20

I remember reading about the Thieves's guild in Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, and I remember thinking they seemed... Novel? Especially as it was government-approved.

One of the remarkable innovations introduced by the Patrician was to make the Thieves’ Guild responsible for theft, with annual budgets, forward planning and, above all, rigid job protection. Thus, in return for an agreed average level of crime per annum, the thieves themselves saw to it that unauthorised crime was met with the full force of Injustice, which was generally a stick with nails in it.

Guards, Guards

Recently I went looking for references to the guild from the series, and I found that it didn't seem unique to the Discworld and that got me thinking:

What is the earliest reference in fiction to a government-approved thieves guild? By approved I mean open, full endorsement, not just begrudgingly accepting they can't be stopped.

3
  • What level of "approval" are you thinking of? Your quote describes an open and official endorsement from a ruler, but would a more tacit acceptance also count? The Riftwar Saga predates Guards by a few years and features a guild of thieves ("Mockers") in the city of Krondor; as far as I remember, the city rulers don't condone its activities but they know they can't take it down so they grudgingly live side by side with it.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Sep 17 at 12:43
  • @rand I mean full scale endorsement, not just begrudgingly accepting of them
    – Pureferret
    Sep 17 at 13:39
  • 1
    Feist says that the setting of Magician (1982) originated as a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, so I think this supports my thesis that thieves' guilds were popularized by Gygax. Sep 18 at 13:55
30

The question is difficult to answer due to its terms of reference. Usually it’s not possible to tell exactly where a given story lies on the continuum from “full endorsement” to “begrudging acceptance”. Governments are made up of many people, some of whom may be complicit with the thieves and some not. Did Tammany Hall “fully endorse” the gangs of New York? Did the Kingdom of Naples “fully endorse” the mafia of Sicily? Pratchett can have Vetinari endorse the Thieves’ Guild of Ankh-Morpork because he’s writing a satire and exaggeration is a satirical technique, but in other contexts we wouldn’t expect to see anything so explicit.

So what I’m going to do is change the terms of reference and look instead at the history of the phrase “Thieves’ Guild” and how it became popularized in fantasy fiction so that Pratchett found it a suitable target of satire. The “thieves’ guilds” of Ankh-Morpork are first mentioned in The Colour of Magic (1983), so we have to look for sources before that date.

I think the idea of an official or quasi-official “Thieves’ Guild” in fantastic settings was popularized by the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game. A “Thieves’ Guild” was mentioned in the 1978 Players’ Handbook and the concept was expanded in later manuals.

The Thieves Guild is an accepted part of communal society, and so long as they contain their activities to cutting purses, picking pockets, burglarizing homes, waylaying late-night revelers, all is well.

Gary Gygax (1978). Players’ Handbook, p. 30. Random House.

Thieves occasionally form guilds, especially in major cities and places with a strong sense of law and order. In many cases, they are forced to cooperate merely to survive. Influential thieves see guilds as a way to increase their own profits and grant them the image of respectability. They become dons and crimelords, directing operations without ever having to dirty their hands.

At the same time, the membership of a thieves' guild is by definition composed of liars, cheats, swindlers, and dangerously violent men and women, Thus, such guilds are hotbeds of deceit, treachery, and back-stabbing (literally). Only the most cunning and powerful rise to the top.

Gary Gygax (1989). Dungeon Master Guide, 2nd edition,† p. 19. Random House.

† The 2nd edition is too late to have influenced Pratchett, but there may have been similar wording in the first edition (1979). Let me know if you have a copy and can confirm or deny!

Gygax took inspiration from various works of fantasy literature, for example the magic system comes in large part from the story ‘Mazirian the Magician’ (1950) by Jack Vance. Another of his influences was the ‘Lankhmar’ series of fantasy stories by Fritz Leiber (the influence is explicit, for example the 1980 Deities and Demigods supplement includes the fictional pantheon from Leiber’s series). The Thieves’ Guild is mentioned briefly in Leiber’s story ‘The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar’ (1968):

[…] the intersection of Silver Street with the Street of the Gods, a crossing-point where there habitually foregathered the junior executives and star operatives of the Thieves Guild; also meeting there were the few free-lance thieves bold and resourceful enough to defy the Guild and the few thieves of aristocratic birth, sometimes most brilliant amateurs, whom the Guild tolerated and even toadied to, on account of their noble ancestry, which dignified a very old but most disreputable profession.

