Tales of outlaws in medieval literature belong to the forest, whether they are housed in the natural world, idyllic greenwoods, or dismal and bleak woodlands. The story of the outlaw traditionally surfaces in the greenwood legends of Robin Hood and the like yet the idea of involving outlawry emerge in romance stories of the middle ages as well. Outlawry pervades Geoffrey Chaucer and Sir Thomas Malory’s romances. And while this project briefly draws upon each author’s biographical brushes with the law, it is worth noting that both Chaucer and Malory, at various moments of their lives, faced sentences of exile and imprisonment.
Chaucer’s criminal past has been debated for as long as Sir Thomas Malory’s true identity has subsisted. In the case of Chaucer and Cecily Champain, there prevails a problem for Chaucer biographers when trying to clarify the severity of charges placed against him for raptus. On May 1st, 1380, in the court of Chancery, there was a document enrolled in which Champain “agreed unconditionally to release Geoffrey Chaucer from all actions concerning her rape or anything else.
” Furthermore, “Cecily herself came to the court on May 4th to acknowledge the document, which was witnessed by some of Chaucer’s most influential friends” (Pearsall 135).
Quite commonly, legal documents of medieval England defined raptus as abduction, “the seizing and holding of a young person against his or her will with the purpose of gaining some financial advantage” (Pearsall 135). Chaucer’s own father, John, was abducted by his aunt in 1324 when she was trying to force her nephew into marrying own daughter.
Ironically, Chaucer himself later served as a member of a commission investigating a case similar to John’s in 1387 (Crow and Olson 3). Chaucer faced a couple more brushes with the law in 1379 and 1380, but as Derek Pearsall contends, the law was then, and commonly now, “an instrument for the pursuit of private purposes and interests having nothing to do with moral justice or equity” (Pearsall 135). However, when it comes to Malory’s troubling legal history, less ambiguity surrounds the nature and legitimacy of the various charges placed against him.
Malory spent eight years of his life in and out of London prisons, but authorities were unable or, perhaps what is more likely, “unwilling to assemble the necessary jury of Warwickshiremen to try him” (Field 104). As Field points out, the “legal process against him [Malory] is suspect from the beginning, although that does not mean he is innocent” (Field 105). Malory’s most memorable charge, too, was one of abduction or assault, pressed not by the alleged victim but rather, by her husband. Malory was brought to the King’s Bench in Westminster on January 27th, 1452 by the Sheriffs of London. Twice, no jurors appeared, but during his second time in court, “he was not committed to the Sheriffs of London but to the marshal of the court, and therefore to its marshalsea,” the most notorious prison in Southwark (Field 107).
The year of 1456 seems to have been a particularly bad year for Malory as well: he was sued in the King’s Bench for debt and on November 13th the prison of Newgate in which he was held in for more secure custody “was to see a spectacular gaol-break” (Field 119). Additional crimes pepper the timeline of Malory’s life, including harboring a horse-thief and planning a burglary (that failed), leading to his placement in various prisons, including the infamous Tower of London (Malory and Cooper xi). Chaucer and Malory’s experiences with the court and familiarity with prisons materialize in their depictions of outlawry, and while I do not argue where, and when, each specific experience enters their stories, it is worth keeping in mind that each middle English author was well versed in the language of law breaking and methods of punishment. This exposure, I believe, shapes their telling of deviant romance tales that defy the genre’s traditional conventions.
Chaucer and Malory’s contribution to the development of this literary figure in an age marked by an exaggerated respect for authority appears in the tales of knights who defy the law in recurrently violent ways. The 14th and 15th century were, like much of the middle ages, marked by a striking reverence for God’s authority and rigidly conservative social order. Why, then, the prevalence of violence and law-breaking men in the era’s popular literature? Maurice Keen’s The Outlaws of Medieval Legend traces the development of the literary outlaw in an effort to reveal its origin, spirit, and background. However, in his thorough examination of the heroic figure present in Robin Hood legends, Keen hastily rejects medieval romance’s capability to intersect with the outlawry narrative.
This rejection has been longstanding in the study of literary outlawry. Eric Hobsbawm would later echo Keen’s ideas in his coining of the term “social bandit”: a figure he describes as an outcast peasant-outlaw. The social bandit was a phenomenon “ubiquitous in human society as solely a product of class conflict and inequality” (Hobsbawm 23). Likewise, perspectives on outlawry were shaped by Hobsbawm’s 1969 theory, pairing with growing interest in the study of the history, literature, and sociology of crime, law, suppression, and the language of borders and regionalism (Phillips 13). To early critics, the outlawed space of the forest served as “little more than a useful stage prop” in medieval romance whereas in the true outlaw legend, the forest was an asylum from the tyranny of evil lords and a corrupt law. They argued that romance stories were unlike Robin Hood sources in that their tales did not focus on the telling of “a man whom society had placed outside the law’s protection” and more often than not, into the woods (Keen 2). However, more recent investigations of moments of outlawry in medieval literature suggest otherwise.
