Archetypology 101: Fact, Fiction, & Fallacies
Episode 3 - Thick as Thievesby Aeon
July 13, 2001
Archetypology 101: Fact, Fiction, & Fallacies
Episode 3 - Thick as Thievesby Aeon
July 13, 2001
Anabaptist, bawdy basket, brigand, bubber, bufe napper, bung nipper, clank napper, cloyes, cracksman, criminal, crook, cutpurse, filcher, footpad, foyst, highwayman, made man, moon curser, nypper, old hand, pickpocket, poulterer, prigger, resurrection man, robber, rogue, rover, scoundrel, shoplifter, sneak, swaddler, swindler.
He has a million names, but only one real face.
The dictionary defines "thief" as "one that steals especially stealthily," and implies that it may have its origins from the Lithuanian "tupeti," meaning "to crouch down" (as if to conceal oneself). Even a brief glance at the definition should give one cause to pause, however, because it's obviously redundant to some degree. "Steal" and "stealth" would seem to come from the same root, and indeed, they have close origins in the Old English "stelan," which means "to steal." In short, to be stealthy in the Middle Ages implied you were stealing things (stealth was, basically, the act of stealing), and if you were stealing things you'd want to be as quiet and sneaky as possible.
Of course, this all seems pretty obvious and straightforward, and that's exactly why one would think that a person involved in stealth, and stealing, would be pretty obvious and straightforward herself. But even if our thief does have only one face, we still have to deal with all those other names I mentioned before. And in doing so, we have to wonder how it is that the common thief managed to become so revered in fantasy literature and the world of role-playing.
It's pretty clear why our warrior archetype exists: the history of the world is filled with marauding bands of savage warriors, noble knights and dashing mercenaries, swinging swords and hurling axes. And if we dip into the realm of mythology and fantasy, it becomes clear why we have wizards and enchanters and clerics and priests among our role-playing types, since these are the sorts who dabble in the very stuff of fantasy: magic, the arcane, the unknown, the fantastical, the divine.
So why on earth did the common thug become so darned important? Why did the pickpocket take his place beside the paladin? Why does our crook cavort with our cleric, our swindler with our sorcerer? And more importantly, why is this sort of person considered a hero? Why do we crown our criminal, and rejoice over our robber's exploits?
How did our thieving pauper became a prince of thieves?
To thieve or not to thieve -- The Role-Playing Thief
"Fight and steal for yourself, or join a powerful thieves' guild to reap the benefits of membership. . . . Learn how to pick locks, set traps, move without being seen or heard, scam people out of their hard-earned money, seduce and beguile marks, make counterfeit art pieces, and anything else those wickedly devilish rogues enjoy doing." -- Cutthroat: The Shadow Wars, by Storm World Games (http://www.stormworldgames.com)
Even a brief glance at the thief archetype gives you a pretty clear indication of how it's built: the thief is exactly the sum of its parts, no more, no less. Whether called thief or robber, highwayman or burglar, in almost all cases, the thief archetype rests upon two pillars, right in line with the definition of "thief" as explored above:
1. The ability to take things from others. (i.e., stealing). The traditional skills associated with this "pillar" include such things as picking locks, detecting and disarming traps, picking pockets and climbing walls. One might also include here the ever-present backstabbing ability of the thief, which could be loosely interpreted as the ability to take the life of another, with great skill.
The first half of the equation also demonstrates exactly why it is that the role-playing thief is always associated with Agility and Dexterity. Certainly, as history demonstrates, those who take things from others occasionally do so by brute force, be that with a carefully aimed pistol or with the business end of a heavy cudgel. But this is not typically the sort of thief that we find ourselves looking at as an archetype. Our thief is agile and nimble, able to tumble and leap and climb, fingers flashing as he picks and unlocks and disarms his way along. Those who will steal will need to be agile to succeed. It's as simple as that.
2. The ability to do so quietly. (i.e., stealth). Skills typically falling into this category include things like moving silently, hiding in shadows and the oft-forgotten ability to detect faint noises (thus allowing one to conceal oneself after hearing the guards approaching). Though not a skill, per se, the ability to speak the language of thieves (i.e., Thieves Cant) also falls into this category, since aside from the code language it also involves silent hand gestures.
