I’m posting this as a sort of starter for what may become a longer series on underworld organisations. It is rather long at the moment, but if I make follow-up posts I may shift some text to those and replace it with links.
Talking of links, please note that my links to further information and texts in the below will often take you to descriptions of violent crime, some of them rather gruesome. I’m not going to clutter the text with exhaustive trigger warnings but I’ve tried to give some clues within the flow of the blog. Think before you click if you are concerned about content. My text itself refers to some specific violent and sexual crimes so stop here if you really don’t want to think about them.
Thieves’ Guilds and organised crime in fiction, fantasy and history
The trope of a Thieves’ Guild has been built into tabletop roleplaying, perhaps especially Dungeons & Dragons, from early days. Related concepts are the Assassins’ Guild and the Beggars’ Guild. Where, I find myself wondering, did this idea come from?
As far as I have found, the earliest occurrence of the trope in fiction is Rinconete and Cortadillo, by Miguel de Cervantes. It was written around 1600 but set a generation or so earlier. The two title characters are a card-sharp and a cutpurse who meet up on the run in southern Spain and are recruited by a gang of thieves in Seville, based in a town house, led by a charismatic elder rogue and prospering by theft, violence and corruption. This brotherhood has quasi-apprenticeships and something of a hierarchy, enforces a monopoly on theft in the city, and generally operates in imitation or parody of the craft guilds of the later middle ages and early modern period. I therefore suspect it is a strong influence on the trope of the thieves’ guild in later fiction and fantasy.
Link to story text (TW: violence within a relationship)
From the other end of the Mediterranean Sea we have The Sandal-Wood Merchant and the Sharpers , a story in the Thousand Nights and One Night collection, which references a city full of tricksters, and an experienced trickster posing as a beggar and issuing judgements to the townsfolk. This is said to be inspired by the thieves of Cairo in the Ottoman period. But the translation I have seen does not go into detail on any criminal or underworld organisation for this city. There is also the eponymous gang of rogues in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (which was added to the 1001 Nights by a European translator). The Forty Thieves’ methods suggest that popular perceptions of criminal gangs in the pre-industrial Islamic world recognised the violent as well as the witty aspect to living by sharp practice.
I don’t have the research time or the space in this post to cover the many appearances of underworld gangs and criminal fraternities in later mainstream fiction. Fagin’s gang of young pickpockets in Oliver Twist is well-known and must be influential.
But I must give special mention to the Thieves’ Guild of Lankhmar, because Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar stories are an acknowledged and clearly strong influence on Dungeons & Dragons’ early days, and because the guild, with its master and lieutenants, its underworld law and punishments, and its guildhouse with hidden guards and horror-filled cellars, provides a model as well as the name for the trope thereafter. The Guild first appears in Thieves’ House, a short story appearing in a magazine in 1943 and then in a book collection in 1970. Further appearances are in The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar (1968) and Ill Met in Lankhmar (1970)
So much for fictional thieves’ guilds. What is their basis in historical reality? What examples can we find of malefactors working together in medieval (and maybe early modern) times?
One note I would make overall is that historically there were very blurred lines between warriors and thieves, and most of the notable incidents of criminal confederacy that I have found in the middle ages were armed and violent, even where murder was not the primary purpose. I suppose solo crime was more often stealthy and deceptive, and vice versa. But group crime was often brutal, and its organisation was not infrequently part of, or similar to, the legitimate governance structure of the time based on the warrior elite of lords, knights and armed men.
Establishment power misused
The legal limits and obligations on powerful medieval people were much less than we are used to in functioning modern states. Upper-class power was closely based on coercion and violence, and was more personal than in our bureaucratic modern world. So there were many examples where lords, knights, officials and even clergy used their retinues as armed gangs to take what they wanted and make lesser folk do their bidding, contrary to any romanticised notion of chivalry. Whether they were in practice punished or removed from power was a very hit-and-miss affair. The self-confessed ringleader in the premeditated and grotesque 1445 murder of the lawyer Nicholas Radford soon after inherited his family title as Earl of Devon.