Timothy S. Jones challenges the argument that romance and outlawry do not coincide in his recent theorization of the outlaw in Outlawry in Medieval Literature. Romance has always proved to be a flexible form and has consistently defied easy definition. As Jones points out, “it has affinities with the outlaw narrative and so provided a new literary framework in which to contextualize the outlaw’s story” (Jones 130). For example, romance’s protagonists are typically superior to their fellow men and the environment. Key moments in the tale traditionally “suggest implicit mythical patterns in a world more closely associated with human experience” (Frye 33). And finally, the natural world appears more often than the urban and artificial, and the romance narrative follows the predictable decent and return cycle (both in plot and structure). These traits also appear in most outlaw narratives.
The stock characteristics of the outlaw hero closely resembles those typical of any medieval hero — particularly the knights of romance. The figure upholds, for the most part, the values of courtesy, bravery, and dignity. Strong and resourceful, the knights of medieval romance possess skills of military excellence, well versed in weaponry and loyal to his king’s court. Yet as we will see in both the works of Chaucer and Malory, moments of abandoning social norms, disregard for Church authority, and the explicit breaking of feudal law, among other complications, often overshadow the knight’s easily recognizable chivalric qualities; he finds himself on a quest of reframing his identity. Moments of feudal conflict and criminality of varying degrees across Chaucer and Malory’s romances articulate a language of borders across a wide facet of landscapes. From sterile towers and prisons, to dismal woodlands and civilized communities, the intersection of medieval romance with outlawry appears through a variety of themes, plots, and characterizations.
The renewed interest in the literary outlaw of the Middle Ages calls for an expansion of Keen and Hobsbawm’s foundational theorization of the character. One distinguishing mark of the study of outlawry and Robin Hood studies has been the partnership between historians and literary critics, a partnership that Helen Phillips, and myself, believe prove fruitful and necessary when examining the phenomenon. The quest for a historical Robin Hood, and King Arthur, may have lapsed (at least momentarily) but “there is clearly still an important object for historical study and that is the mass of material itself and its ever-changing cultural use and re-use” (Phillips 12). Recent studies of the outlaw theme in literature pinpoint additional British outlaws who deviate from Robin Hood’s mold, including the Anglo-Saxon nobleman Hereward the Outlaw and tales of Fouke Fitz Warin, a recurring figure in ancestral romance. Using outlawry as a lens proves useful when approaching medieval romance stories as well and like Jones, I argue that expanding the range of literary and historical examples Hobsbawm and Keen introduced to include popular romance narratives of the Middle Ages present new readings of Arthurian and Chaucerian texts.
Hence, I first trace Chaucer’s memorable moments of outlawry in The Canterbury Tales (CT) and in the latter half of this project, examine Malory’s treatment of the outlawed knight across his reworking of the Arthurian canon in Le Morte D’ Arthur. In The Wife of Bath’s Tale (WBT), we see an explicitly violent moment of outlawry that complicates romance’s conventions, pushing beyond issues of breaking feudal law into anti-chivalric territory. In The Knight’s Tale (KnT), arguably Chaucer’s most read and critically examined story, we see his treatment of Arcite and Palamon as outlaws. Their development across the story highlights the language of borders and the significance of different forms of outlawry that Jones argues appear in medieval romance. In the latter half of this project, I direct us to Malory’s usage of outlawry. He brands of Sir Tristram as an outlaw through his engagement with themes of madness and animality; the experience of exile disturbs his identity. Finally, I make the case for our final and least obvious outlaw of this project – Sir Lancelot Du Lake. Issues of regional and nationalistic tensions largely shape Lancelot’s status as outlaw. We will revisit the outlawed knight’s competing desires and how Malory portrays them through Lancelot’s gestures and actions. The outlaw story functions as a literature of borders in medieval romance, offering an invigorating exploration of the social, political, and ethical assumptions of each author’s time.
Beginning with Chaucer’s outlaws, The Wife of Bath’s Tale (WBT) and The Knight’s Tale (KnT) both tell the story of knights who find themselves outside the court’s protections, albeit for vastly different reasons. Chaucer’s treatment of the outlawed (and usually exiled) knight in both KnT and WBT demonstrates the flexibility and malleability of this literary figure. Chaucer illuminates romance’s language of borders and the breaking of social norms through an explicit moment of outlawry in The Wife of Bath’s Tale (WBT). Both outlawry and romance narratives center on the nobility, and particularly in WBT, the knight’s conflict with the legal system simultaneously interconnects with his internal conflict of erotic desire and social obligation. WBT offers Chaucer’s most outrageous, and undeniably criminal, knight. The development of the figure of the outlawed hero in WBT begins with the outlaw realizing he must use his newfound independence from the court’s protection in order to negotiate his own set of social associations and accomplish his goal or quest.
An outlaw not always serves the role of a criminal on the run, and Chaucer’s unnamed knight exemplifies this fact. However, the knight does not function as “a champion of the good and justice against a corrupt and flawed royal administration” either (Sartore 223). Chaucer’s outlaws do not function as champions of the poor, per se, but they do typically serve as heroes who exercise their military excellence, challenging the idea that an outlaw must be a “good outlaw.” Not all outlaws operate in the service of a feudal society oriented around the king but rather, may serve the interest of their own needs and desires. Later, I will draw upon Arcite and Palamon’s imprisonment by Theseus, duke of Athens, in KnT to further develop the idea that outlaws and the language of borders extends beyond the king’s rule. For now, we will pause on the unnamed knight of WBT whose moment of outlawry derives from darker and less-than-romantic motives.