This second half of the equation also helps explain why thieves are traditionally associated with certain types of weaponry and garb. Obviously, if one is going to remain stealthy, one has to work with tools that aren't noisy or flashy or cumbersome, and so it's little wonder that most thieves find themselves wrapped inside a hooded cloak, armored with leather and padding, sans metal. And unlike the cleric, whose blunt weapons are only partially explained by historical evidence, the thief's choices and restrictions are explained easily by common sense. Our rogue will obviously choose weapons that are easily concealed, such as the dagger, short sword, sling, club and dart. More importantly, these are the weapons of the common man, easy to come by, easily and cheaply replaced (if left behind in a scramble for the exit when discovered by the guards), and inconspicuous if carried around the village, no matter what time of day. Your warrior striding into town with his bastard sword strapped to his back is certainly going to draw a few stares, but nobody bothers to notice the little guy with the dagger. A common thief is just that; common enough to blend in.
Speaking of little guys, one has to at least mention the apparent prejudice that accompanies the role-playing thief along his journeys. From the very start, the fantasy race most often associated with thievery has been the Hobbit, more commonly known nowadays as the Halfling or, in Dragonlance circles, as the Kender. The reasons for this are clear: all of the thiefly abilities are more easily done by individuals of smaller, lighter stature. A big hulking beast of a man is not going to be able to sneak up out of the shadows and stealthily snatch your wallet. But a small, agile little guy could easily do this, and more, without your noticing. Thus, it's obvious that the short, nimble races will make better thieves. Once again, our simple thief applies common sense to a simple problem, and comes up with an obvious answer.
As an aside, the term "Hobbit," as you may or may not be aware, was quickly tossed aside by much of the Role-Playing industry in the early days of Dungeons & Dragons, due to some differences over copyright with the Tolkien estate. We'll explore more of that next month, when we take a look at Halflings, but it's still a nice place to segue into the Literary origins of the Role-Playing Thief, for whom we almost exclusively have Tolkien to thank.
Like a thief in the night -- The Literary Thief
"'Yes, yes, but that was long ago,' said Gloin. 'I was talking about you. And I assure you there is a mark on this door -- the usual one in the trade, or used to be. Burglar wants a good job, plenty of Excitement and reasonable Reward, that's how it is usually read. You can say Expert Treasure-Hunter instead of Burglar if you like. Some of them do. It's all the same to us.'" -- The Hobbit, Chapter I, J.R.R. Tolkien
Let's not get ahead of ourselves; certainly, thieves had been around in literature for a long time before Mr. Tolkien decided his band of warrior dwarves needed a thief among them. Take a step back into Greek mythology and we find numerous thieves, including some of divine stature. Hermes is the God of tricks, messengers and thieves, so accomplished a thief that he stole his elder brother's cattle right from under his nose while he was still an infant. And not only is Hermes the God of Thieves, but he's also the Divine Herald, and as such is responsible for leading the dead down to the underworld of Hades. Even Hermes' son, Autolycus, inherited his father's thievish abilities, not only renowned for repeating the cattle-stealing trick, but for teaching Heracles to wrestle, and siring the father of the great hero, Odysseus.
And if that's not a tangled enough web for you, consider that Autolycus is also known for stealing from a man called Sisyphus, himself a thief, who winds up in the afterlife eternally pushing a stone up a hill, only to have it roll back down. And then there's Prometheus, rescued by the aforementioned Heracles after he was sentenced to eternal torture for (what else) stealing fire from the Gods. The ultimate bit of thievery, and the ultimate punishment for the task.
The notion of the thief stealing his way into Hell itself is echoed again in the epic Beowulf, where, after the bit with Grendel and his mother, we meet a thief who wanders into a dragon's hoard and steals a cup. This, of course, enrages the dragon, who starts laying the smackdown on neighboring villages, requiring Beowulf to come out of retirement to take care of business. Beowulf and the dragon take each other out, of course, but the point of all this is that it's the thief who wakes the dragon, the ordinary rogue who, through his stealthy deed, brings fire and brimstone down not only on himself but on those around him as well.
"Then Beowulf came as king this broad
This, of course, brings us right back to Tolkien's The Hobbit, wherein a wizard and a band of 13 dwarves hire a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins to be their party's robber. Why do wizards and warriors need a thief? Because he can be stealthy, naturally... albeit not quite stealthy enough. After numerous adventures wherein the stealthy and clever thief saves his cohorts from capture and certain death, it all comes right back to a thief stealing a cup from a dragon, thus enraging the beast and bringing fiery doom upon the neighboring town of Esgaroth.
