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The Abraham-men (alternative spellings: Abram-Man or Abraham Cove) were a class of beggars claiming to be lunatics allowed out of restraint, in the Tudor and Stuart periods in England.

The phrase can be traced back as far as 1561, when it was given as one of The Fraternity of Vagabonds, by John Awdeley. It also appears in the taxonomy of rogues given by Thomas Harman, which was copied by later writers of rogue literature. It also appears in King Lear and John Fletcher's Beggar's Bush). It normally refers to the practice of beggars pretending that they were patients discharged from the Abraham ward at Bedlam. They were called anticks or God's minstrels, and later Poor Toms, from the popular song "Tom of Bedlam". John Aubrey the antiquary said they were common before the English Civil War, and wore a badge of tin on their left arms, an ox horn around their necks, a long staff and fantastical clothing. However, the badge seems to have been in myth. It may have been convenient theatrical property. In 1675 the governors of Bedlam issued a public notice:-

"Whereas several vagrant persons do wander about … pretending themselves to be lunatics under cure in the Hospital of Bethlem commonly called Bedlam, with brass plates about their arms and inscriptions thereon: These are to give notice that there is no such liberty given to any patients kept in the said Hospital for their cure, neither is any such plate as a distinction or mark put upon any lunatic during their being there, or when discharged thence. And that the same is a false pretence, to colour their wandering and begging, and to deceive the people."

Bedlam specialised in the care of mental illness from 1403, and remained the only such hospital in England until the seventeenth century. There cannot have been many genuine ex-inmates. In 1598 there were only 20 patients there, one who had been there over 25 years and others for several years.


  • Carroll, W. C. Fat King Lean Beggar; Representations of Poverty in the Age of Shakespeare Cornell UP, Ithaca & London, 1996
  • The Wordsworth Dictionary of Phrase and Fable
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Abraham-men". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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