WBT complicates the idea of an outlaw by pushing beyond the disruption of feudal rules into anti-chivalric territory. The representation of King Arthur and his knights typically appears through ideals, yet often courtly love becomes a veiled and tolerable disguise for passion. The obsessive power of passion, like a kind of love-madness, operates as “a superhuman force which relieves the individual of his moral responsibility and exorcises guilt and shame” (Hughes 71). Of all medieval English writers, Chaucer is perhaps most deeply engaged with the power of affect and shame on both minds and bodies. He returns again and again to the psychology of love and loss in the Book of the Duchess, The Knight’s Tale, and Troilus and Criseyde, among others.
Feeling and thinking, and the loss of both, play crucial roles in his stories. Corinne Saunders contends that while women were traditionally assumed to be more bodily and more emotional, “Chaucer emphasizes the relationship between thinking and feeling, the embodied nature of being in the world, across his works and across genders” (Saunders 12). This concept’s historical roots can be traced back to Constantine the African’s chapter on love in Viaticum, an adaptation of Ibn al-Jazzar’s 10th century medical handbook entitled Provisions for the Traveler and the Nourishment of the Settled. In Viaticum, Constantine argues that “just as loyalty is the most extreme form of affection, so eros is the most intense form of pleasure” (Wack 47). Eros, or erotic love, provokes the unnamed knight’s actions. Likewise, Constantine states that just like unthinking fidelity is immoderate love for a lord, eros is “immoderate love for those to be possessed (sexually)” (Wack 47). By comparing intense sexual love to the ideals of loyalty to a lord, Constantine connects passion with chivalric service early in the twelfth century.
This idea would later become a literary convention by the time Chaucer was writing in the fourteenth century. Constantine’s pupil Johannes Afflacius further developed Viaticum into the manuscript Liber de heros morbo to articulate a medical, technical term for passionate nobility. Yet the social origins of lovesickness may be sought in circumstances in which aristocratic men exerted an inordinate degree of power over women, generating fears of reprisal. Wack points out that even Christine de Pisan, who elsewhere shows with eloquent pain the sufferings inflicted by patriarchal culture on women, “advocates obedient submission to husbands who may be brutally violent in her treatise on women’s conduct” (Wack 167). The conventions of courtly literature and medieval romance, despite the circulation of stories in which women temporarily or symbolically assume power and reverse hierarchal arrangement, embody a strong medieval sense of hierarchy in which man’s place was on top.
In WBT, the conventions of service and idealization often conflict with powerful structures of masculine dominance in moments of dubious desire. Unlike early social bandits and robbers, the unnamed knight commits what modern readers identify as the indisputable crime of rape. This moment would stand out to readers of Chaucer’s time as a knight acting against chivalric code, regardless of the lack of romantic development in the WBT’s opening scene. Chaucer disrupts expectations surrounding how the story should unfold based on the conventions of Arthurian legends established prior to his time. In this story, an unnamed knight, a “lusty bacheler,” rapes a fair young maiden. The narrator recounts, “ He saugh a mayde anon, maugree hir heed, / By verray force he rafte hir maydenheed” (31-32).
Rarely does Chaucer present such a shockingly straightforward account of sexual violence, though The Reeve’s Tale nearly takes us there. Courtliness in general is a philosophy of self-mastery, yet the knight in WBT fails to uphold it dramatically. Libidinal and aggressive drives couple with the unamed knight’s inability to remain within the bounds of normal social behavior, marking the him as flawed. As Gwenyth E. Hood points out in “Medieval Love-Madness and Divine Love,” the distinction between courtly love and what she describes as “love-madness” is complex and often unclear in medieval romance.
Chapter two addresses Malory’s framing of Tristram and Lancelot as courtly lovers and how they later fall susceptible to an intractable, psychologically complex illness — a raging madness triggered by love. But in WBT, Chaucer’s knight pushes beyond lovesick madness into what Hood describes as “love trickery.” Issues of consent surround both Lancelot and Chaucer’s unnamed knight, and while in “Lancelot and Elaine,” it is Elaine who takes advantage of Lancelot, both authors depict outlawed knights partaking in moments of illicit sexual interaction and trickery. In both cases, the offense of a woman “committed in giving up her virginity outside of marriage lay in the disgrace it caused her family” and likewise, “this disgrace seems much mitigated if the man in question is of high rank” (Hood 25). In WBT, Chaucer omits the maiden’s response and her family’s reaction to the loss of her virginity remains equally hidden. What is most shocking is that we do see the knight ultimately rewarded for his violent behavior.
The latter portion of WBT creates a conflicting message on the nature of romance. Nevertheless, the inclusion of rape draws a clear line between legal expectation and the breaking of law in the narrative. As aforementioned, modern readers instantly convict the knight for committing what we see as society’s most notorious sign of social and sexual deviancy. A troubling fact Brian S. Lee draws attention to when examining the rape scene precipitating the events of WBT is that it apparently was not meant to shock Chaucer’s audience. What seems to be the casual inclusion of rape and the knight’s indifferent response to the girl’s horror derives from a literary tradition that repeatedly depicts such moments in a similar fashion. The literary precedent to the WBT, the Old French pastourelle, is a subgenre of pastoral poetry that focuses on a maiden shepherdess.