Several courtiers of Henry III of England were convicted of moonlighting as bandits in 13th-century Hampshire—to make up for late pay from the king, they claimed. Men like Eustace Folville and James Coterel, and their followers, rotated between legitimate lordship, mercenary service and crime. Even a royal-born nun might use a band of criminals to get her way, without losing her noble standing.
In the middle ages it could be hard to tell where war ended and theft began. An army in a foreign land routinely lived by plunder, and burning what the army could not carry away was a common tactic to undermine the economic support base of the enemy. A town that closed its gates to an army and was taken by force was commonly looted and subjected to arson and destruction. Violence, often murder and rape, against the civilian population routinely accompanied the plunder and damage of property—records in the chronicles of leaders attempting to restrain their armies are noted because they were exceptions, and were in any case not always successful.
But this behaviour was not limited to forces in foreign lands. Where there was conflict between lords in the same realm, as there often was, then the forces of one lord might well subject the territory of unfriendly lords to this treatment. Even supposedly friendly forces might engage in rape and looting, such as that by the army of John, Baron Arundel in 1379. When both neighbourly relations and political control broke down badly, such as in England during the civil war between Stephen and Matilda in the 12th century, robbery and extortion of the civilian population by knights and their armed followers became general; with the scattered pattern of feudal land-holding and allegiance, every village and farm might be within a day’s ride of a hostile warlord.
As well as landed feudal knights and their resident followers, there were many itinerant mercenaries who would fight for pay. When between contracts, companies of such sellswords would terrorise and pillage common people and, if the company was strong enough, towns, castles and religious houses. In the 14th century France, Italy and the lands around them were plagued with such mercenaries.
Outlaws and bandits
Imprisonment was little used as a punishment in the middle ages; prisons were largely for suspect awaiting trial. Punishments short of execution often tended to push the criminal out of respectable society: either directly by banishment and/or outlawry; or indirectly as with branding or mutilating criminals so that others could see they were not to be trusted. Many criminals fled before enforcement could catch up with them, hiding out in woods and hills, or moving to areas where they were strangers, with no criminal suspicions but also no position or property. So there were many who had fallen foul of the law, ejected from normal society and making their way as best they could. These sometimes formed groups, living in hidden camps off the beaten track and not infrequently led by men of higher birth (see above). Deprived of normal means of livelihood and with little left to lose they tended to survive by theft, waylaying travellers or robbing settlements. Roads through unpopulated areas were often known as haunts of these bandits, and travellers moved through them in sizeable armed groups whenever possible.
Tales of outlaws like Gamelyn of Boundys and Robin Hood were popular in late medieval England. These tales show that even very violent outlaws were not always popularly disapproved of and restoring them to their livelihoods was seen as possible and perhaps desirable.
Vigilantism, insurrection and other unofficial forces
A recurrent feature of the middle ages was the gathering of bands of people for ostensibly moral purposes, such as fighting crime, reforming religion or resisting oppression. Almost inevitably these unofficial forces, if they kept together for long enough, resorted to violence and theft to sustain themselves, and attracted habitual criminals and out-of-work sellswords as well as ordinary common folk.
One such episode was the Capuchonné movement in southern France in the 12th century. The country there had become overrun with bandits (out-of-work mercenaries: see above) and there was a church-sponsored movement of commoners to out-fight the brigands. However, within a short time the Capuchonnés themselves turned to general violence and looting.
The Jacquerie was a loosely-connected series of peasant uprisings in France in the early phase of the Hundred Years’ War. Their overthrow of and retaliation against local lords went to extremes, with atrocities committed against ladies and children as well as lords, and towns sacked.
Some of the Crusades drew volunteer forces, outside the commands of established leaders. They sometimes lacked the organised supply and transport arrangements of those leaders, and made their own way from their gathering-places towards Palestine. Many supplied themselves by pillaging lands they passed through. Large bands in the First Crusade, with the encouragement of some local rulers, particularly targeted Jews in France and Germany, killing them and looting their property. Antisemitic attacks and extortion were also a feature of later unofficial crusades. Depredations were also severe around Constantinople, through which many funnelled on their way into Islamic territory.
