Crime and Literature, 1600-1750

Module code: EN3142

Module co-ordinator: Dr Kate Loveman

Crime and criminals prompted some of the most innovative and influential literature of the early modern period. Taking examples from a range of literary forms, this module explores the fascination that crime held for authors and readers of the seventeenth and early eighteenth century. Why were authors repeatedly drawn to topics such as murder, theft, and piracy? What literary traditions could they draw upon in representing contemporary crime? How important were social and political factors (such as urbanisation, class divisions and the status of women) in shaping imaginative literature on crime? Through a consideration of the connections between different types of writing on crime and deviance, we will gain insights into the development of major genres such as biography and the novel.

We will consider a wide range of texts, including early seventeenth-century plays, eighteenth-century novels, news pamphlets, biographies, and ballads. In addition to looking at how actual malefactors spurred imaginative literature, we will also read literature which was itself judged criminal by the authorities. The authors studied will include the still famous (Thomas Dekker, Daniel Defoe, John Gay) to the once infamous (Elizabeth Cellier, Thomas Dangerfield).


The module meets in weekly two-hour seminars. You will be expected to make use of electronic research tools (such as Early English Books Online) for primary and secondary reading, sometimes consulting online first editions of early modern works. Each student will make a ten-minute oral presentation to begin the group's discussion of one of the texts. By the end of the module, students will be able to:

  • Construct clear and detailed arguments about works from a range of popular genres
  • Demonstrate knowledge of the literary traditions and conventions that influenced early crime writing
  • Evaluate the importance of historical factors for understanding particular examples of early modern crime writing
  • Identify the common tactics used by authors and publishers to sell narratives, and the implications for the reception of works
  • Use major online tools for the early modern period to pursue individual research interests


  • One 5000-word essay