Descriptions that are usually comic or light-hearted saturate pastourelles, and initially “unwilling victims soon grow compliant, then grateful, and finally eager for the knight’s return” (Lee 19). Additionally, the pastourelle rarely portrays the protagonist as a villain and seems blatantly in favor of male aggression. The rape in WBT is less a crime against a woman and more a breakage of Arthur’s court’s rule. Chaucer’s audience, and perhaps even modern readers, are given little time to ponder over the maiden’s safety and condition. Attention is quickly redirected to Arthur’s authority and the expectations of his legal court; the maiden exits the story entirely. Furthermore, the knight does not receive a trivial award — such as good luck — but rather, enjoys a lifetime of “parfit joye” by the tale’s end (1258). He receives an obedient and beautiful wife and hence, the scene shocks modern readers because it is reported as casually as it happened; and he is rewarded “as a matter of deliberate judicial policy” (Lee 17). Nevertheless, the knight’s crime is indisputably against the state and he faces the ultimate punishment: death. What arises from this moment is a knight who is outlawed and exiled for breaking social order, rather than for performing an explicitly violent, illegal act.
Outlawry, banishment, and exile have long histories harkening back to antiquity, varying in duration and social context. Early forms of outlawry were deeply rooted in community involvement, characterized by arbitrariness. The process of outlawry as a form of social exclusion has taken on several definitions but the most prevalent is outlawry as the declaring of a person to be outside of the protection of the law. Outlawry in medieval England existed alongside other forms of punishment, namely exile, imprisonment, abjuration, and banishment. The practice of outlawry as a whole functioned as “the root of many ‘pure’ and ‘affective’ punishments, such as the death penalty, and imprisonment” (Sartore 9). An outlaw forfeited all goods, rights, and quite often, his very life. Maurice Keen stresses this idea when he states that the sentence of outlawry “implied an admission of weakness on the part of the law itself. You have defied us, the Law said to Outlawry, therefore we will disown you” (Keen 9-10). Hence, outlawry proved useful when applied as an alternative to a fine or as a response to serious crime and wrongdoing. Chaucer’s unnamed knight initially faces the ultimate punishment of death. Subsequently, the intercession of King Arthur’s leading lady, Queen Guinevere, formally positions the knight into the realm of outlawry.
The unnamed knight initially faces the ultimate punishment for his crime, for “By cours of law” the king exclaims that the knight “shoulde han lost his heed” (35). He confronts Arthur’s wrath and it looks as if he will accept the death sentence the king and his court demand. By the time Chaucer was writing WBT, the crime of rape in England still was one that was often confused with the charge of abduction. Rape was not a prosecutable crime until 1275 and few prosecutions (which happened only in the form of private accusations) resulted in a jury verdict (Dean 82). The evolution of medieval England’s law on rape is complex and muddy, but not uncommon to the continental laws shared by France and the Low Countries. It was not until the fourteenth century that “state prosecutions of rape became possible” and likewise, the only successful prosecutions were typically framed by “extreme elements”: the rape of underage girls, the betrayal of trust, or accusations by women of good repute (Dean 86). Consequently, Chaucer’s unnamed knight’s actions equally emblemizes the occurrence of rape in the fifteenth and fourteenth century. Dean points that during this time, “many medieval rapes involved an abuse of trust or authority by men,” such as “kinsmen, employers, and officials” (Dean 85).
Chaucer thwarts our expectations that the crime at hand will be taken seriously by moving us into the realm of fantasy. The queen quickly takes pity on the unnamed knight and pleas with Arthur to have mercy on him. Arthur yields and:
…his lyf hym graunted in the place,
And yaf hym to the queene, al at hir wille,
To chese wheither she wolde hym save or
When Arthur submits to Guinevere’s plea, she demonstrates her agency in doing what she wishes with the knight. She offers him an ultimatum: he can keep his life if he can uncover “What thing is it that women most desyren” (886). The plot shifts dramatically and the tone becomes sympathetic towards the sorrowful, excommunicated rapist; the story’s focus shifts away from chivalric ideals concerning justice. However, Chaucer takes his figure of the outlaw and uses his shocking behavior as an avenue to explore what a knight can, and must do, to gain back the court’s graces. The unnamed knight’s forced independence beyond the king’s protection for “A twelf-month and a day, / to seche and leere an answere,” paired his new identity as a legal and social outcast, reconstruct the typical quest narrative of medieval romance into a deeply internal one (900-01). The knight’s superficial values, prideful disposition, and moral impairment must be questioned and placed in proper perspective in order to fulfil the court’s demand that he find what women most desire. As Kathryn L. McKinley points out, critics traditionally read “the knight’s concession to the hag as an act illustrating the virtue of passive obedience, and thus a final exemplum of women’s wish for domination over their husbands” (McKinley 363). But Chaucer depicts the knight as deeply conflicted with his choice, as ‘This knyght avyseth hym and sore siketh’ (363). Despite labeling the old hag as his damnation, the knight ultimately submits. And, after some additional loathing words, a markedly changed knight speaks kindly:
‘My lady and my love, and wyf so deere,
I put me in youre wise governance;
Cheseth youreself which may be moost pleasance…
For as yow liketh, it suffiseth me.” (1230-35)
Finally, after she asks him if “I may chese and governe as me lest?’ he gives a sincere ‘Ye, certes, wyf…I holde it best’ (1237-38).
