The King as "Evil Counselor"
in King Edward and the Shepherd
King Edward and the Shepherd is an obscure late fourteenth-century poem set in the reign of Edward III,1 and there has been little published critical study of the work. A variation of the "disguised king" motif, the poem is variously seen as romance or ballad2 and is grouped with a small number of other tales that derive from the story type "the king and subject."3 King Edward and the Shepherd may also be seen as complaint literature in disguise. Despite its comic elements, the poem's topics are somber: law and order, corruption, exploitation, social relations, trouthe, human worth and, especially, the monarchy. The tale may be read as "a story about a good king outwitting a corrupt peasant," which Alaric Hall sees as the "obvious reading,"4 but the "good king" portrayal becomes less obvious as the story unfolds. The dark side of King Edward's character progressively emerges until he is finally revealed as an "evil counselor," one whose advice and actions separate the king from the people. Due to the obscurity of King Edward and the Shepherd, the analysis of its social commentary is framed around the events of the tale for readers unfamiliar with the work, set against a historical background.5
The poem opens with the promise that those who listen "shalle lawghe of gyle" ("shall laugh at guile"; 12), and the first deception is the king's. Tradition holds that Edward was fond of going about the countryside incognito, and Adam the shepherd meets the disguised king in the fields a mile from Windsor. Like the king, Adam was born in Windsor, and he may have been motivated to emigrate from city to countryside as some were, according to Hilton, to escape "urban poverty and restriction" (15). The shepherd's home, located in the woodlands outside Windsor, apparently falls within royal rather than local manorial jurisdiction, since he wishes for the "helpe of sum lordyng" ("help of some lord"; KES 178).
The premise behind the disguised king motif that features an encounter between an incognito monarch and a humble commoner is the king's desire to view the state of his people and to evaluate their opinion of him, of which he may be ignorant. But Edward is already aware that his officials exploit the folk as he listens to Adam tell how he has been "pylled" ("robbed"; 31) by the king's men, who have taken his livestock. Although they have given him a "stik of tre" (36), a tally stick recording the debt, he has been unable to collect the four pounds and two shillings promised for the goods taken. Edward, who has identified himself as Joly Robyn, a merchant with connections at court,6 tells Adam that such offenses should be related to the king, who is held responsible and in contempt by victims for the actions of his retainers and would make the guilty pay if he knew their identity.
A tally stick like Adam's was a piece of wood notched and split lengthwise, the halves divided between debtor and creditor. The system was vulnerable to abuse by the debtor, who might alter or dispose of his half or allege that it had been lost or was never executed, as seen later in the poem when the king's steward claims to have no match to Adam's stick. The seizure of his livestock by royal officials was related to the system of purveyance used to collect goods from the populace for the king's use, and it too was abused. Goods were "purchased" but often undervalued, and payment made partially or not at all.7
Adam has also been attacked by a band of outlaws that raids the area and causes "the husbondys mycull pyne" ("husbandmen much pain"; 152), taking "geese, capons, and henne, / And alle that ever thei may with renne" ("geese, capons and hens, and all that they can run away with"; 154-55). They have driven Adam and his wife out of the house, slept with his daughter, taken his fowl and sheep, and are expected to return. Although the rape of his daughter is heinous, Adam is fortunate not to have met with violence himself. The report of social disorder is a near topos in the literature of the period, but the realistic depiction of outlawry seen in King Edward and the Shepherd is less common.
As Bellamy observes, although some outlawry was motivated by revenge, some criminal bands' activities performed strictly for profit were "not just illegal, but downright mean and petty" and "lacked the intrinsic gallantry or forthrightness of many performed by outlaws in contemporary ballads" (81). The outlaws that have attacked Adam are not dispossessed or distressed gentlemen, or gentrified or ennobled outlaws described by Knight and Ohlgren (10-11) or members of noble households whose activities were led or planned by the lord as described by Bellamy (70). Rather, the group of "viii or nyne" ("eight or nine"; KES 151) men who rob Adam and others represents the type of organized gangs seen in documentary evidence and parliamentary complaints.8
Ordinances of trailbaston were instituted in the early fourteenth century to control outlawry but, like other laws, they could be used against the innocent or those guilty of minor infractions, as expressed in the Anglo-Norman9 The Outlaw's Song of Trailbaston:
Sire, si je voderoi mon garsoun chastier
De une buffe ou de deus, pur ly amender,
Sur moi betera bille, e me frad atachier,
E avant qe isse de prisone raunsoun grant doner.