"He gazed for what seemed an age, before drawn almost against his will, he stole from the shadow of the doorway, across the floor to the nearest edge of the mounds of treasure. Above him the sleeping dragon lay, a dire menace even in his sleep. He grasped a great two-handled cup, as heavy as he could carry, and cast one fearful eye upwards. Smaug stirred a wing, opened a claw, the rumble of his snoring changed its note." -- The Hobbit, Chapter XII, J.R.R. Tolkien
The Hobbit, of course, first appeared in 1937, followed by quite a large gap before we'd see more Hobbit thieves in The Lord of the Rings in 1954. But once Tolkien's mythology began to seep into the consciousness of fantasy writers, we began to see a renewed interest in the thief archetype in other pieces of literature and film. In all of these, the "dragon" (whether a literal or a figurative evil) is well recognized as a symbol of Satan, of the underworld, of the fiery doom that lies beneath our feet, and in each case it's the Warrior who puts the beast to rest and saves the day. But Saint George can't ever do it alone; there's always a thief along for the ride, to poke the dragon in the ribs and get things moving.
The most well known example of a warrior-thief pairing is undoubtedly Fritz Leiber's Grey Mouser, who accompanied his warrior friend Fafhrd throughout a series of stories beginning with 1939's "Two Sought Adventure" (also known as "The Jewels in the Forest"). It's also Mr. Leiber that we have to thank for the concept of the multi-classed thief (Mouser is clearly a Thief/Wizard, and Fafhrd a Warrior/Thief) and the magic-reading thief, as well as the concept of the Thieves' and Assassin's Guilds (the famous pair actually meet in Lankhmar while separately attempting to rob the same Thieves' Guild).
It's been widely accepted that it's these stories (along with a hefty dose of Robert Lynn Asprin's late '70s Thieves' World stories) that form the basis of the role-playing thief class, which appeared as early as 1976 in the Dungeons and Dragons Greyhawk supplement. Since those days, not much has happened from a literary perspective to change the thief; from Gord the Rogue to Tasslehoff Burrfoot, everyone goes back to the same framework to build their little hero. But there's a lot more to the thief than we'll find in the black and white of the paperback pulp novel, anyway; it's on the silver screen that we learn a little bit more about what happened to the thief in that 40 year gap between the late 1930s and the late 1970s.
Opportunity makes the thief -- Hollywood's Age of Thieves
The most prominent Hollywood thieves of the 1940s and '50s come in the guise of the Arabian beggar boy and a deposed English noble with a penchant for green tights. The latter we can simply name -- Robin Hood -- for you know his story and his name well enough, and he's enough of a type that his name remains the same almost every time he appears. But the former is a more interesting case, for he's been named and renamed; much like our thief archetype, he only has one face, though he has many names.
In 1940's The Thief of Bagdad (sic), our thief appears as Abu (played by an actor named Sabu). Introducing himself as "Abu the thief, son of Abu the thief, grandson of Abu the thief," he makes it quite clear what sort of an archetype we're getting; the thief here is even more obvious than the wicked evil bad guy, The Grand Vizier, Jaffar, or the vanquished prince Achmad, or even the powerful Djinni. Abu is a happy-go-lucky robber, portrayed as pure of heart and intention despite his criminal nature. He steals to survive, not because he wants to, and by the film's end he's stolen his way into a great position of power. If all of this sounds familiar, by the way, that's because it is: Disney "borrowed" the storyline for their animated Aladdin, turning Robin Williams into the Genie and Abu into a thieving little monkey.
Our streetwise, heroic thief appears again in 1942's Arabian Nights, which features a whole troupe of thieves, actors and acrobats who help put the deposed prince back on the throne, vanquishing the evil ruler in the process. Once again, the most clever thief-acrobat of them all is Ali Ben Ali (played again by Sabu), a nimble little streetwise beggar-boy who controls the flow of the action through his own interactions with others. And he's back yet again in 1944's Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves; even though Ali Baba himself is now a thief, and the entire band of 40 thieves are all thieves, Jamiel (played this time by Turhan Bey) is once again portrayed as the cleverest, most agile and most heroic of them all.
