Outlaws and Highwaymen

Passages from Thomas More’s Utopia
Thomas More, Utopia, trans. Ralph Robinson, ed. J. Rawson Lumby (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1885), pp. 28–30, 31–32, 33–34, 34–36

More’s Latin original, 1516; Robinson’s translation 1551; second (revised) edition of translation 1556

[Of lawes not made according to equitie]

It chaunced on a certayne daye, when I sate at his table, there was also a certayne laye man cunnynge in the lawes of youre realme. Who ... began diligently and earnestly to prayse that strayte and rygorous justice, which at that tyme was there executed upon fellones, who, as he sayde, were for the moste parte xx. hanged together upon one gallowes.1 And, seyng so fewe escaped punyshement, he sayde he coulde not chuse, but greatly wonder and marvel, howe and by what evil lucke it shold so come to passe, that theves nevertheles were in every place so ryffe and so rancke.2

Naye, Syr, quod I ... marvel nothinge hereat: for this punyshement of theves passeth the limites of justice, and is also very hurtefull to the weale publique.3 For it is to extreame and cruel a punishment for thefte, and yet not sufficient to refrayne and withhold men from thefte. For simple thefte is not so great an offense, that it owght to be punished with death. Neither ther is any punishment so horrible, that it can kepe them from stealynge, which have no other craft, wherby to get their living. Therefore in this poynte, not you onlye, but also the most part of the world, be like evyll scholemaisters, which be readyer to beate, then to teach their scholers. For great and horrible punishmentes be appointed for theves, whereas much rather provision should have ben made, that there were some meanes, whereby they myght get their livynge, so that no man shoulde be dryven to this extreme necessitie, firste to steale, and then to dye.

Yes (quod he) this matter is wel ynough provided for already. There be handy craftes, there is husbandrye to gette their livynge by, if they would not willingly be nought.4

Nay, quod I, you shall not skape so: for first of all, I wyll speake nothynge of them, that come home out of the warres, maymed and lame ... and by reason of weakenesse and lamenesse be not hable to occupye their olde craftes, and be to aged to lerne new: of them I wyll speake nothing, forasmuch as warres have their ordinarie recourse. But let us considre those thinges that chaunce daily before our eyes. First there is a great numbre of gentelmen, which can not be content to live idle themselves, lyke dorres, of that whiche other have laboured for: their tenauntes I meane, whom they polle and shave to the quicke, by reisyng their rentes (for this only poynte of frugalitie do they use, men els through their lavasse and prodigall spendynge, hable to brynge theymselfes to verye beggerye) these gentlemen, I say, do not only live in idlenesse themselves, but also carrye about with them at their tailes a great flocke or traine of idle and loyterynge servyngmen, which never learned any craft wherby to gette their livynges.5 These men as sone as their mayster is dead, or be sicke themselfes, be incontinent thrust out of dores. For gentlemen hadde rather keepe idle persones, then sicke men, and many times the dead mans heyre is not hable to mainteine so great a house, and kepe so many serving men as his father dyd. Then in the meane season they that be thus destitute of service, either starve for honger, or manfullye playe the theves. For what would you have them to do? When they have wandred abrode so longe, untyl they have worne thredebare their apparell, and also appaired their helth, then gentlemen because of their pale and sickely faces, and patched cotes, will not take them into service. And husbandmen dare not set them a worke, knowynge wel ynough that he is nothing mete to do trewe and faythful service to a poore man wyth a spade and a mattoke for small wages and hard fare, whyche beynge deyntely and tenderly pampered up in ydilnes and pleasure, was wont with a sworde and a buckler by hys syde to jette through the strete with a bragginge loke, and to thynke hym selfe to good to be anye mans mate.6

Naye, by saynt Mary, sir (quod the lawier) not so. For this kinde of men muste we make moste of. For in them as men of stowter stomackes, bolder spirites, and manlyer courages then handycraftes men and plowemen be, doth consiste the whole powre, strength and puissance of oure army, when we muste fight in battayle.

Forsothe, sir, as well you myghte saye (quod I) that for warres sake you muste cheryshe theves. For suerly you shall never lacke theves, whyles you have them. No, nor theves be not the most false and faynt harted soldiers, nor souldiours be not the cowardleste theves: so wel thees ii. craftes agree together. But this faulte, though it be much used amonge you, yet is it not peculiar to you only, but commen also almoste to all nations.

[Here follows a long digression on the problems caused by mercenary soldiers in France. Finally, Raphael Hythloday, the speaker, picks up his main thread once more.]