WBT becomes less and less concerned with the knight’s ability to return to Arthur’s court and function in the king’s feudal society. Rather, the exiled outlaw displaced in the forest with his physically transformed lover transforms into a courtly lover himself. Gone is the story of youthful rashness focused on the knight’s needs and desires. In its place is a tale that more closely resembles a fairytale with a “happy ending.”
I opened this chapter by introducing the literary outlaw as a man of the forest. And while the bulk of this project’s final chapter focuses more exclusively on the outlawed space of the woods, it would be a great disservice to omit how the unnamed knight’s surroundings significantly shape his actions across WBT. Chaucer’s frequent inclusion of groves, parks, and wooded areas mirror their recurrence in medieval romance and the outlaw tales. This space often illuminates the intersection of outlawry and romance that Jones identifies. Chaucer’s forests “reflect a romance trope that had analogues in actual woodland practice” (Howes 132). In other words: Chaucer uses his forests as a habitat for supernatural creatures and outlaws. Psychological readings of wilderness suggest the outlaw’s journey into the forest functions as a confrontation with the unconscious or the animal nature. As Jones points out, when the outlaw leaves behind “the cultural or social self” and is left to face “the natural self, he fashions a more complete identity” (Jones 41-42). The world outside the law offers a space for transformation and, contrary to early critiques of the woods as explicitly hostile environments in romance, the physical space outside the law frequently offers a respite from legal authorities that might even offer an alternative sense of community. And, as we see in WBT, this explicitly outlawed space provides banished knights new communities that more closely share values with outlaws.
The world outside the law and the language surrounding its depiction often appears emboldening, offering freedom of action, and increased agency. Laura L. Howes traces Chaucer’s lived experience of the land and how his knowledge of England’s woodlands shape his poetic representations of late medieval landscapes. This proves particularly useful when considering Chaucer’s language of borders. Howes contends that “His firsthand knowledge of John of Gaunt’s holdings and King Edward III’s pleasure grounds and parks, among others, correlates to poetic depictions in the Parlement of Fowls, and in tales told by the Knight, Nun’s Priest, Pardoner, Wife of Bath, and Friar” (Howes 125). Chaucer’s descriptions of his familiar landscapes allow us to recognize the forests in his stories as multifaceted and not confined to single definitions of significance. And, as we will see in Le Morte, Malory also uses the forest to depict moments of insanity, outlawry, and trickery.
In WBT, Chaucer inserts the forest as a place for social outcasts through housing the outlawed and the physically decrepit there. The unnamed knight meets the old woman while riding home “under a forest syde” (990). The “old hag,” as critics have frequently coined her, is described by the narrator as so hideous that “A fouler wight ther may no man devyse” (999). The unnamed knight finds the shape-shifting old woman in the woods following Guinevere’s sentence of exile. Her strangeness seems to derive, in part, from the woodland she inhabits. The language in this scene constructs a discourse of how the woods embody those outcasted from society and hence, operate under rules and expectations sharply different from those imagined by the legal system. Now beyond the court’s formal protection, the knight faces exile unless he can successfully complete the quest and return to Arthur’s court with the knowledge of what women truly desire.
The lecture the old hag recites offers the knight a “new way of defining desirability, and thus a way to attain sovereignty over himself by desiring only that which is reasonable and leads to the common good” (Thomas 94). In place of his desire is the understanding of what women truly expect from men: sovereignty. And, taking place in one of the least populated spaces of medieval England, the woodland provides a measure of privacy and social isolation, not easily achieved elsewhere. This isolation generates strange happenings and significant chance encounters in medieval romance and in outlaw narratives; isolation permits moments of profound change beyond the court’s influence. Chaucer uses his forests and woodlands of varying types to intersect multiple modes of storytelling. The frequent inclusion of such locations “provides space for wild animals, outlaws, and supernatural figures in Chaucer’s poetry” (Howes 133). Displacing the outlaw beyond Arthur’s urban landscape allows Chaucer to use the outlaw narrative as a medium in which he can project the possibility of change and transformation in human nature.
However, WBT does not end in the woods. The tale ends with the knight and his newfound lover returning Arthur’s court to report back on his findings, completing the quest narrative. Both in Arthur’s court and in the bedroom, the outlawed knight is given a chance to reconcile his wrongdoings. Weil argues that WBT, like its prologue, gives us a representation of conflict in relationships, a suggestion of how it might be resolved, and finally, “a pragmatic notion of how very hard it is to reconcile these human impulses” (Weil 37). The problem with the “happy ending” is that the knight will apparently be rewarded for breaking all the crucial social norms in the tale and for following only his own desires. The unnamed knight follows his increasingly delusional and unrealistic desires more than the law and chivalric code, demanding control over others, when he has little to no control over himself. By the end of the tale, the knight becomes the controlled rather than the controller. WBT opens with an explicit breaking of law through a rape scene yet closes with a lesson in self-sacrifice; the unnamed knight and others are victims rendered entirely powerless by his own selfish wants. Chaucer suggests that in choosing to give up her freedom so she may stay in her present form, the old hag will find the most honor while causing the knight to forfeit his honor as well.