One popular crusade, that of the pastoureaux in France in 1251 actually turned on Christian clergy. Driven initially by resentment against clerical luxury and corruption (see below), the movement gained respectable support by preaching religious reform, but went on to murder many priests and loot churches, before turning on Jews and rich lay people and eventually being outlawed and dispersed or executed. There was a somewhat similar movement again in 1320.
The most notorious crime organisation of the western world, the Sicilian Mafia, also grew out of informal justice structures, but not until the 19th century.
As society, and especially trade and commerce, became more urban in the later middle ages, so towns increasingly became a place of criminal activity. The availability of coin and portable goods provided opportunities for pickpockets and other thieves, and then in turn for fences, leading on to shopkeepers and merchants who would buy a second-hand item without asking awkward questions about its provenance. These networks were probably in most cases informal and shifting, and did not amount to thieves’ guilds. They were most often simply people who knew people.
Ale-houses, brew-houses and taverns provided venues for criminals to meet, if they did not wish to use their own homes. The authorities knew this and often attempted to require pubs to shut at dark or at curfew, or raided them in a crackdown.
Drinking establishments in towns were also often venues for prostitution, which was not generally banned outright in the middle ages, but was subject to regulation and tax which many sex workers sought to evade. Bath-houses were another very common venue for prostitution, to the extent that terms like bagnio and stew became synonymous with brothel. There was a trope much used by authorities and the establishment of the time that sex workers were immoral and in league with thieves and criminals; how much truth there was in this is hard to quantify. Given the shared venues there must have been contacts between criminals and prostitutes. People paying for sex must certainly have become vulnerable to thieves, especially if the sex workers did collude with the robbers. And coercive and exploitative pimps would very likely have overlapped with criminal strongmen, racketeers and robbers.
It was in a brothel in Dijon in 1455 that the authorities raided a criminal gang known as the Coquille or Coquillards, which perhaps provides the best medieval (or nearly medieval, depending on your cut-off date) approximation to the thieves’ guild trope. According to the official who busted the gang, they were engaged in theft by picking locks, sleight of hand with coins, loaded dice, cheating at cards, fake gold and jewellery, theft by stealth from travellers at inns, and highway robbery and murder. They had their own slang, known as jargon or jobelin, and their leader was referred to as their king. Their gathering at Dijon was reportedly for rest and recreation; they would disperse to steal elsewhere for a few weeks at a time and then re-gather to spend their loot.
Further information here is in French. There is a briefer reference in English here.
Later in France there was supposedly a national criminal organisation, headed by the Grand Coësre or beggar king, who held court in the Paris slums. Stories tell of a provincial and local hierarchy, training and testing of apprentices, division into specialities (especially in dishonest begging), payment of profit shares shares up the organisation, and the enforcement of rules. But it is far from clear how much of this is true and how much invention. What historical evidence I have found comes from at least the 17th century, though Victor Hugo projected the idea back into the middle ages in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Urban crime, because of ubiquity of potential witnesses, was often quiet and stealthy, but some could still be rough and forceful. There was a case in Laôn in the 12th century where criminals reportedly lured country visitors to a large, lidded grain bin on the pretext of selling grain, but them tipped them into the bin and shut the lid on them to make them pay to get out. More common would have been simple mugging at knifepoint or with a surprise beating in a back alley or at night when there were fewer passers-by. And rivalries and disputes even between rich and respectable merchants might escalate to the level of armed raids (usually by hired goons).
White-collar crime and fraud
Dishonesty in literate occupations would I suppose often have been at the individual scale. If a priest spent too much of the parish funds on himself or a merchant’s clerk dipped his hand in the cash box, probably no-one else was involved.
