“Like Very Honest and Substantial Citizens”: Cony-Catching as Social Performance



This essay maps out the ways in which the figure of the cony-catcher, as imagined in the pamphlets of Robert Greene and Thomas Dekker, puts forward a performative notion of social position. Unlike the prototypical vagrants of many rogue-pamphlets who are seen as using disguise to dissimulate the “deserving poor,” the cony-catcher's performance is designed to win the confidence of his social betters. It goes beyond mere physical disguise and encompasses the networks of manners, speech, tacit codes and conventions, and relations of kinship and property that construct the field of “class.” Their performance challenges traditional notions of identity and hierarchy even as it echoes the “courtesy literature” of the period which advices the growing number of the “middling sort” of people on all aspects of social conduct. Thus, while recent scholarship has explored the criminalization of vagrants, I argue that the discourse of crime responds to a wider sphere of perceived social transformation and crisis, from the challenges to notions of selfhood and social position, to new forms of economic exchange and emerging structures of state formation. [A. B.]