This is hardly the end of the story: the Ali Baba/Arabian Nights story was told and retold dozens of times between 1920 and 1960, with the same characters, the same names, and the same archetypes (witness 1952's Son of Ali Baba and 1954's Ali Baba And The 40 Thieves) over and over again. The point of all this being that by the time Hollywood got a hold of the thief in the '20s and '30s, the archetype was already being twisted over to the side of good. When you consider how criminals and thieves were being portrayed in the detective films of the time (where the cops were the good guys and the robbers were always the bad guys), it becomes pretty clear that what we've got is the rise of the popular notion of the heroic fantasy thief, sidekick to nobility.
The concept of the ignoble thief and the noble warrior as partners in crime and in heroism is found throughout science-fiction and fantasy film. In 1977's Star Wars, future Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker needs assistance from scoundrels Han Solo and Chewbacca. In 1983's Krull, Prince Colwyn needs help from a band of thieves and outlaws to save the kingdom from destruction. In 1985's Ladyhawke, Matthew Broderick's Phillipe Gaston (aka The Mouse) is the one who allows the noble Captain Etienne Navarre to defeat the evil priest and save the day. And so on.
But in many cases, our thief is also something more; consider that in the original story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Ali Baba isn't one of the 40 thieves, but by 1942, he's not only a thief, but a hero as well. This notion of "thief-as-noble-hero" (especially of the common man) is even more evident in the timeless story of Robin Hood. You know the tale: deposed nobleman heads off into Sherwood forest to live amongst a band of thieves and outlaws, stealing from the rich to give to the poor. Obviously the tale goes back to Medieval times, but it's interesting to note that it's during this time period (the first half of the 20th century) that we find no fewer than a dozen movies about Robin Hood. Ignore the green tights and the woodland setting and our acrobatic Robin (archetypically played by people like Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn) is clearly just another version of Abu/Sabu/Ali, the pauper and the prince rolled into one. Instead of being a mere sidekick to a deposed prince he is a sidekick to himself, a thief and a prince (and as 1991's Kevin Costner demonstrated, a Prince of Thieves). The thief no longer accompanies nobility; he is himself noble. Even Conan the Barbarian, the would-be king in the film of the same name, starts off his career not as a warrior, but a thief.
This, of course, is interesting to role-play and fun to watch. It's also complete and utter nonsense from a historical perspective. Legends have grown up about noble, honest thieves being heroes of the people, but when you consider that even the noble Medieval knights tended to be dirty, crude, backstabbing mercenaries, you can imagine what the thieves of the time were really like. Still, it's out of reality that our role-playing thief's qualities were drawn, so to truly understand where our archetype comes from we have to go back beyond Robin Hood and Bilbo Baggins, back into history itself. To understand the prince, we have to understand the pauper first.
Thieves in every city, rats in every house -- The Historical Thief
Quite obviously, thievery has been around since the dawn of recorded history; from The Ten Commandments to the Code of Hammurabi, laws against thievery have been set in stone. But it was truly the Medieval Era which saw the development of a culture that would give us the sort of thief we know and love.
First of all, it's necessary here to be clear in our definition of a thief. For example, we are not looking for Egyptian tomb robbers; the notion that thieves skulked around in cursed, trap-filled tombs to carefully steal mounds of gold from mummy-occupied sarcophagi is almost entirely without precedent. Certainly, the people who took riches from the tombs were thieves of a sort, but in many cases the tomb robbers were either the very priests and workers who'd built the tomb in the first place, or were citizens operating under the advisement of government officials, or around the grasp of those who either weren't strong enough, or didn't care enough, to try and stop them.
No, the historical thief that we are looking for must rely on stealth, not the sword, to do his dirty deeds. Certainly, Medieval highways and forests were filled with highwaymen, robbers, outlaws, thugs and bandits, most of them mercenaries or soldiers or something in between. But these people were certainly not thieves as we are attempting to define them; blockading a road and beating passers-by senseless is not thievery, but thuggery. One could argue that I've broken precedent a bit above in discussing Hollywood's version of thieves (most notably with Robin Hood), but even in these cases we get the notion of stealth, of stealing away into shadowy forests and crowded city streets (in the case of our Arabian thief).