But clerical dishonesty could spread through whole institutions, at least if their detractors are to be believed. An order of canons was accused of raising money for charity and for running hospitals but spending it on drink and immoral living, of raising money by selling forgiveness of sins and admission to their own order, and of harbouring thieves and prostitutes. Indeed from the repeated condemnations and failed reforms against self-serving clergy who neglected their duties, it might seem that the church itself amounted to an institution enabling those priests who were dishonest to find an easy life paid for by people’s tithes. A particularly flagrant example was Robert Colynson, who in the 15th century obtained money from nuns and would-be nuns on the promise of using it to intervene with senior clergy on their behalf. Although his deceptions became known he was later made Bishop of Ross in Ireland. In 1303 a large number of the monks of Westminster Abbey were accused as inside accomplices to the theft of valuables from the royal treasury (stored in the abbey crypt and to an estimated value of £100,000, equivalent to a year’s tax revenue from the entire kingdom).
The church, where it was institutionally corrupt, was really only reflecting the society of which it was a part. There were also frequent and widespread allegations of corruption on the part of secular officials, taking bribes, making decisions in favour of their relatives and friends, neglecting their duties, pocketing funds meant for their work and generally feathering their own nests.
In an age of precious metal coinage, currency fraud involved manual skills such as shaving metal from the edges of coins and making new coins with the clippings, but since many accusations were made against royal moneyers, we might consider that here as dishonesty in office. Private operators did also attempt this.
Another lucrative target of forgery was the royal seal (or other lesser official or personal seals), either by making a duplicate stamp that could impress a copy of the seal on wax on a document, or by carefully detaching genuine seals from genuine documents and attaching the seals to forged documents. Since documents under the royal seal could include orders for cash, transfers of real estate, credentials and instructions to officials, there was a good deal of money to be made in this way and a hands-on forger might embed themselves in a network of confederates and corrupt officials to take advantage of it.
There was also a good deal of low-level dishonesty and trickery, which hardly merits the label of organised crime, but might be perpetrated by groups, such as the three men who travelled Devon in 1354 and obtained valuables from householders by claiming to have magic powers which could duplicate the treasures. Also in this category might be considered the very widespread sale of substandard goods, lax service and short measure which town and royal authorities tried endlessly to stamp out.
Pirates and smugglers
Ship-borne piracy is necessarily a group endeavour, relying mainly on the pirate crew outnumbering the defenders of the ship or coastal settlement being attacked. The iconic age of Atlantic piracy was 17th and 18th century, perhaps another hundred years either side, but piracy was a regular feature of sea travel and coastal life from ancient times. Around medieval Europe, the most prolific pirates were Vikings in the early middle ages and corsairs from the Islamic world and southern Europe later, but there were many others. There were also pirates elsewhere in the world, especially south-east Asia.
Smuggling was also endemic, as most kingdoms imposed restrictions and taxes on trade and many people sought to get around these. Requiring a network for the onward trade of smuggled goods, this form of crime was also generally a more or less organised affair, though many of its participants had other occupations most of the time.
The expert and stealthy career killer, or spy with licence to kill, is I think a largely modern trope, despite its frequent presence in fantasy fiction and gaming. But there are at least a couple of medieval roots behind the later elaboration.
The original Assassins were an 11th-13th century sectarian mini-state in what is now Iran, notorious for its deployment of lone, dagger-wielding killers in civilian dress to target enemy leaders in non-battle settings. Note that they rarely deployed missile weapons and the extent of their stealth or subterfuge was usually to get close to the target; they did not strike undetected and willingly risked subsequent capture and/or death.
The Ninja were 14th-16th century Japanese mercenaries specialising in a wide range of covert operations and tactics considered dishonourable for samurai and other regular forces, including sabotage, arson, assassination and surprise raids.
Sources and further reading
Obviously I have plenty of online references in the text above. However, I must acknowledge an extremely useful book: The Medieval Underworld, by Andrew McCall. This provides a brief tour of most of the things I’ve mentioned above, plus a good deal of other useful material for anyone who wants to create a game or fiction inspired by medieval Europe.
Do you use thieves’ guilds in your setting? Do you know of other sources in history or fiction that have influenced the fantasy trope? Let us know in the comments.