Quaraunte souz pernent pur ma raunsoun,
E le viscounte vint a son guerdoun,
Qu'il ne me mette en parfounde prisoun.
Ore agardez, seigneurs, est ce resoun?
Pur ce me tendroi antre bois, suz le jolyf umbray;
La n'y a fauceté ne nulle male lay,
En le bois de Belregard, ou vole le jay
E chaunte russinole touz jours santz delay.
Mes le male deseynes, dount Dieu n'eit jà pieté,
Parmi lur fauce bouches me ount enditee
De male robberies e autre mavestee,
Que je n'os entre mes amis estre receptee. (9-24)
Sir, if I want to punish my boy with a cuff or two, to correct him, he will take out a summons against me and will have me to be attached, and made to pay a big ransom before I get out of prison.
They take forty shillings for my ransom, and the sheriff comes for his reward for not putting me into a deep dungeon. Now judge, sirs, is this right?
Therefore I will keep within the woods, in the beautiful shade; there is no deceit there nor any bad law, in the forest of Belregard, where the jay flies and the nightingale always sings without ceasing.
But the ill-favoured people on whom may God never have pity, out of their deceitful mouths they have indited me for wicked thefts and other misdeeds, so that I dare not to be received among my friends.
This bitter poet claims that those thus treated "will become thieves who were never such" (45), and he imagines taking violent vengeance on the jurors.
Many crimes were committed on a casual basis by temporarily allied people. There were generally at least two associates; using fourteenth-century criminal court records, Hanawalt calculates that 78% of robberies involved groups of two or more (266). The gangs were often formed of relatives, like that of the Folvilles,10 which included six brothers of a knightly family,11 one of whom was a priest, and their associates included a village parson, a clerk and a constable (Hanawalt 204). It was not unusual for villagers to abet bandits, out of fear or for a share of the spoils as reward or purchased at below-market prices (Hanawalt 275).
Victims were frequently peasants like Adam, a source of foodstuffs and items needed for living; but houses, manors and churches were also burgled for richer rewards, sometimes violently. Homicide by bandit gangs was not uncommon, and Hanawalt's study shows that women and children, many of whom were home alone during robberies, were particularly vulnerable (277). Gangs were feared in forests, villages, towns, on roads, at fairs: in short, nearly everywhere, especially at night, when many assaults occurred.
Edward promises to help solve Adam's problems with outlaw attacks and debts owed by royal officials, which is fortunate since the peasantry had little or no legal standing with the royal courts, depending on their status.12 So Edward seems a positive figure concerned with his people's welfare. But his flawed character surfaces with the revelation that he is equally or more motivated by protecting his reputation. Though the king promises restitution for the misdeeds of his men, his worry is "what wil men of your Kyng seyne? / Wel litull gode, i trowe!" ("what will men say about your king? Little good, I wager!"; 50-51). When Adam doesn't respond to Robyn's query, the king swears at him jovially and again asks for "tythyngys of oure King, / Off his men and his wyrkyng" ("news about your king, of his men and his deeds"; 58-59). The king knows he is understandably cursed by the people for his men's actions, and he seems more concerned with clearing himself of the "fame" ("ill repute"; 144) he bears on account of those who bring him "vilanye" ("blame"; 143) than with his commitment to "redressing the injustices committed by his officials" as perceived by Ohlgren (12), or worried about the victims. The payment of a debt incurred and ignored by the king's men would have been a good local public relations move, had he stopped there.
After being assured of aid from Joly Robyn, the shepherd invites him home for a meal. The disguised king is a jovial companion as he rides through the woods with the shepherd, whom he finds entertaining. But ambiguity reappears when the king suggests catching prohibited game; getting to know his people includes testing them (although here it is more like goading), which implies distrust. Though it is validated in the case of Adam's poaching, it is a negative basis for assessing his subjects and leaves little room for understanding the needs of his people who might be driven to illegal acts out of necessity, some of which may be caused by his own officials, or those who wish for improved living conditions.13
On the way to Adam's home, they see plentiful game. As Adam brags about his prowess with a sling, against which "ther is no bow that shall laste / To draw to my slynges caste, / Nought be fele fete" ("there is no bow that can pass my sling's cast, not by many feet"; 190-92), Robyn asks him to kill a few conies, but the shepherd refuses to hunt in the king's warren, which is protected by royal retainers. Robyn tries again to get Adam to poach, this time "hert and hynde" ("deer"; 255), and the shepherd still refuses; as before, he claims to fear the king's forester.
