2000-09-09: Medieval Outlaws

Medieval Outlaws

Ten Tales in Modern English (1998)

ed. by Thomas H. Ohlgren (19-)

This book collects translations of ten of the outlaw tales from medieval times, including (naturally) Robin Hood from England and elsewhere. Ohlgren was apparently inspired by Maurice Keen’s The Outlaws of Medieval Legend (1961). Keen calls these tales the ‘Matter of the Greenwood’, to distinguish them from the ‘Matter of Britain’ (King Arthur), the ‘Matter of France’ (Charlemagne), and the ‘Matter of Greece and Rome’ (Troy). “In the ‘Matter of the Greenwood’ the forest is no longer that transitional zone through which Arthurian knights ride from adventure to adventure, stopping briefly to encounter a hermit, damsel or mysterious challenger, but it takes centre stage: within its bounds their whole drama was enacted. If they ventured outside it, it would only be some brief expedition to avenge wrong done, and to return to it, when right had been restores and whatever sheriff or abbot was the villain of the piece had been brought low.”

Many of the tales have similar incidents and themes, obviously the result of borrowing and embellishment. Ohlgren describes three models of outlaw ideology: the ‘Social Bandit’, the ‘Good Outlaw’, and the ‘Trickster’.

Following Eric Hobsbawm, the Social Bandit is not merely a simple criminal, but rather a peasant outlaw, victimized by lord or state, but remaining in touch with, and supported by, peasant society. He is regarded as a hero, champion, avenger, fighter for justice, leader of liberation. The bandit seldom transforms society, but seeks to right wrongs, or seek vengeance and restore order. In these Medieval tales the bandit is typically not a peasant, but a nobleman dispossessed of his land or other rights by a superior, typically through a greedy or hateful agent. The righting of the wrong often involves reconciliation with the superior. The first tale, The Outlawry of Earl Godwin, is of this kind. It involves the conflict between Godwin (Earl of Wessex) and Edward the Confessor, instigated by Robert of Jumièges. After the reconciliation, Harold Godwinson was in a position to declare himself King of England in 1066.

The Good Outlaw is described by Ingrid Benecke. These are real criminals, having committed real crimes, but admired and supported by the people. They are perceived as superior to their opponents, in martial prowess and moral strength. These tales are often morally ambiguous, perhaps due to accretions by less-sympathetic scribes. The moral superiority is often due to the potential conflict between civil law (or a monarch’s rule) and natural law. Ohlgren quotes Thomas Aquinas regarding the fact that a subject is bound to obey secular rulers, but only to the extent that the ruler is just.

The Trickster (Ohlgren invokes Paul Radin) is amoral and acts unconsciously. Many of the tales incorporate themes (disguise, disregard for rank, deception) from traditional trickster tales (which appear in many cultures).

The appeal of outlaw tales arises from identification by the reader with the outlaw. Therefore the outlaw must have admirable qualities, and his opponents must have aspects of evil. If his cause is just, so much the better. If his opponents represent a corrupt or exclusive system, the breaking of taboos and other norms of behavior takes on a thrill of the illicit, but justifiable. Good narrative also helps overcome many other shortcomings of motive.

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