The Book of Vagabonds and Beggars, with a Vocabulary of Their Language

The Book of Vagabonds and Beggars, with a Vocabulary of Their Language
Title: The Book of Vagabonds and Beggars, with a Vocabulary of Their Language
Release Date: 2014-07-15
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Copyright Status: Public domain in the USA.
Date added: 26 March 2019
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ASa picture of the manners and customs of theVagabond population of Central Europe beforethe Reformation, I think this little book, theearliest of its kind, will be found interesting. The fact ofLuther writing a Preface and editing it gives it at oncesome degree of importance, and excites the curiosity of thestudent.

In this country the Liber Vagatorum is almost unknown,and in Germany only a few scholars and antiquariesare acquainted with the book.

In translating it I have endeavoured as much as possibleto preserve the spirit and peculiarities of the original.Some may object to the style as being too antique; butthis garb I thought preserved a small portion of the originalPg viquaintness, and was best suited to the period when it waswritten.

For several explanations of old German words, andother hints, I am indebted to a long notice of the LiberVagatorum, which occurs in the “Wiemarisches Jahrbuch,”10te, Band, 1856,—the only article of any momentthat I know to have been written on the little book.

With respect to the facsimile woodcut, as it was toolarge to occupy a place on the title, as in the original (of4to. size), it is here given as a frontispiece.

Perhaps some apology is required for the occasional useof plain-spoken, not to say coarse words. I can only urge,in justification of their adoption, that the nature of thesubject would not admit of their being softened,—unlessindeed at the expense of the narrative. As it is, I havesent forth this edition in very much more refined languagethan the great Reformer thought necessary when issuingthe old German version.

J. C. H.

June 1, 1860.




Mendicant Friars.—Schreiber’s description ofthe Golden Age for Mendicants.—Knebel’sChronicles of the Trials at Basle, in 1475.—SebastianBrant.


Liber Vagatorum.—Various editions.—Gengenbach’smetrical version; Gödecke’s claim for the priority ofthis refuted


Martin Luther.—Occupied in the work of the Reformation.—Writesseveral popular pieces.—Edits theLiber Vagatorum


English Books on Vagabonds.—Harman’s Caveat forcommen Cvrsetors.—The Fraternitye of Vacabondes.—Greene,Decker, and Shakespeare


Ancient Customs of English Beggars.—Licences withSeals.—Seals now disused.—Wandering Students orVagabond Scholars


German Origin of tricks practised by English Vagabonds.—Masters[Pg viii]of the Black-Art.—Fawney Riggers.—Card-Sharpers.—Begging-Letter-Writers.—Shabby-Genteels.—Mechanicsout of employ.—ShiveringJemmies.—Maimers of Children.—Borrowers of Children.—SimulatedFits.—Quack Doctors.—Treasure-Seekers.—TravellingTinkers


Old German Cant Words

Luther’s Preface3
Part I.—The several Orders of Vagabonds7
Part II.—Notabilia relating to Beggars43
Part III.—Vocabulary of Cant Words49



VAGABONDS and Beggars are ancientblots in the history of the world. Idleness,I suppose, existed before civilizationbegan, but feigned distress mustcertainly have been practised soon after.

In the records of the Middle Ages enactmentsfor the suppression and ordering of vagrancy continuallyoccur. In this country, as we shall see directly,laws for its abolishment were passed at a veryearly date.

The begging system of the Friars, perhaps morethan any other cause, contributed to swell the ranksof vagabonds. These religious mendicants, who hadlong been increasing in number and dissoluteness, gavePg xto beggars sundry lessons in hypocrisy, and taughtthem, in their tales of fictitious distress, how to blendthe troubles of the soul with the infirmities of thebody. Numerous systems of religious imposturewere soon contrived, and mendicants of a hundredorders swarmed through the land. Things were attheir worst, or rather both friars and vagabondswere in their palmiest days, towards the latter partof the fifteenth century, just before the suppressionof the Religious Houses commenced, and immediatelybefore the first symptoms of the Reformationshowed themselves,—that great movement whichwas so soon to sweep one of the two pests away forever.

In Schreiber’s account of the Bettler-industrie(begging practices) of Germany in the year 1475, hethus speaks of this golden age for mendicants.1 Histheory, as to the origin of the complicated system ofmendicity, is, perhaps, more fanciful than true, butPg xihis account is nevertheless very interesting, and wellworth extracting from.

“The beggars of Germany rejoiced in theirGolden Age; it extended throughout nearly twocenturies, from the invasions of the Turks until afterthe conclusion of the Swedish war (1450 to 1650).During this long period it was frequently the casethat begging was practised less from necessity thanfor pleasure;—indeed, it was pursued like a regularcalling. For poetry had estranged herself from theNobility; knights no longer went out on adventuresto seek giants and dragons, or to liberate the HolyTomb; she had likewise become more and morealien to the Citizen, since he considered it unwise tobrood over verses and rhymes, when he was calledupon to calculate his profits in hard coin. Even the‘Sons of the Muses,’ the Scholars, had become moreprosaic, since there was so much to learn and somany universities to visit, and the masters could nolonger wander from one country to another withthousands of pupils.