And what, indeed, were those streets like? Certainly, Medieval European towns were a perfect breeding place for criminal activity. Streets were narrow, houses and shops built close enough together to create a veritable highway on the rooftops. Road construction was mostly a process of building a new road on top of an old one, so that in some places doorways wound up 10 or 20 feet below street level as the road rose around them, creating basements and dark corridors for thieves to lurk in. Up until the 16th Century, buildings were mostly made of "wattle and daub" (basically branches and plaster), making them relatively insecure at best; even considering that cutting a hole in the wall would be inconvenient, doors were typically unlocked, when there were doors at all.
To be certain, locks of one sort or another have been around since almost prehistoric times, and they were present during the Middle Ages, but your common thief would not often be found skulking about the city, picking locks in the shadows; there were simply not enough locks around to make a habit of it.
Being stealthy, and being able to hide in the shadows and move with relative silence, were almost certainly more useful skills, however, and the most skilled thieves of the Middle Ages certainly practiced these arts. Once again, this is a matter of common sense; Medieval homes and businesses typically had floors covered in straw (whether for sleeping on, or for sopping up nasty fluids), and anyone sneaking around a house amongst two sleeping adults, three restless children, two dogs and a goat had better be a stealthy fellow.
This is an exaggeration, of course; more often, the stealthiness was saved for after the smash-and-run job, for when the thief needed to get away quickly and hide from the angry mob of villagers, watchmen and dogs who were certainly in hot pursuit. Constables and "night watches" composed of citizens patrolled the city streets after curfew (about 8 or 9 pm), as much on the lookout for fire as for crime. At the site of danger or trouble, a "hue and cry" would certainly be raised, and citizens (at least in theory) would spill out of their homes to join in the chase.
Even if not engaged in criminal activity, merely wandering around after curfew would be cause for detention and arrest; carrying weapons and skulking around in the shadows was against the law, and any thief caught lurking in a corner, dagger in hand, mask on face would certainly be forced to run when the watch came around.
The thief would have good reason to run, too; Medieval justice worked quite differently than many think, with laws varying widely from country to country, and city to city. In a best case scenario, the unlucky thief would find himself banished from the city, and quite often, this "punishment" was self-inflicted; as many as 99% of all murderers and thieves got away from their pursuers and fled into the forests and onto the highways (without a doubt the source of the idealized thieves and robbers in tales like that of Robin Hood and his Merry Men).
In a worst case scenario, the unlucky thief would almost certainly find his career at an end. There was no such thing as prison back then; "prisons" were simply holding cells, where the accused were held until trial and/or punishment. In severe cases, the thief might find himself put to death by hanging; in less extreme instances, he would almost certainly be branded or mutilated in some way, often through the loss of a hand and/or his testicles; even the unluckiest pickpocket could only be unlucky twice in his life, either way you cut it (pun intended).
Of course, the Medieval thief who found himself thus crippled could always turn to other related professions. With the minting of coin money came the opportunity to "clip" coins, by shaving the edges of valuable metals and creating new money from old. This was closely related to the art of counterfeiting and forgery, since it often involved the duplication of official molds. In some cases, it was easier to skip the money altogether and go for the gusto, by doing things like counterfeiting the King's seal, and using the false seal to acquire land and property from unwitting fools. For those who preferred to not get their hands dirty directly (assuming they had hands left at that point), there were always opportunities to play "Uncle," by fencing goods for other more able-bodied or foolhardy thieves.
The most common alternative to "traditional thievery," however, was certainly begging. The Middle Ages were rife with the impoverished, and for most that meant a life of begging for scraps on the streets. Beggars were a mixed bag; some were certainly inflicted with some ailment or other which left them with no option but to beg, but a great many were certainly capable of work and were just taking the easy (and dishonest) way out. Laws were passed which punished any beggar found to be capable of work; the punishment was often the same as that for a captured thief, rendering the beggar disabled and giving him a good reason to be begging thereafter.
Vagrancy, and the problem of beggars, became even more of a problem in 1666, when the London Fire, fueled by pitch-covered, thatch-roofed buildings, destroyed roughly 80 percent of the city. In rebuilding, the older homes were replaced by sturdier (and incidentally, more secure) buildings of stone, brick and shingle, but this fire did more than destroy a city; it also helped fan the flames under the feet of the thief, at once plunging most of London into extreme poverty, and rebuilding a city around those people that would truly be a perfect breeding ground for groups of thieves and pickpockets... more commonly known as guilds.