Hunting in the king's forest was restricted, and a statute was passed in Edward's reign that included his retainers in charge of the forests in the prohibition.14 Penalties for poaching were severe, including imprisonment, but enforcement was sporadic. Poaching occurred in both royal and manorial preserves and most was probably on a small scale, but Adam has made it a cottage industry. He kills enough game to "send presandes mony on, / And fryndes make i me" ("send many presents and make myself friends"; 435-36) with gentry and yeomen, who reciprocate with "corne and brede, ale and wyne, / And alle that may like me" ("grain and bread, ale and wine, and all that may please me"; 441-42).
When they arrive at Adam's home, despite his losses to robbers of various sorts he still has a flock of sheep, keeps fowl, and lives in a three-bay house with at least one outbuilding. Living in a remote location brings not only vulnerability to attacks by outlaws who frequent the forests, but loneliness. Whether due to his locale, personality or illegal activities, he "bade felowes to my dynere" but "thei wil not cum here" ("invited fellows to dinner, but they will not come here"; 310-11), for which he curses them and seems genuinely grateful for Robyn's company.
But his woodland home also brings benefits, albeit illegally gained, and he would seem to be living above his station although, according to the narrator, he is "a wel begeten man, / And comyn of holy kynde" ("well-born man from a good family"; 366-67) who has a natural taste for fine food. Adam serves the king fare found on aristocratic tables: pheasant, crane, heron, spoonbill, curlews, bitterns, mallards and baked swan,15 all taken by Adam with his sling, along with finely sifted bread and two-penny ale. They have a cheerful meal, during which Adam teaches Robyn a drinking game in which the cup is filled and whoever drinks first makes a wassail toast, "passilodion." The other player responds, "berafrynde," which intends that the cup be emptied by the first drinker, then refilled often and well and passed along: "Thus shal the game go aboute" (331).16
Robyn is impressed with Adam's plenty and tests him again by expressing a desire for conies or venison. After swearing him to secrecy, the shepherd produces spiced rabbit pie and venison, meat he has poached from the king's forest. He later shows Robyn his underground stockroom where "ther venyson plenté in was, / And the wyne so claré" ("there was venison in plenty and wine so clear"; 489-90).17 When the king leaves, Adam joins him in order to do some hunting. As they pass through the woods, the shepherd kills rabbits selected by the king, who praises Adam's skill with his sling. Adam again asks Joly Robyn to keep his poaching a secret, and reaffirms his offer of a reward if he helps him recover his losses caused by the royal officials. The king assures him that he will be recompensed when he brings his tally stick to court.
The shadows cast on Edward's character darken as the tale moves from woods to Windsor. When Adam arrives dressed in peasant russet18 to collect his money as directed by the king, Edward maintains his disguise, supported by his retainers. The shepherd is ignorant of court etiquette, overwhelmed and uncomfortable in the "hye halles" of the castle that "ar so bare" and "wyde" (729-30) and the court full of "pride" (727), and wants to go home as quickly as possible. After he has received his money, he offers Robyn the seven shillings he had promised him as reward, thanks him, and swears friendship, all of which are offered genuinely. When the king refuses the money and presses the shepherd to dine at the castle, his plan goes into action, although it involves less than noble behavior.
The king had prepared his retainers and magnates for Adam's arrival and promised them "gode bourd" ("good sport"; 612) and laughter at the shepherd's bad manners. At the meal, which is attended by the queen, prince, and the nobles, whom the king has instructed to feign friendship towards Adam, Edward (still Joly Robyn) mocks the shepherd by repeating the drinking game Adam taught him during their visit, and the courtiers soon join in the "gammen" (609). The shepherd is shocked at having been betrayed by Robyn, who he feels has returned a "god dede" ("good deed"; 977) with "schame" (975), and he vows never to give hospitality to a merchant or tell his "pryveté" ("secret"; 979) again. He is angry with himself for having been so "unslye" ("naive"; 1022) and at Robyn, whom he wishes he could "chastis . . . so with my slyng" ("chastise with my sling"; 1052).
When Edward finally reveals his identity to Adam, he knows the shepherd will "wene ded to be, / And make therfore mornyng" ("believe he will die and therefore make much mourning"; 1062-63) and claims that he intends it for the shepherd's "gode" ("good"; 1064). Though Adam begs mercy, he is more repentant about having misplaced his trust than about his misdeeds when he finds he has been duped by the king; had he known Edward's true identity, he would not be in his present trouble.
