And I know they killed our heroes too
I saw a priest kill a cop on the TV
And I know now they're our heroes too"
Marilyn Manson - The Death Song
At some point while perusing the yore of days (as I remember it I was looking up the etymology of "yeoman" and the interesting history behind it) I ran across the Gest of Robyn Hode. I can't say I've read more than a fifth of it or so. Albeit usually depressed to near-suicide, even I don't hate myself enough to try to decipher that much Middel-Englishe without a Masters in linguistics or literature. However, I struggled and pieced together enough of it to run across what's become one of my new favorite literary passages. Now, for those of you uncultured slobs (like myself about last-year-ish) who don't precisely know what we're talking about here, the chansons de geste were one variation of that sort of long-winded late medieval poetry which we often lump together as "epic" for the purposes of casual discussion. Mostly when referencing them you'd allude to the Chanson de Roland or El Poema de mio Cid, French and Spanish cultural touchstones roughly equivalent to Beowulf for the anglophone public, but I was surprised to find that not all were written for court audiences to glorify members of the power elite.
When the topic is Robin Hood, especially, we can expect at least a bit of antiestablishment rhetoric. Picture a flea-infested fifteenth-century busker sidestepping a pool of piss in some smoky single-room wattle-and-daub small-town tavern (or glorify the image, I really don't care; it's your imagination) to regale an audience of common craftsmen and traders barely above the hopelessness of serfdom with tales of one who stood against the injustices of da gummint. The passage which intrigued me comes right at the start, and I'll do my best to paraphrase here without making you grind through all the thees and thous.
Lytil Johnn comes up to Robyn Hode and basically asks "yo, boss, we got like this really bad-ass posse all gathered up, ain't nobody beefin wit us, so who do ya want we should rough up?" In other words "Where we shal bete and bynde" which I think is a wonderfully illustrative line even if I can't figure out if bete means beat or abate (stop/halt maybe?)
So by way of reply Robin goes through this little litany of five examples of acceptable or unacceptable targets for their robberies. I'm citing them slightly out of order because the most interesting one is next-to-last originally.
"The hy sherif of Notyingham, Hym holde ye in your mynde"Well, duh, no surprise there, that's the one detail you get out of every version of the story, even the Disney cartoon. If this guy sets foot anywhere near Sherwood, he's toast.
"But loke ye do no husbonde harme, That tilleth with his ploughe"Don't hurt any farmer/peasant (husbandman) - also unsurprising, given Robin's central character trait as popular hero. Though, really, medieval serfs had nothing to steal anyway so Robin's magnanimity's a bit facetious.
"No more ye shall no gode yeman"Look, we're not just any common vandals here. If some honest schmuck scrapes by enough to own his own house, we ain't gonna ruin him. Regular Joes are alright in Robin's book.
"Ne no knyght ne no squyer That wol be a gode felawe"Now this one's slightly more interesting. Knights and squires may be part of the military autocracy but if they're "good fellows" they get a pass. I mean, let's be fair here, not all cops are pigs. Their whip-cracking boss uptown in Nottingham, though, he's the real embodiment of the military-industrial complex that's oppressing the people.
"These bisshoppes and these archebishoppes, Ye shall them bete and bynde"Hell-low! Now we're cookin', let's "bete and bynde" us some clergy, y'all! Well, not just any clergy. True to form, Robin wants to hit the higher-ups. Now, I'm sure there's some interesting historical context behind this, as the Robin Hood story comes out the centuries immediately following the Norman conquest, when continental monastic orders and other church powers began asserting themselves over the mish-mash of Christianity and pre-Christian culture which the locals had tolerated thus far. However, I find it more rewarding to think of this line in general terms and contrast it with the brainwashing cultural norms of today.
I mean, you just don't really get this part of the story out of any modern reinterpretations do you? No film studio would dare tell it so, yet in both pre-modern versions I've read so far, Robin Hood's death is the same: bled to death by a treacherous nun/prioress. Try reminding your preacher/pastor/priest that of Robin Hood's two undeniable villains, one was the embodiment of military oppression and the other religious oppression. They go hand in hand, at least once religion gets to the point of a hierarchical institution. This may not chime with my own insistence that the very notion of faith, being an assault on reason, is evil, but remember the context of the poem. It was likely told to commoners. No matter how powerful the tools of oppression throughout history, the common people most often had a pretty good idea who their real enemies were, and folklore across Europe teems with lying, cheating, avaricious robbers in robes. Robin Hood is by no means anti-religious (quite faithful in fact, which I'll touch upon in my next post) but he stands against superlative authority and this includes religious authority.
So how is it that nowadays, in the least oppressed society in history, the social control apparatus has grown so pervasive and unchallenged that we can no longer voice this most basic fact? To wit, that religious authority figures are not husbandmen or yeomen or even good squires but equal allies in parasitic ironfisted overlordship, whether it cares to don its velvet glove or not.