Canting Academy – a first look

In my search of 17c. character books it came into my mind that rogue books might be a kind of character collections. too. Apart from the Elizabethan conny-catching pamphlets, my obvious choice was Richard Head‘s The Canting Academy, a book (as the title suggests),

very useful and necessary (to be known but not practis’d) by all people

The author clearly confesses he is shaken by his multitudinous purposes – at once, he is going to classify and describe “vices and practices so villanously various”, “infinite rogueries” and provide the reader with a tool to resist them, even if nothing but a piece of hemp can put an end to them (written word definitely can’t).

Giving “exact account of these Caterpillars” might then serve as an intervention by classifying and ordering reason, shedding light on their otherwise nefarious business. Logically, rogues must be lumped together into a solid brotherhood of the dark, possessing undeniable features of a unity (such as the use of canting as their argot):

There is no profest Rogue whatsoever (if he be qualified for his thieving faculty), but must well be versed in Canting… for by this they are able to converse with, and understand those of the upper Form of Villainy…

Secret language ushers in the degree of moral depravity and a sort of arcane hierarchy of rogues which both manifest themselves in how well the rogue can command canting. Accordingly, understanding cant is not only a tool to reveal villainous plans concerning you, but a master key laying open the whole organization of the criminal underworld.

Now here’s a comforting thought, on the surface the activity of rogues looks frighteningly tangled and intricate, they always seem to be lurking somewhere , planning something sinister, but beyond this lies a clearer and simpler organization which can be cracked and exposed. Hence the ambiguity in classifying rogues, it being possible and impossible at the same time. I would describe this as a sort of reverse modelling,which soothingly implores to look for order in disorder.

Head declares he has found ‘Gypsies’  to be the main ‘Professors of Canting’. That can seem slightly odd for the logic above – they are not murderers or more morally depraved than other criminals, but are probably higher on the level of deception  and imposture, from discolouring their faces (?) to ‘Natural Magick’ of these descendants of Egyptian Magi and all the way straight to devil-worshipping. No surprise Professors of Cant are also its Archpriests, forcing others to swear an oath before being admitted into the ‘Society’.

More anon, and just a final drop for now – the OED confirms that ‘booze’ is indeed a word that comes from cant.

We knew, we knew – Great Boo’s up, Edmund!

‘Brought back with him a chief of a famous tribe‘ – yeah sure, a ‘Gypsy’, innit?

About beggingscholar

I am a scholar of Early Modern English literature and culture, teaching quite a number of English-related subjects at Kazan University, Russia. I am mainly interested in the formation of the Early Modern public sphere, scandals, subversion, non-literary discourses in literature and other forms of destructive creation.
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