The extant text ends there, and critics assume a missing ending that resembles those in related tales in which the shepherd would be richly rewarded, perhaps with knighthood.19 Walsh sees the tale as a combination of "pathos and comedy," but since Adam is rewarded at the end the dominant tone is comic (12). However, as the extant text stands, it rings with sober reality. Like the poem, Adam's life is non finis sed punctus (unfinished, imperfect). A poacher, even though forgiven for his crime, would not be rewarded but would return to an altered lifestyle without the former luxuries brought by his poaching. Adam is fortunate to have the skill and resources to live comfortably, provided he escapes further outlaw robberies, although the exploitation by the king's officials is likely to recur. But he will surely be tempted to poach again despite the vigilant foresters, whom he has routinely eluded, and will be more wary about revealing his pryveté now that he is angrily aware of his naiveté in having trusted a seeming friend.
Ironically, the king as Joly Robyn starts the relationship with Adam. He begins subtly by confiding to the shepherd that the king's men owe him money, as they do Adam. Sharing confidences involves trust, which is an essential element of the concept of trouthe that also includes loyalty and honesty, which are at the core of the poem. By telling Adam a pryveté soon after they meet, the king invites an exchange of secrets and the formation of a bond of trust between them. The king's true intent is to draw information from Adam about the perception of the monarch among the folk by claiming "fele sithis i am in doute" ("I am often in doubt"; 62) on his own account about the king's financial stability.20 Adam's eager reciprocation with his own woes gives him a feeling of comradeship with the man who calls him "neghtbur myne ("neighbor mine"; 70). This impression grows when Robyn accepts Adam's invitation to dinner and addresses the shepherd as "my lefe fere" ("my dear friend"; 215) and says "I wil be on of thyne"("I will be one of thine"; 216); this is probably a casual statement, but the sentiment develops when he promises secrecy to Adam, since it would be shameful to betray a "gode frende" (389).
After Adam receives his payment, he thanks Robyn and says they will be "evermore felowes i and thow" ("fellows evermore, you and I; 801), and when Robyn refuses the silver Adam had promised him, he expresses friendship: "For thi luf, i wolde do more / Then speke a worde or ii the fore; / Thou may preve sum tyme" ("For your love, I would do more than speak a word or two for you; you may test this sometime"; 809-11), though he is now thinking as king and judge. The time soon comes for Robyn's friendship to be tested as he predicted, though in a different context; he considers it true, while to Adam it is false and his simple sincerity is destroyed. The men are at cross purposes, unable to connect across class stratification that separates peasant from merchant, and political dynamics that divide subject from king.
As mentioned earlier, the disguised king motif involves the monarch's intent to gain awareness of the condition or needs of the commons and how he stands in public opinion, which intersects with the ignorant king topos that appears frequently in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century literature of social criticism. It is based on the premise that the king was shielded from knowledge of the state of his people by "evil counselors," self-interested and corrupt advisors and favorites. Embree sees it as a means of creating a "convenient fiction" that reconciles the "king's sympathy with the common people" by blaming officials and courtiers for oppression of the lower classes. He theorizes that poets seldom spoke from the point of view of the poor despite their "professed sympathy," but that the device was used by middle-class poets protecting a class who had property and position with interests in civil order, fair administration of justice, social stability, and equitable taxation (Embree 123, 125). As he points out, the commons were also seen as a threat, especially after the Rising (124). Nevertheless, many sincere poets and moralists of all classes stress the need for the alignment of justice with the needs of the populace. As the poet of Treuth, reste and pes assures, "And lawe be kept, folk nyl not ryse. / That kyngdom shal have reste and pes" ("If the law is kept, folk will not rise. That kingdom shall have rest and peace"; 15-16). However, the keeping of the law depended on a fair and wise ruler, and documentary and literary evidence affirms the existence of "evil counselors" and the dangers they presented to king, land, and people.
The king was advised by Parliament and the king's council, and an informal group of "a 'kitchen cabinet' of confidants," his private counselors. To act without the advice of these great men, the magnates of the realm, was considered a moral outrage (Barnes 2). According to the medieval ideal, the good ruler chose wise counselors who were concerned with the commonweal and then listened to their advice, for "to rule well, a ruler must be ruled" (Ferster 40). He avoided flatterers who gave malignant advice for their own profit. Beyond matters of governance such as taxation and spending, it was important that a king be of good character and maintain the respect of the people. It was held that "the well-being of the state depends on the morality of the ruler" (Ferster 120). The "character issue" plagued the reigns of Edward II, Edward III, and Richard II. Many "disapproved of Richard II's friends for their influence on governmental decisions and the king's personal behaviour" (Ferster 123), and despite the support of most of his magnates, the loss of the gentry's support was crucial to Richard II's deposition (Ferster 133).