Honor among thieves -- The Thieves' Guild
Guilds existed throughout the Middle Ages, with most of them being composed of merchants of one sort or another. Guilds ruled with an iron fist within their own realms, and certainly it would have been almost impossible to do business within a city if you were not a member of the guild whose trade you practiced, whether you were a bricklayer, a carpenter or a barber. Among the craft guilds, there was even designation within the ranks between new members, Apprentices (who mostly received food and lodging in exchange for work), Journeymen (or Journee-men, "journee" being French for "day"; in other words, those who were paid by the day for their work) and, of course, Masters (who could own their own shops and hire Journeymen and Apprentices on their own).
The concept of Guilds for Beggars, Thieves and Assassins has been debated back and forth for years. There are those who argue that the existence of Thieves Guilds is entirely a construct of fantasy authors (primarily Fritz Leiber and Robert Lynn Asprin) which has no basis in historical fact. There are also those who present historical cases for the existence of these very guilds. In my estimation, both sides are correct... in their own way.
Let's take the first argument first -- that Thieves Guilds did not exist, because they could not have existed. Certainly, in early Medieval society, it would have been nigh on impossible for a group of thieves to organize themselves, in secrecy, and rule with an iron fist over the nocturnal world. The very notion of a thick-walled warehouse, laden with traps and toxins to keep out the Night Watch, is ridiculous due to the fact that for much of the Middle Ages, such buildings were rare, at best. Homes were hovels, businesses little better, and any band of Thieves attempting to set up a guild of their own in the building down the street would be run out of town. An angry mob with torches in hand is no match for any size Thieves Guild.
Thieves and criminals looking to hang out and talk shop would typically be found in taverns, brothels and other Houses of Ill Repute, whether in the main room or in some secret back room where stolen goods could be fenced. As early as the late 13th Century, the City of London established laws which forbid taverns to remain open after curfew, precisely because of criminal activity therein. But even these were certainly not secure locations to gather; taverns which ignored the law would be subject to nocturnal visits from the watch and, if need be, shut down entirely. Medieval governments were certainly not shining beacons of justice, but neither were they entirely corrupt; thieves were no more tolerated than murderers.
On the other hand, there is certainly historical precedent for exactly the sorts of guilds that would apparently be difficult, if not impossible, to set up. In Andrew McCall's The Medieval Underworld, two clear 15th Century examples are given which can be called nothing less than organized Thieves' and Beggars' Guilds in France.
The first is that of the group known as the Coquillards, a Mafia-like group of thugs, robbers, thieves, counterfeiters and other villains who were responsible for a crime spree throughout northern France in the Mid-15th century. The most renowned of their member, one Francois Villon, could almost be the archetype of the swaggering, romanticized thief; a poet and philosopher, he not only participated in thievery (being repeatedly arrested for same), but he often wrote about it in verse which became wildly popular across the countryside. The Coquillards were known for, among other things: lockpicking, fencing stolen goods, cheating at gambling, and a peculiar means of communicating with one another in what can only be called a French Thieves' Cant. The group also boasted membership in several cities under several different leaders; in one case, the leader of the Thieves was known as the "King of the Coquille".
The second example is that of the Cours des Miracles, or the "Court of Miracles", overseen by the Grand Coesre, or "King of Beggars." This group also operated in numerous places throughout France, with local groups overseen by Cagoux, who in turn looked over Archisuppots, who in turn were responsible for training new recruits. Within this tightly organized hierarchy was a carefully constructed system of rules which allowed the group to, among other things, collect "protection money" from its subjects, commit carefully orchestrated acts of robbery and begging, and to deal with any outside freelancers who attempted to operate within controlled areas. Even within the lowest ranks of the Guild there were delineations between types of beggars: for example, those who would pretend to have been robbed were called Marcandiers, and those who would pretend to be suffering from sores were called Malingreux.