Fritz Leiber (1968). ‘The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar’. In Swords Against Wizardry, p. 79. New York: Ace.

The guild becomes an important plot element in the story ‘Ill Met in Lankhmar’ (1970).

Almost the first law of the Thieves’ Guild was never kill the hen that laid brown eggs with a ruby in the yolk, or white eggs with a diamond in the white.

Fritz Leiber (1970). ‘Ill Met in Lankhmar’. In Swords and Deviltry, p. 170. New York: Ace.

In The Colour of Magic, Pratchett acknowledged his debt to Leiber, by parodying the latter’s heroes (Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser) as “Bravd and the Weasel”, and he also gave a nod to Dungeons & Dragons by having Bravd “fumble the initiative” when he first appears. (In Dungeons & Dragons, “initiative” is the privilege of moving first in a round of combat, and to “fumble” is to roll a low number with humorous or disastrous consequences.) The biographer Marc Burrows says that Pratchett was familiar with the game prior to The Colour of Magic:

Pratchett was no stranger to Dungeons and Dragons and played locally with friends, often acting as dungeon master. The game excited him, and he considered it to be an entirely new artform: here was a way to make fiction interactive and turn narrative into competition. Among the familiar gorgons, ogres and magic spells he would create his own characters and settings […] One of his inventions was called the Luggage

Marc Burrows (2020). The Magic of Terry Pratchett, p. 89. White Owl.

So if Pratchett got “Thieves’ Guild” from Gygax and Leiber, and Gygax got it from Leiber too, where did Leiber get it from? Well, there seem to be two sources in English. First, from Luke Owen Pike’s history of the remarkable Jonathan Wild:

In the republic of the thieves’ guild Jonathan Wild became as it were a dictator; but like many of the great men of the middle ages, he owed his greatness to double-dealing. From small beginnings he became, in London at least, the receiver-in-chief of all stolen goods. He acquired and maintained this position by the persistent application of two simple principles; he did his best to aid the law in convicting all those mis-doers who would not recognise his authority, and he did his best to repair the losses of all who had been plundered and who took him into their confidence. By degrees he set up an office for the recovery of missing property, at which the government must, for a time, have connived. Here the robbed sought an audience of the only man who could promise them restitution; here the robbers congregated like workmen at a workshop, to receive the pay for the work they had done.

Luke Owen Pike (1873). A History of Crime in England, p. 256. London: Smith, Elder.

“Thieves’ guild” seems to have been Pike’s coinage and not used by Wild and his contemporaries, but the term was copied from Pike into subsequent works on criminology, for example:

Jonathan Wild is an interesting example of a criminal of great practical ability, a man whose genius for organisation would have made him equal to any position in which he might have been placed. “In the republic of the thieves’ guild”—I quote Mr. Pike’s excellent summary of his career—“Jonathan Wild became as it were a dictator”

Havelock Ellis (1890). The Criminal, p. 136. London: Walter Scott.

The second source for the term, and the more likely route for Leiber to have picked it up, comes from descriptions of organized crime in China:

Almost every large village, certainly every town, has its Thieves’ Guild, the members of which are generally known, and are always on good terms with the police.

North China Herald (24 August 1883), p. 223.

[…] the approach of the annual feast of the Thieves’ Guild, which takes place about this time. The place of meeting is not public but it is always well-known some time before. And did the Inspector of Police wish to arrest he could do so. He will probably not make any arrests until his annual fee has been paid him by the Guild.

North China Herald (15 January 1897), p. 59.

This made its way into China-set literature in the early 20th century:

“Rich?” Tang smiled bitterly. “Nine times these past two years have I been taxed for this business; five bags of silver have I given to the militarists. I work as hard as does any coolie. I pay a large squeeze to the Thieves’ Guild, and another to that of the beggars, that their members may let me alone.”

Elizabeth Foreman Lewis (1932). Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze, p. 182. Philadelphia: John C. Winston.

For the river ships were full of professional thieves. When they became so great a pest that business was lessened because of them, the owners of the vessels paid the thieves’ guild a certain sum of money to stay off the ships for a while.

Pearl S. Buck (1936). Fighting Angel, p. 125. New York: Reynal & Hitchcock.

An early occurrence in science fiction is in a 1961 story by Cordwainer Smith, who had served in China in the war.