A king could choose to follow wise or unwise counsel, or reject both and act according to his own will, whim or personal desire. However, as Richard II was advised by parliamentary representatives, ancient law provided for deposition if a king estranged himself from his people and "would not be governed and guided by the laws of the land and wholesome counsel of the lords and nobles of the kingdom, but wrong-headedly, upon his own unsound conclusions, follows the promptings of his untempered will" (Knighton 361). If he behaved in a manner that compromised his integrity and honor and separated himself from the people, he took on the character of an "evil counselor," as does Edward III in King Edward and the Shepherd.
Romances frequently use a historical or fictional king to comment on contemporary rulers and conditions. Monarchs are perennial targets of criticism, but the plethora of complaints in the fourteenth century, which opened and closed with deposed kings, was justified. Separated by fifty years, the reigns of Edward II and his great grandson Richard II were strikingly similar, so criticism of their rules formed a core of complaints that were voiced repeatedly and augmented by traditional antimonarchical commentaries.
The exact date of King Edward and the Shepherd is unknown, but assuming it was written toward the end of the fourteenth century as suggested by French and Hale, it is likely that Richard II would have been recognized by the audience, especially after the Rising of 1381 when he first granted the rebels' demands, pardoned them, then reneged and had many of the leaders tried and executed. Richard lacked the diplomacy or desire to create unity and asserted his power to control Parliament and to act freely, so that factions formed and Richard's moves toward absolutism and favoritism increased opposition to the point of civil conflict.
Commentaries on social and political issues became more specific in the fourteenth century than previously, with references to persons and events, sometimes directly and sometimes suggestively. Socially conscious writers felt compelled to complain about the ramifications of monarchical mismanagement and misbehavior and the effect on the people, especially the lower classes. There were didactic works, and protest and political verses and songs and other types of complaint literature that decried the "abuses of the age." Authors who avoided those forms still found a way to express their critiques: in romances. The poet's characterization of the ruler in King Edward and the Shepherd twists conventional topoi against a backdrop of cultural reality in a disquieting and undermining manner not expected or often seen in either romances or complaint literature.
Warnings against evil counselors abound in fourteenth-century literature. Monarchs were repeatedly advised that "What kyng that wol have good name, / He wol be lad by wys counsayle / That loue worship, and dredes shame" ("The king that will have a good name will be led by wise counsel that loves worship and dreads shame"; Treuth, reste, and pes 81-83). In his Regiment of Princes, Hoccleve reminds Henry that kings are human and may err no matter how good his wit may be, and "good conseil may exclude a wrong" (4865). He advises him to take counsel "of the wyse / And nat of fooles, for they may nat love / But swich thyng as hem lykith" ("of the wise and not of fools, for they may love only things that please them"; 4936-38). The king should choose good men and shove away "the wikkid whos conseil is deceyvable" ("the wicked whose counsel is deceivable"; 4941).
These warnings were not made without cause. As McKisack explains, counselors were traditionally and "naturally" the king's magnates, who resented and resisted intrusions upon that relationship and power (19), particularly by "favorites." Ferster would add that the peers also sought to promote their interests in the form of the king's patronage and largesse (70). There were conflicts between the king and his baronage as well as within the peerage itself. In the Parliament of 1310, opposing earls complained of "evil counselors" who led Edward II to financial and military failure, specifically naming Gaveston. Ordainers were charged with reforming Edward's rule, though the Ordinances established were only sporadically observed by the king. Edward's cousin, Thomas of Lancaster, was originally a loyalist but became an opposition leader and was one of the strongest supporters of the Ordinances. He was steward of the realm, and one of his proposed terms for clarifying and strengthening his position was intervening against the king's "evil councillors" (Madicott 242-43). The chronicler of the Vita Edwardi Secundi observes that "If our King Edward had . . . not accepted the counsels of wicked men, not one of his predecessors would have been more renowned than he" (69).
