s Youth.]

[originally posted by Rogue on tumblr]