Bozart was not trained against deception by a technician; it never occurred to the Thieves’ Guild back on Viola Siderea that it would be necessary for their own people to resist deceivers.

Cordwainer Smith (1961). ‘Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons’. In Galaxy, June 1961, p. 107.

Another early adopter was Andre Norton:

If a man could raise the price to buy into the Thieves’ Guild and so open a door out of this rat hole, Stowar was the negotiator.

Andre Norton (1964). Night of Masks, p. 12. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

7
  • Fantastic answer. I especially like the first two paragraphs, clearly justifying the slight frame challenge to the terms of the question.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Sep 17 at 16:06
  • One book I wanted to check but couldn't find online was the 1979 Dungeon Master's Guide. I suspect that this expanded on the idea of the "Thieves' Guild", and it would be nice to quote from it. Sep 17 at 16:10
  • 2
    Maybe try dropping into the RPG.SE chat to ask? I don't know if it'd be on-topic for their main site, asking for a quote from a specific book without gameplay context, but it's a fair bet one of the site regulars might have a copy they could easily check in for you.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Sep 17 at 17:28
  • 1
    "Pratchett can have Vetinari endorse the Thieves’ Guild of Ankh-Morpork because he’s writing a satire and exaggeration is a satirical technique, but in other contexts we wouldn’t expect to see anything so explicit" - isn't this exactly the question, though? Whether there is something this explicit somewhere?
    – Ell
    Sep 17 at 23:14
  • 1
    @GarethRees 1e DMG does not have much of anything on Thieves' Guilds: just a few passing references. (A roll on a city/town encounter table specifies a thief on "guild business," procedures for mass desertion in a guild when a PC ascends to guildmaster level, and that's about it.) Dragon magazine articles, I'd suggest, would be the best bet. Playing at the World, too, is worth a check; off the top of my head I don't remember anything in there about the inspirations of/influences on in-game organizations, though. (cc: @ Rand al'Thor.)
    – nitsua60
    Sep 18 at 1:12
2

Privateers were, in reality, government approved thieves, at least to the time of Queen Elizabeth. If the terms of the question permit the theft of another nation's shipping, cargoes, and payment.

So in literature, you may be looking at (checks date) arrr, pirate tales, me hearties!

Robinson Crusoe (1719) would probably NOT count, as a solitary shipwrecked sailor, though the basic story drew on the life of Alexander Selkirk, who was a privateer carrying letters of marque from the Lord High Admiral, Prince George of Denmark, husband to Queen Anne. However, other accounts of his story may marginally qualify.

1
  • 1
    Hi and welcome to Literature Stack Exchange. Could you add which other works inspired by the fate of Alexander Selkirk actually refer to him as a privateer? Without that information, your answer is, strictly speaking, incomplete.
    – Tsundoku
    Sep 19 at 13:49
0

Consider Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper of 1881/2.

In medieval London, Twain has one of his main protagonists learn a lot from meeting a well-organised bunch of thieves, whether or not they're specifically named as a "guild."

Specifically "earliest" I know not, though.

0
0

There is actually some historical precedent.

In 18th century London, a man named Jonathan Wild set up a thieves guild, where he would return stolen property to the rightful owner for a fee.

This quote from a book published in 1878

In the republic of the thieves' guild Jonathan Wild became as it were a dictator; but like many of the great Jonathan Wild men of the middle ages, he owed his greatness to double-dealing. From small beginnings he became, in London at least, the receiver-in-chief of all stolen goods. He acquired and maintained this position by the persistent application of two simple principles ; he did his best to aid the law in convicting all those misdoers who would not recognise his authority, and he did his best to repair the losses of all who had been plundered and who took him into their confidence. By degrees he set up an office for the recovery of missing property, at which the government must, for a time, have connived. Here the robbed sought an audience of the only man who could promise them restitution ; here the robbers congregated like workmen at a workshop, to receive the pay for the work they had done.

Wild was, in some respects, more autocratic than many kings, for he had the power of life and death. If he could reward the thief who submitted to him, he could hang the robber who omitted to seek his protection. If he could, for a sufficient fee, discover what had been lost, he could, when his claims were forgotten, make the losers repent their want of worldly wisdom.... He carried a wand of office, made of silver, which he asserted to be an indication of authority given to him by the government.

1
  • The exact same quote (well, the first paragraph of the two you've quoted) is already included in Gareth Rees's answer where he talks about Jonathan Wild.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Sep 19 at 15:22

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.