During the "Good Parliament" of 1376, the court was purged of accused evil counselors from Edward III's court as it declined during the king's last years, though the actions of the Parliament were soon reversed. In the "Merciless" Parliament of 1388, evil counselors were impeached for misguiding the youthful Richard II, but the appellants were brought before Parliament in 1397 and Richard had his revenge. The execution of the main magnates is lamented in Gower's Tripartite Chronicle and the anonymous "On the King's Ministers," which allegorically condemn three of Richard's supporters implicated in the case: Bussy, Baggot and Green, who were entrenched in Ricardian politics including service in the House of Commons and as councillors.
Hoccleve tells how a king's unjust ministers accuse the unwitting monarch of their own "wikkidnesse" (2532), and are forgiven their wrongs while the king is held guilty. Conversely, an unjust king's vices can be hidden by ministers who "do naght but justice / To poore peple in contree as they go" ("do only justice to poor people in the country as they go"; 2535-36), but they seldom do and "oppressioun regneth in every herne" ("oppression reigns in every corner"; 2541). Thus Hoccleve advises the young Henry to go, as did Edward, "Into contree in symple array allone / To heere what men seide of thy persone" ("alone into the country in simple dress to hear what men say about you"; 2561-62), because the good king must know "what fame that his poore peple him bere" ("his reputation with his poor people"; 2545) in order to defend them if they are grieved; "Excuse shal him nat his ignorance; / He moot enquere of wrong and it redresse" ("his ignorance shall not excuse him; he must inquire of wrong and redress it"; 2549-50). Edward's forays into the countryside gave him an opportunity to observe the state of his folk but, as supported by documentary evidence, he had also been informed in correspondence that the peasantry was exploited by his men (French and Hale 51), so Edward III was not an "ignorant king" in reality or in King Edward and the Shepherd.
When the scene moves from forest to court and Joly Robyn becomes King Edward (to all but Adam), he also becomes his own "evil counselor," reversing the ignorant king topos. Rather than officials and counselors oppressing the people without the king's knowledge, they mistreat a subject at his direction. It is clear that he is in control and not subject to his advisors,21 and his ignorance of oppression is dispelled by his knowledge of corruption in his own court. When Adam presents his tally stick for payment, the steward claims, "Thereof i ne rech; / Iwisse, i have therto no mech!" ("I have no record to match"; 782-83). This is obviously not the first time the steward has refused to honor a debt, and Edward simply laughs at his attempt to avoid payment, which would have succeeded but for the king's presence.
Like an evil counselor, Edward directs his retainers, courtiers, officials and family, most of whom are presumably unaware of Adam's illegal activities, the reason for his presence, or the king's agenda, to ridicule the man. It is presented as a good joke, and perhaps some of the audience, like the courtiers, found it entertaining, although as Diller notes in his commentary on the shepherds' play in the Chester Corpus Christi cycle, modern audiences may find such mockery more humorous than did medievals (136). But some may have been disturbed by the king's cruelty that stains the character of both ruler and court. Wright notes that "apart from the complaint material, [the poem] is infused with a comic spirit" that "inevitably comes at Adam's expense," and that when the laughter at the court comes "it is with a particularly abrasive mockery" (653). The deliberate scorning of the shepherd reflects the aristocracy's disdainful attitude towards the lower classes. Wright depicts the court as "a cabal of petty and bullying idlers" and observes that the "dominant impression is not of Adam's ill breeding but of the ruling class's infatuation with the signification of its own superiority" (653).
Attitudes towards the peasantry were complex and contradictory. Peasants were recognized as producers vital to the country's economy, but socially alien; they were the base of the three-estate paradigm, yet also seen as base. They had a close relationship with God, but also inherited the curses of biblical husbandmen like Adam, Cain, and Noah and were thus tainted. Though our Adam is a figure of mockery for his bad manners, peasants were seen by many in more disgusting images, and derided and distrusted.22 In L'ordre de bel ayse, an Anglo-Norman anticlerical satire dated around 1300, they are excluded from the new religious order: "When a rascal or a villein rises in station or authority, to where he can exercise control, there is no more moderation in them than in the wolf who devours lambs."
Peasants became an increasing threat to social and economic stability, particularly post-Plague when they sought improved wages, mobility and conditions, and legislative attempts at control made by the classes in power were largely ineffectual as supply and demand presided. After the Rising of 1381, attitudes grew increasingly negative, despite the fact that many of the participants of the "Peasants' Revolt" were from the rural and urban middling classes. However, with a few exceptions, peasants are most often seen sympathetically in complaint literature as victims of exploitation, particularly by officials, as is Adam.