Despite this, the unnamed knight’s understanding of sovereignty (and the tale’s message on it) remains so uncertain that he passes up the opportunity to define he truly desires. He was, after all, unable to choose whether he preferred obedience or beauty in women. When he responds to the old hag’s question, he only says “Cheseth youreself which may be moost pleasance” for “as yow liketh, it suffiseth me” (1232-35). However, both options he is presented offer little depth. The unnamed knight ultimately gets both by the tale’s end, “at the cost of giving up maistrie but had he been willing to redefine his values, he might have received something less superficial” (Thomas 95). Surely, there are more than two potentially desirable qualities in women but the old hag delimits the knight’s unruly desire by the choices she presents. He ends up with a choice between two shallow values. The ending of the outlaw narrative, as Jones points out, relies less on an assumption of resignation, the logical result of the abandonment of control. Rather, “the story of outlawry is open to a variety of endings,” for when an outlaw is found guilty, he might “expect to pay a fine, suffer mutilation, or lose his life depending upon the crime” (Jones 48).
Chaucer ends the story conveying the logic of outlawry as malleable through his language of borders. Like the legal practice of outlawry and the literary representation of it, the variety in people, places, values, ideas, and languages creates competing discourses of justice, social norms, issues of identity, and authority. As we will see in subsequent examples, the shifting of time and location significantly affects tales of outlawry. Examining additional examples in which outlawry intersects with medieval romance highlights how such renderings created meaning in medieval English society. Both Chaucer and Malory project the ideals held by the ruling class in their romances, illuminating everything from the histories of Christendom, royal families, and the development of new militaries, to the chaste and erotic codes of chivalry — as well as the realm of the wildly fantastic.
As we move into The Knight’s Tale, we will see how the outlaw’s conflict with the legal system he participates in simultaneously results in a conflict of community and family upon his newfound need to exert independence and negotiate a new set of social associations. The lands of King Arthur’s Knights of the Roundtable and Duke Theseus’s realm of Athens both embody outlaws. Chaucer and Malory offer contrasting narratives of how the language of borders intricately connects outlawry narratives with medieval romance in his own time, through transcending narrative strictures. Outlaws and narratives of outlaws embody all sorts of conflicts and appeal to multifaceted tensions and frustrations in a variety of audiences. It is necessary, then, to keep pushing further with our examination of the outlaw figure and his story to see when, and how, the outlaw works as more than a representation of economic injustice and dissatisfaction. In this next section, I aim to uncover why this figure continuously was revived and was recurrently portrayed as roaming new borders — physical, internal, and social alike.
The Knight’s Tale (KnT) is perhaps the most reflective of the evolution of the outlaw hero in medieval literature. Arcite and Palamon’s military excellence and episodes of violence demonstrate the emergence of the outlaw as chivalric knight. Both Arcite and Palamon find themselves to be “out of bounds” at various points of the story. Their first outlawed experience takes place under the strictures of Theseus’s rule. The knights face isolation in the tower, an experience through which Chaucer inserts descriptions of the outlaw’s psychological strain —partially due to isolation, and partially due to infatuation. Their status as outlaws carries across the tale, shaping their actions and physical conditions; shame and guilt play recurring roles in reframing the psyche of the out of bounds knights. Chaucer’s outlaws reject the communal values of their feudal society, shaping them as different from other members of the community. Likewise, his treatment of Palamon and Arcite as outlaws differs, particularly following their exit from Theseus’s tower. Chaucer employs different forms of outlawry across The Canterbury Tales, which becomes apparent when examining KnT in contrast to WBT. Each outlaw displays different behaviors in KnT, depending on the forms of punishment imposed, ranging from forced isolation and banishment, to self-inflicted exile and escape. Likewise, Arcite and Palamon undergo markedly different transformations in identity reconstruction.
Chaucer first depicts outlawry in KnT through the insertion of imposed isolation in a tower outside of Athens, following a battle at Creon. Both Arcite and Palamon are caught and imprisoned by Theseus, Duke of Athens, who “faught, and slough” Creon, “manly as a knight/ In pleyn bataille, and putte the folk to flight” (129-130). The cousin-knights find themselves outside the law’s good graces as enemies of Theseus, and likewise, outcasted from Athenian society as a whole. Despite Theseus’s militant rule, Arcite’s punishment eventually reduces from imprisonment to exile on behalf of Duke Perotheus’s intercession. For, “at requeste and preyere/ Of Perotheus, withouten any raunsoun” Theseus “hym leet out of prisoun/ Frely to goon wher that hym liste over al” (1206-07). But, as we later learn, there are contingences and strictures in place that force Arcite into a state of perpetual exile. Palamon, too, receives the aid of an intermediary. Thanks to the “helping of a freend,” he, however, breaks free from the prison “And fleeth the cite faste as he may go” (1466-1467). The differences in each knight’s development as outlaws, through means of banishment versus evasion, reframe their identities in markedly different ways. For now, I will pause Arcite and Palamon’s shared experience as outlaws in the tower in order to uncover the significance of the different forms of outlawry Chaucer weaves across KnT.