Although other countries seem to have lagged behind in organizing such large Guild-like groups, it's pretty clear that organization of some sort did exist... it's simply a matter of when. Certainly, by the time Charles Dickens gave the world Oliver Twist in 1837, London was being assaulted from within by organized groups of pickpockets, thieves and beggars who made their homes on Field Lane and Chick Lane. Master Thief Fagin, the Artful Dodger Jack Dawkins, and apprentice pickpocket Oliver Twist were not mere creations of literary fancy, but very real reflections of what life was like in that era. Closer to home, consider the organized gangs of thieves and murderers in the Middle East and Russia, or the Yakuza in Japan, or the Mafia in Italy and the United States. There may not have been global precedent for the Thieves Guild in medieval times, but such groups have existed almost as certainly as the thieves themselves have.
The big thieves hang the little ones -- (In)famous Thieves
It's quite easy to compile a lengthy list of historical, pseudo-historical and fictional thieves, but it's also important to distinguish between them.
Quite obviously, the thing that makes a pirate a pirate is water, and a ship on the water, and the pirates on the ship. Aside from that, it's pretty easy to see how a well-run pirate ship is akin to a Thieves' Guild. The thing to keep in mind here is that in almost every case, the pirate met a bloody end at the hands of his or her pursuers. It's certainly not a good career for anyone hoping to settle down and start a family.
For some good historical examples, check out people like Anne Bonny, Henry Morgan, Calico Jack Rackham and Captain Teach (aka Blackbeard). For a bit more fantastical look at a pirate type, look no further than Han Solo; if the Millennium Falcon isn't a pirate ship, I don't know what is.
Are they thieves or are they warriors? Hard to say. Robin Hood (we'll call him pseudo-historical, since he was almost certainly based on real people) certainly falls closer to the thief category because he did a lot more skulking and stealing than he did actual fighting. In general, your highwayman takes things from others by force, operating in teams or groups that then do a good job fencing the goods they've taken. There's not a lot of picking locks, but there's certainly a lot of stealing.
Look for more information on historical highwaymen like Robin Hood, Fouke Fitz Waryn, Eustache the Monk, Dick Turpin, Will Plunkett and James Macleane, or pseudo-historical folk like Robin Hood and the Scarlet Pimpernal.
Robbers and Burglars are thieves who take a somewhat more direct approach to their thievery, often breaking and entering with force into secured or semi-fortified locations to obtain items of value. Thieves are typically lighter on their feet and less inclined to violence, but the robber is about as close to a Fighter/Thief amalgam as you're likely to find.
Look online for more details about folk like Richard Pudlicott, Jesse James and not-so-historical people like Indiana Jones and Lara Croft. The best literary example is undoubtedly Bilbo Baggins.
As I've stated above, the central focus of the true archetypal thief is stealth. Thieves move without being seen, take things without others noticing, and generally have a "get in, get out, get out of there" mentality. Their fondness for avoidance of capture also makes them inclined to pursuing indirect means of thievery when possible, such as gambling, fencing (of stolen goods) and disguise.
By far the single most important historical (possibly pseudo-historical) thief is Francois Villon, who I discussed briefly above and about whom enough cannot be written here. Literary examples of note are folk like Gord the Rogue and Thieves' World's own Shadowspawn.
Assassins, Acrobats, etc.:
What, you expect me to do all the work for you? Open up a browser window and get looking! There are thousands of thieves out there just waiting to be discovered. Just do yourself a favor and avoid the Dungeons & Dragons movie; it's quite possibly one of the best examples of how thieves did NOT really operate in the real world. Filled with silly swordplay, massive stone Thieves' Guilds filled with gigantic trap-filled mazes and annoying characters, it's a perfect example of how archetype can easily cross over into stereotype. And if there's one thing a thief hates, it's being stereotyped.
The thief archetype obviously has its roots in some sort of reality, but for the most part, as one might expect, those bits of reality have become over-romanticized, thanks in part to fantasy writers and Hollywood blockbusters. But that's certainly not all a bad thing. The thief gives us a chance to play someone closer to heart, someone who's not strong or possessed of magical talents, someone who has to rely on wit and stealth to survive. Someone, we can imagine, who might very well be just like us. And in being more like us, it's clear that the thief is not just a column of percentile chances to pick locks and disarm traps; she is blessed with as many different skills and appearances as there are crimes to be committed. And that's quite a lot.
The point of all of this, then, is to acknowledge that while there is obviously a central thief archetype, history and literature have shown us that not all thieves skulk in shadows with poisoned daggers, waiting for the perfect moment to sneak in for a backstab on their unsuspecting victim...
Hey, what's that behind you?
Next time: the halfling