Literary attacks on the king are seldom direct, mainly because criticism of the king was dangerous. The Statute of Treason passed in 1352 prohibited discussion of a king's death (not life), and peers were similarly protected from criticism by legislation in 1379. Certain literary forms were outlawed, but it was generally perilous to attack rulers directly (Ferster 32-33). So authors used diversionary methods, such as offering advice in "mirror of princes" literature to the current or incoming king on how to rule wisely, which implies need for correction of existing conditions. Ferster points to the use of elements and language of advice literature (Füerstenspiegel) by authors to camouflage their critiques (32-33). They also disguised their commentary in romance, often set in bygone days, through reference to an exemplary ruler against whom the contemporary monarch is implicitly negatively compared. As Barnes demonstrates, several romances scrutinize the conciliatory process (29). She cites several in which "the ability to give and recognize good counsel is the mark of a good king," while "to refuse or to ignore counsel from one's vassals . . . is the hallmark of the tyrant," and the giver of bad or false advice represents "the standard of villainy" (Barnes 14).23
As King Edward and the Shepherd progresses, the criticism becomes increasingly severe. Perhaps the most evil counsel Edward gives is to himself in justifying the breaking of trouthe. After learning of Adam's poaching and having made a form of rash oath, Edward is in an awkward position. Before knowing of the shepherd's poaching, he makes assurances of his trustworthiness and "leuté" ("loyalty"; 386) for he would have "mycul maugré" ("great dishonor"; 387) and shame should he betray a friend. When the king leaves Adam's home, the shepherd accompanies him and, with Edward's encouragement, kills more rabbits and again swears the king to secrecy: "I pray the telle it to no man / In what maner that i hit wan: / I myght have blame therfore" ("I pray you to tell no one how I won [the game]: I might bear guilt for it"; 554-56). The simple and honorable solution would have been for the king to reprimand and/or penalize Adam in private, thus keeping his word of secrecy without allowing the shepherd to escape justice. But he punishes the man in a different manner and ultimately is not completely faithful.
Edward is constrained to keep his promises to Adam since, as Orfeo reminds the fairy king, a ruler must always keep his word and tells him that it would be foul "to here a lesing of thi mouthe!" ("to hear a lie come from your mouth!"; Sir Orfeo 464-65). Edward meets his royal responsibility by helping Adam collect his money and escape the outlaws' attacks, but he fails his moral obligation to maintain his oath of secrecy. The insistence in the literature on oathkeeping, not just for kings but for everyone, is a reflection of the loss of trust in promises and one's word as contracts and cash replaced services as the bases of feudal relationships. The issue became philosophically, morally and legally complex regarding the situations under which oaths were valid and/or binding.24
In King Edward and the Shepherd, the king could be released from his promise of secrecy about Adam's poaching since it was made precipitously without awareness that he would be protecting illegal activities, while Adam could claim (and does) that he revealed information under deceitful circumstances. The poet straddles the issue: the king keeps his word to aid Adam, even with the knowledge he is a poacher, because the shepherd has been violated. In the world of romance, promises must be kept, even to miscreants. But is the revelation of the drinking game, ostensibly made in fun about a seemingly insubstantial matter, a breach of confidence that is defensible to the poet and audience?
Technically, Edward does not break an oath; his vow of secrecy applies only to Adam's poaching. Yet the shepherd considers the playing of passilodion in the court a betrayal of both secrecy and friendship.25 Or perhaps he assumes or fears that knowledge of the game includes knowledge of his poaching, and his inference is not without basis. The game is interlaced throughout the episode at Adam's home and becomes associated with all the activities the two men share, which Adam may have considered intimate and private, though he had apparently taught the game to others. As they ride to Adam's home, he brings up the game twice to distract the king from suggesting poaching. They play the game throughout the first part of the feast, and it is tempting to imagine the shepherd being "in his cups" when his guest requests conies or venison, which Adam serves after extracting the king's promise of secrecy. The game continues during the rest of the meal and in Adam's storeroom, about which Adam also requests Robyn's loyalty: "Ther is no man this place con wrye / But thiself, yif thou will sey, / And than art thou unkynde" ("There is no man who can betray this place but you; and if you tell, you are untrue"; 512-14). So the game, poaching and secrecy become conflated, and the king shrewdly plays on that perception to chastise the shepherd while keeping his word.
