Vagrant Figures: Law, Literature, and the Origins of the Police

Author: Sal Nicolazzo
Publisher: Yale University Press, 2020. 310 pages.
Reviewer: Jeffrey S. Adler | September 2022

Sal (Sarah) Nicolazzo begins Vagrant Figures with a bold, intriguing, and ambitious argument. In a long, engaging introduction, the author posits a capacious conceptual framework, asserting that an analysis of eighteenth-century English vagrancy law reveals the “crucial blueprint” for the development of the modern police and modern policing (pp. 3, 9). Administered by overseers of poor houses and justices of the peace, vagrancy laws long predated the institutionalization of the “police” in England, but, according to Nicolazzo, they were the source or wellspring of modern policing and criminal justice.

Early modern law makers defined “vagrancy” as a crime of omission, rather than commission, and local officials relied on the statute to protect the community from anyone suspected of posing a threat to poor relief or to social order. Being punished as a vagrant did not require an unlawful act. Persons considered suspicious in any way could be ensnared in the web of punishment associated with vagrancy, giving poor-house managers and justices of the peace nearly unbounded discretion to exclude and banish individuals from the community and even confine them in local institutions. Revisions to vagrancy laws typically added to their vagueness and, thus, enhanced the discretionary authority of local officials. Therefore, the enforcement of vagrancy laws provides a cypher or index to perceptions of threat in early modern English cities and towns, as well as assumptions about membership in—or exclusion from—the community. The “origins of the police” and the wide-ranging authority afforded to law enforcers had their roots, Nicolazzo argues, in practices that emerged a century before Robert Peel launched London’s Metropolitan Police in 1829.

But the author promises more, much more, in Vagrant Figures. Nicolazzo avers that eighteenth-century vagrancy law also forged the system for the “management of new forms of colonial labor, new racialized regimes of sovereignty, and new imperatives of territorial management” in the burgeoning British empire (p. 4). As well, “vagrancy law was repurposed as the backbone of the colonial slave codes” (p. 27). For Nicolazzo, eighteenth-century vagrancy was a protean concept and produced laws carrying immense freight. The plastic, infinitively malleable definition of vagrancy embedded open-ended authority in the law enforcement mandate that would become formalized and institutionalized in the early nineteenth century with Peel’s “bobbies,” which persists today.

Nicolazzo’s introduction suggests that the book focuses on law enforcement and law formation. English legal and social historians have produced a huge, rich body of scholarship on early modern vagrancy law. American historians have generated comparable empirical studies. In remarkable detail, we know about the development and enforcement of vagrancy law, who was apprehended, and how local officials, throughout the British empire and early America, punished individuals who posed some sort of ethereal threat to the local community but typically did nothing unlawful. Curiously, Nicolazzo does not engage this rigorous empirical literature or even cite the most important studies. Nor is the analysis firmly grounded in primary-source evidence. Nicolazzo occasionally draws from original sources, but most often focuses on isolated individual cases, rather than wider trends and patterns.

Instead, Nicolazzo’s research explores early modern vagrancy and vagrancy law from a very different perspective. The result is a valuable and nuanced analysis, but one bearing only a loose connection to the book’s expansive introduction and criminal justice. The actions of law enforcers, poor-house officials, and judges command scant attention in Vagrant Figures, and it does not examine law-making, enforcement systems, institutional development, or state formation. A literacy scholar, Nicolazzo mainly uses depictions of vagabonds, rogues, and transgressive characters in early modern English novels, such as Richard Head’s 1665 The English Rogue, Jane Barker’s 1723 Patch-Work Screen for the Ladies, and Henry Fielding’s 1746 The Female Husband, and other works of fiction, including Mary Robinson’s poetry, to analyze the cultural markers for inclusion or for exclusion from respectable society, sexual interiority, and the boundaries of transgressive behavior in literature. In the final substantive chapter, Nicolazzo considers Olaudah Equiano’s 1789 Interesting Narrative. Vagrant Figures analyzes not vagrancy law or enforcement but rather the construction of “imaginative vagrancy” in fiction (p. 164). The author presents no evidence that Henry Fielding or his The Female Husband, for example, exerted any influence on eighteenth-century English policing, law formation, or criminal justice.

Nicolazzo grounds the insightful argument in cultural theory, as well as the methods and conventions of literary analysis. Rather than relying on law enforcement sources, vagrancy and poor-house dockets, or court records, the author presents dozens of quotations from literary theorists establishing the use of metaphor and fictional representation to identify the boundaries of cultural membership and inclusion. Nicolazzo employs the jargon of her research specialty, for instance, writing that “I will argue, also a kind of perverse historicism, arguing for the vitality of avowedly political literary historicism as a self-reflexive method, even as I also share many of the sympathies animating contemporary critiques of historicism” (p. 240). Nicolazzo’s evidence focuses on cross-dressing, dildo use, and the bending of sexual and racial identity, even though vagrancy charges were typically adjudicated in summary proceedings. Law enforcers confronted seemingly huge waves of scary migrants during periods of turmoil and instability, and individual trials, witnesses, and testimony were rare. Judges and justices of the peace usually sentenced groups without considering individual circumstances. Simply put, dildo use, “carnal appetites,” and sexual interiority seldom arose in these cases (p. 84).

Finally, Nicolazzo’s interesting, persuasive examination of Equiano’s Interesting Narrative drifts even further from the themes outlined in her introduction. The author emphasizes the use of extra-legal, vigilante violence as a form of racial control and racial terrorism in the eighteenth-century British empire. Equiano’s text describes his vulnerability. Whites attacked and brutalized him for no reason and with impunity, entirely unfettered by law. He was never safe from such vicious assaults. Nicolazzo provides a compelling analysis of this violent practice and its embedded power dynamics, though the connection between such extra-legal racial control and vagrancy law is not clear.

In sum, Vagrant Figures makes a subtle, significant contribution to cultural analysis and deserves a wide audience among literary scholars. Nicolazzo’s expansive introductory framework, however, describes a study of policing and law enforcement, rather than literary depictions of the construction of sexual and racial liminality. Legal and criminal-justice scholars may find the perceptive analysis less useful than will cultural theorists.

Jeffrey S. Adler is a Professor of History at The University of Florida.

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