We have already seen in WBT how forays into fantastical woods and movement away from cities lead to moments of profound social and psychological change. Palamon and Arcite undergo individualized experiences of identity reconstruction in the woods later in the tale. However, their initial sentence as outlaws lands them in a prison, together. Theseus’s scavengers find the two knights “in the taas of bodyes dede” with “many a grevous blody woundehe” (1005-10). Subsequently, Theseus quickly places the newly outlawed knights into the world outside of the community through sending them to dwell in a man-made construction: his castle’s prison-tower. Jones points out that while the forest proves to be the most prevalent home of the outlaw figure, the artificial and “built environment inevitably lead to conflict and even catastrophe” (Jones 130). Both knights experience catastrophe through their shared experience of isolation in Theseus’s tower. Hence, this becomes the first “out of bounds” location in which Chaucer positions his knights and likewise, it is in this outlawed territory that incivility and psychological unsoundness take root.
Medieval England has a longstanding history of utilizing imprisonment as a punishment for outlaws, dating back to early Saxon times through the later middle ages (Bellamy 162). Most kings, both in historical and fiction accounts, fined and executed outlaws as their preferred methods of punishment. Though most kings preferred to immediately and severely inflict punishments, there was still a period of time between the surrender (or capture) of a suspect and a trial when confinement in custody was essential. James Bellamy states that there were “more sentences to imprisonment in the middle ages than in preceding centuries” and that one reason seems to have been the prevalence “of the actions of trespass following misdeeds like assault or petty larceny which men claimed had broken the king’s peace” (Bellamy 163-64). When feudal courts found men guilty of such a count, the criminal was responsible both for the payment of any damages done and to a period in prison. As time went on, the act of casting a malefactor out of society, through means of exile or banishment, became replaced by mechanisms of social, political, and judicial control that included imprisonment. However, Chaucer begins with imprisonment but then transfers his outlaws to alternative methods. Outlawry, primarily exile, and the like, remained alternatives present in late medieval England, used not as a result of imprisonment’s ineffectiveness but rather, “was in response to attempts by the crown to ‘routinize’ outlawry and the resistance and strength of outlawry in the face of prerogatory kingship and statutory law” (Sartore 216).
As the law developed in England, particularly that which was written down, so did the forms of punishment for specific injustices and offences as means of correcting wrongdoings. Imprisonment was initially used to “gain compliance” and was not arbitrary (Bellamy 164). Throughout the 13th century, imprisonment was used for a wide variety of crimes, including but not limited to: riots, forcible entry, misbehavior of officials, economic crimes, and offenses against statues of laborers. These crimes, as Melissa Sartore points out, “all in theory, touched the king” (Sartore 218). The same can be said of war criminals and trespassers. Such criminals “were subject to terms of imprisonment” (Sartore 219). The conflicts between the outlaw and authority recur in Chaucer’s romances, and while Theseus arguably is in the right in sentencing Arcite and Palamon to imprisonment, the knights believe otherwise. Medieval legends have a longstanding fascination with using outlawry as a means to represent struggle against authority and abuse of law. Chaucer’s outlaws, in contrast, move away from merely being champions of good and justice against corrupt rule. Rather, Chaucer’s literary trope of the outlaw evolved to offer a more personal drive and expression of romantic dissatisfaction.
Chaucer’s employment of a prison-tower highlights the development of one of medieval England’s preferred methods of punishment. The middle English kype was one of the earliest fortified towers constructed in the early Middle Ages, and by the time Chaucer was writing KnT, the model would no longer be used for means of deflecting attacks. Rather, several political and social drives lead to these mid-medieval changes in the kype’s design (Liddiard 54). In France, and later England and Spain, the wealthiest began to construct a small number of kypes on a much larger scale than before. The desire of the wealthiest lords to have privacy from their growing households of retainers, as well as the various architectural ideas being exchanged across the region, lead to the influx in such structures. (Anderson 223). The twelfth-century French came to term them a donjon, from the Latin dominarium ‘lordship,’ linking the kype and feudal authority (Liddiard 47). Likewise, medieval Spanish writers called the buildings torre del homenaje, or ‘tower of homage.’ And in England, donjon would later turn into dungeon, which initially referred to a keep, rather than to a place of imprisonment (King 190).