No, nor those same handy crafte men of yours in cities, nor yet the rude and uplandish plowmen of the countreye, are not supposed to be greatly affrayde of your gentlemens idle servyngmen, unlesse it be suche as be not of body or stature correspondent to their strength and courage, or els whose bolde stomakes be discouraged through povertie. Thus you may see, that it is not to be feared lest they shoulde be effeminated, if thei were brought up in good craftes and laboursome woorkes, whereby to gette their livynges, whose stoute and sturdye bodyes (for gentlemen vouchsafe to corrupt and spill none but picked and chosen men) now either by reason of rest and idlenesse be brought to weakenesse: or els by easy and womanly exercises be made feble and unhable to endure hardnesse. Truly howe so ever the case standeth, thys me thinketh is nothing avayleable to the weale publique, for warre sake, which you never have, but when you wyl your selfes, to kepe and mainteyn an unnumerable flocke of that sort of men, that be so troublesome and noyous in peace, whereof you ought to have a thowsand times more regarde, then of warre.7

But yet this is not the only necessary cause of stealing. There is an other, whych, as I suppose, is proper and peculiar to you Englishmen alone.

[Here follows a long (and famous) analysis of the effects of the enclosure of arable land for sheep-farming, which More believed led to the depopulation of wide tracts of countryside and the creation of unemployed vagrants, with no means of survival but begging and stealing.]

For one shephearde or heardman is ynoughe to eate up that grounde with cattel, to the occupiyng wherof aboute husbandrye manye handes were requisite. And this is also the cause why victualles be now in many places dearer.

[Hythloday reflects further on the ill effects of enclosure for sheep-farming, before coming to this conclusion:]

Thus the unreasonable covetousnes of a few hath turned that thing to the utter undoing of your ylande, in the whiche thynge the cheife felicitie of your realme did consist. For this greate dearth of victualles causeth men to kepe as litle houses and as smale hospitalitie as they possible maye, and to put away their servauntes: whether, I pray you, but a beggynge: or elles (whyche these gentell bloudes and stoute stomackes wyll sooner set their myndes unto) a stealing?

Nowe to amend the matter, to this wretched beggerye and miserable povertie is joyned greate wantonnes, importunate superfluitie and excessive riote. For not only gentle mennes servauntes, but also handicrafte men: yea and almooste the ploughmen of the countrey, with al other sortes of people, use muche straunge and proude newefanglenes in their apparell, and to muche prodigall riotte and sumptuous fare at their table. Nowe bawdes, queines, whoores, harlottes, strumpettes, brothelhouses, stewes, and yet another stewes, wynetavernes, ale houses and tiplinge houses, with so manye noughtie, lewde and unlawfull games, as dyce, cardes, tables, tennis, boules, coytes, do not all these sende the haunters of them streyghte a stealynge when theyr money is gone?

Caste oute these pernicyous abhominations, make a lawe, that they, whiche plucked downe fermes and townes of husbandrie, shal reedifie them, or els yelde and uprender the possession therof to suche as wil go to the cost of buylding them anewe.8 Suffer not these riche men to bie up al, to ingrosse and forstalle, and with their monopolie to kepe the market alone as please them.9 Let not so many be brought up in idelnes, let husbandry and tillage be restored, let clotheworkinge be renewed, that ther may be honest labours for this idell sort to pass their tyme in profitablye, whiche hitherto either povertie hath caused to be theves, or elles nowe be either vagabondes, or idel serving men, and shortelye wilbe theves. Doubtles onles you find a remedy for these enormities, you shall in vaine advaunce your selves of executing justice upon fellons. For this justice is more beautiful in apperaunce, and more florishynge to the shewe, then either juste or profitable. For by suffringe your youthe wantonlie and viciously to be brought up, and to be infected, even frome theyr tender age, by litle and litle with vice: then a Goddes name to be punished, when they commit the same faultes after being come to mans state, which from their youthe they were ever like to do: In this point, I praye you, what other thing do you, then make theves and then punish them?

Thomas More


The speaker is Raphael Hythloday, a traveller; a figure invented by More. Hythloday is describing a time when he was in England, living as the guest of Cardinal Morton. It is at Morton’s table that this debate is supposed to have taken place.

Textual Note

There are no paragraph breaks in the original. ‘Of lawes not made according to equitie’ is a marginal note.


Notes and page design © Gillian Spraggs 2001, 2007
Text added to site on 20 September 2001 | Page last modified on 28 August 2007

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