Pg xii

“Then poetry (as everything in human lifegradually descends) began to ally herself with beggarsand vagrants. That which formerly had beenmisfortune and misery became soon a sort of freeart, which only retained the mask of misery in orderto pursue its course more safely and undisturbed.Mendicity became a distinct institution, was dividedinto various branches, and was provided with alanguage of its own. Doubtless, besides the frequentwars, it was the Gipsies—appearing in Germany,at the beginning of the fifteenth century, inlarger swarms than ever—who contributed greatlyto this state of things. They formed entire tribesof wanderers, as free as the birds in the air, nowdispersing themselves, now reuniting, resting whereeverforests or moors pleased, or stupidity and superstitionallured them, possessing nothing, but appropriatingto themselves the property of everybody,by stratagem or rude force.

“In what manner and to what extent such beggaryhad grown up and branched off towards thePg xiiiclose of the fifteenth century, what artifices andeven what language these beggars used to employ,is shown us in Johann Knebel’s Chronicles, theMSS. of which are preserved in the Library of theCity and University of Bâle.”

These MSS. are very curious. They contain theproceedings of the Trials at Basle,2 in Switzerland,in 1475, when a great number of vagabonds, strollers,blind men, and mendicants of all orders, werearrested and examined. Johann Knebel was thechaplain of the cathedral there, and wrote themdown at the time. From the reports of these trialsit is believed the Liber Vagatorum was compiled;and it is also conjectured that, from the same richsource, Sebastian Brant, who just at that period hadestablished himself at the University of Basle, wherePg xivhe remained until 1500, drew the vivid descriptionof beggars and begging, to be found in his Ship ofFools.3

Knebel gives a long list of the different orders ofbeggars, and the names they were known by amongstthemselves. This account is similar to, only notso spirited as that given in the Liber Vagatorum.The tricks and impostures are very nearly the same,together with the cant terms for the various tribesof mendicants. Knebel, speaking of the manner inwhich the tricks of these rogues were first foundout, says:—“At those times a great number ofknaves went about the country begging and annoyingpeople. Of these several were caught, andthey told how they and their fellow-knaves wereknown, and when and how they used to meet, whatthey were called, and they told also several of theircant words.”

Pg xv


THE Liber Vagatorum, or The Book of Vagabonds,was probably written shortly after1509, that year being mentioned in thework; it is the earliest book on beggars and theirsecret language of which we have any record,—precedingby half a century any similar work issued inthis country.

Nothing is known of the author other thanthat it was written by one who styled himself a“Reverend Magister, nomine expertus in truffis,”—whichproficiency in roguery, as Luther remarks,“the little book very well proves, even though hehad not given himself such a name.”

None of the early impressions bears a date, but thefirst edition is known to have been printed at Augsburg,about the year 1512-14, by Erhart Öglin, orOcellus.4 It is a small quarto, consisting of 12 leaves.

Pg xvi

The title:—


is printed in red. The title-page of this, as of mostof the early editions, is embellished with a woodcut,—afacsimile of which is given in this translation.The picture, representing a beggar and his family,explains itself. At the foot of the title is printed,in black:—Getrucht zu Augspurg durch ErhartÖglin. The little book was frequently reprintedwithout any other variations than printers’ blunders(one edition having an error in the first word,Lieber Vagatorum) until 1528, when Luther editedan edition,5 supplying a preface, and correctingsome of the passages. In 1529 another edition, withLuther’s preface, appeared at Wittemberg,6 andfrom this, comparing it occasionally with the firstPg xviiedition by Ocellus, the present English version hasbeen made. Nearly all the editions contain thesame matter; nor do those issued under Luther’sauthority furnish us with additional information.With regard to the Vocabulary, however, I havemade, in a few instances, slight variations, as givenin two editions of the Liber Vagatorum, preservedin the Library at Munich. Wherever there was amarked divergence in style I have adopted that asmy text which seemed to be the most characteristicfor the fifteenth and the commencement of the sixteenthcenturies, and which is mostly to be found inthe better class MSS. and works of that period.

I should state, however, before proceeding further,that a metrical version of the Liber Vagatorum,in 838 verses, appeared about 1517-18, writtenby Pamphilus Gengenbach, including a vocabularyof the beggars’ cant. Although Karl Gödecke,in his work, Ein Beitrag zur DeutschenLiteratur Geschichte der Reformations zeit (Hannover,Carl Rümpler, 1855), has stated thatPg xviiiGengenbach’s poetical version preceded the smallerprose account, it is impossible, upon examining thetwo publications, to agree with him on this point.Gengenbach’s book certainly did not appear tillafter 1517, and the direct copies from the LiberVagatorum, in matter and manner, are too frequentto admit for one moment of the supposition of theirbeing accidental. The cant terms, too, are incorrectlygiven, and altogether the work bears the appearanceof hasty and piratical compilation. Itnever met with that popularity which the authoranticipated, and probably never crossed the frontiersof Switzerland.

The latest prose edition of the Liber Vagatorumwas issued towards the close of the seventeenth century.The title ran:—Expertus in truffis. OfFalse Beggars and their knaveries. A pretty littlebook, made more than a century and a half since, togetherwith a Vocabulary of some old cant words thatoccur therein, newly edited. Anno 1668 (12o. pp.160).

Pg xix


THAT Luther should have written a Prefaceto so undignified a little work as TheBook of Vagabonds seems remarkable. Atthis period (1528-9) he was in the midst of his labours,surrounded with difficulties and cares, andwith every moment of his time fully occupied. TheProtest of Spires had just been signed by the firstProtestants. Melancthon, in great affliction at theturbulent state of affairs, was running from city tocity; and all Germany was alarmed to hear that thedreaded Turks were preparing to make battle beforeVienna. Yet, the centre of all this agitation, engagedin directing and assisting his followers, Luther foundtime to write several popular pieces, and kept, we

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