This being said, early London did have a tower that critics have suggested might have shaped Chaucer’s fascination with the imprisoning and isolating quality of the man-made structures — the Tower of London. Here, Chaucer was appointed Clerk of the King’s Works in 1389. One of his responsibilities in this position was management of the Tower of London, which at the time served as a palace, fortress, prison, armory, mint, and a safe place for records (Weiskott “Tower of London”). Both Troilus and Criseyde and KnT rely on the imagery of towers to convey moments of isolation and despair, and the tower as an outlawed space is one that has a haunting history in England. This tower, just as the one Palamon and Arcite find themselves in, was generally reserved for high-ranking inmates; the Tower of London was one of the most important royal prisons in the country. However, the tower was not necessarily very secure, and throughout its history people bribed the guards to help them escape. In 1323 Roger Mortimer, Baron Mortimer, was aided in his escape from the Tower by the Sub-Lieutenant of the Tower who let Mortimer’s men inside (Wilson 42-43). Towers as prisons held primarily the nobles of criminals, a concept Malory would later pick up in his Arthurian tales as well. In this tower, knights were forced to reflect on their wrongdoings and contemplate their status outside the law. The earliest recorded prisoner of the Tower of London was Bishop Ranulf Flambard, imprisoned for exacting harsh taxes (Wilson 5-6). Although he is the first recorded prisoner held in the Tower, he was also the first person to escape from it, using a smuggled rope secreted in a butt of wine. Likewise, in 1345, Richard de Carlisle, a tailor, who had on his own admission threatened and injured jurors at Westminster, was sentenced “to have his right hand cut off and to suffer imprisonment in the Tower of London for life” (Bellamy 163).
Though most sentences typically lasted only a year or two, the king ultimately maintained full jurisdiction over who long the offender should remain imprisoned. Many of those who suffered in later medieval prisons and jails were there not awaiting their trial but rather, “having already been tried and sentenced to imprisonment, either as their sole punishment or as part of it” (Bellamy 163). This was largely because alternate penalties were available or other methods of punishment were preferred by the king. And, as we see with Arcite, the king and his legal advisers had no objections to imprisonment but occasionally the king would have a change of heart. In some cases, this change of heart was through the insistence of legal advisers, or it could be a king’s reconsideration of a misdoer’s sentence after the passing of time in which an outlaw might reflect on his crime and predicament. King Arthur in WBT was persuaded by his queen to lighten the punishment of death, and in a similar fashion, Theseus, too, is eventually persuaded to modify the outlawed knight’s punishment.
The assumption of guilt plays a pivotal role in shaping the psyche of the out of bounds knight, as the outlaw rejects the communal values of his society. Frye notes that “in every age the ruling social or intellectual class tends to project its own ideals in some form of romance,” and this was certainly the case when Chaucer crafted his own chivalric romances of the Middle Ages (Frye 186). The establishment of shared norms in KnT reflect this sentiment, and as romances could take up histories of kingdoms and explore military codes of chivalry, they often explored the wildly fantastic (as seen in WBT) and erotic as well. In their world outside the community, locked up in the tower, Arcite and Palamon desperately attempt to flee to a space outside Theseus’s law. This raises questions of fidelity to feudal lords and each knight’s own military and social interests within the tale. The isolated tower propels the newly outlawed knights into crises of identity, and eventually, reframes Arcite and Palamon’s identities. The deceptive nature of Chaucer’s outlawry differs between both outlaws embodied in this single tale. Their physical, psychological, and social change only multiply when Chaucer moves the outlaws beyond the bounds of legal reign, which, as we have seen in WBT, typically functions as the primary agent of pushing their flight from civility. However, it would be impossible to address the evolution of Arcite and Palamon as knights and outlaws without examining the recurring pestilence that romance writers incorporate to unhinge chivalric men: the intoxication of courtly love.
As we will see again with Malory’s knights, Arcite and Palamon’s evolution as outlaws begins as a conflict between knights and a lord but ultimately transitions into the conflict for the love of a woman. Upon the first time he “cast his eye upon Emelya,” Palamon grows lovesick, “And therwithal he bleynte and cride, ‘A!/ As though he stongen were unto the herte’” (1077-70). However, he is unable to pursue her. Arcite, while being the second to view her, argues that Palamon does not love her a woman but rather that “Thyn is affeccioun of hoolynesse, /And myn is love as to a creature” and hence, it is he who is the worthiest of her love (1158-59). Chaucer’s usage of lovesickness fuels Arcite’s actions upon his exile from the tower, leads to his recapture, and finally, his deadly battle with Palamon. It also motivates Palamon to later escape. It was not uncommon in the middle ages for romantic pursuit and scandal to lead to moments of outlawry, as murder and other forms of treachery often plagued the feudal courts. Hood points out that “on the one hand, to feudal society, Courtly Love was irrelevant to marriage and potentially destructive of feudal relationships” and, to add more fire to the flame, “to the Medieval Church it represented the willful (and wicked) subjection of that highest of human faculties (reason) to unruly passion” (Hood 22).
Even in the Robin Hood legends, we see the Greenwood outlaw largely motivated by his love interest, even if this does not initially appear as a motive for his moment of outlawry. Cohoon points out that across the multitude of reimaginings of Maid Marian, and from her chaste to bawdy permutations, “Marian is always disruptive; her contrast to the band of merry men places significant pressure on outlaw hierarchies that replicate the patriarchal order of court and the town” (Cohoon 210-11). And, in later versions of Maid Marian, we see “Marian figures that are saintly and sexually provocative, loyal and loving, as well as skilled in outlaw strategies” (Cohoon 213). Emelya, too, in her chaste and largely voiceless manner, ignites Arcite and Palamon’s development as outlaws. Hence, Chaucer’s entanglement of lovesickness with outlawry demonstrates the complex relationship between genres, supporting romance and outlawry’s ability to successfully, and frequently, intersect.