Adam is both victim and culprit, and the king apparently feels bound to protect him as one and free to disgrace him as the other. Though Edward says his actions are for Adam's own good, his machinations evoke not repentance but resentment, and the king gleefully mistakes Adam's woe as regret for his crime rather than distress at having been caught. The shepherd cries "mercy!" of the king, but he ends not with fawning gratitude and loyalty but protestation of entrapment: "For had i wist of this sorowe / When that we met yister-morowe, / I had not bene in this bale" ("Had I known of this sorrow when we met yesterday, I would not be in this grief"; 1088-90). And if, as Snell asserts, there is a "sense that the king undergoes some kind of learning process" in this type of romance (137), it is absent in the extant King Edward and the Shepherd. He already knows that his people are oppressed, his officials corrupt, and lawlessness rampant.
Rather, the audience (and Adam) learn about Edward as his character underneath the disguise is revealed. Neither king nor subject gains positively from their encounter. If the denouement "constitutes a restitution of established order" after it has been turned "upside-down" by the carnivalesque role reversal at Adam's home with the peasant as "mock king" as asserted by Snell (149-50), then King Edward and the Shepherd is damning. An obligatory happy ending to romance might be a crowd pleaser, but it would be absurd in King Edward and the Shepherd, both in fictive and social reality. Neither the king's mercy nor, if it existed, his rewarding Adam with riches or knighthood could erase his capacity for treachery and cruelty or his moral failings. The theme of "gyle" ("guile") promised by the poet centers on the king, though it is not laughable.
In the end, the hope that communication between the "ignorant king" and the common folk is both fulfilled and quashed. Edward learns of Adam's grievances and corrects them, but this is not a panacea, for the audience knows that exploitation, lawlessness and the misuse of power are unstoppable. The shepherd's experience at court proves that the two worlds cannot meet; Adam comes in good faith with no illusions about his social condition, and it is his rusticity rather than his illegal activities for which he is ridiculed and scorned. In turn, he learns that the mistreatment is directed by the monarch acting as evil counselor to his courtiers and himself. With contempt on one side and distrust on the other, such a reconciliation indeed seems like a "convenient fiction."
Illustration by Marsha Mello
For more on Middle English literature, see Medieval Forum
1 The tale was popular and versions were told of several other monarchs: Henry II, John, Edward II, Edward IV, and Henry IV (French and Hale 949).
2 Following editors French and Hale, the tale is considered a romance in this study.
3 For discussion of these motifs, see: Snell and Walsh on the "disguised king"; Wright on the "king and subject"; Embree on the "ignorant king." The two motifs are often grouped in the "disguised king" motif, as does Walsh. However, Wright differentiates between the two depending on whether the king is deliberately disguised, as in King Edward and the Shepherd, and refers to the "king and subject" as the "king-and-commoner" motif as in Rauf Colyear, where the encounter is by chance. The two motifs generally share the exchange of hospitality between king and commoner and, as Wright notes, the lavish rewarding of the subject after the king threatens "a less welcome fate" (647).
4 Thanks to Professor Alaric Hall for his review of the article and for his suggestions.
6 Robyn describes Edward III's family genealogy, including his father, Edward II, and his mother, Isabella of France, and refers to his wife, the queen, Philippa of Hainault, and his son, the Black Prince, Edward of Woodstock (father of Richard II), who are at Windsor.
7 For a detailed description of purveyance, see J.R. Maddicott, The English Peasantry and the Demands of the Crown 1294-1341. Past and Present: Supplement 1. Oxford: The Past and Present Society, 1975.
8 For a description of the composition and activities of outlaw bands, see Barbara A. Hanawalt, "Ballads and Bandits: Fourteenth-Century Outlaws and the Robin Hood Poems," Robin Hood: An Anthology of Scholarship and Criticism, ed. Stephen Knight (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1999).
9 Anglo-Norman was the vernacular of the English upper classes, although English gained ascendance later in the fourteenth century.
10 Eustace de Folville was one of many "professional" criminals who served in the royal army and thereby earned pardons for their past misdeeds (McKisack 205). The Folvilles also eventually gained a positive reputation for attacking men seen as oppressors, an act occasionally committed by other bandits and appreciated by the populace (Hanawalt 280-81).
11 Criminals of this social status were uncommon compared to middling peasants, yeomen and clergy (Hanawalt 269).
12 See Wendy Scase, Literature and Complaint in England, 1272-1553 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007), especially chapter 1, "Judicial Plaint and Peasant Plaint" for the complexities and methods of access to the royal courts by the peasantry.
13 Knighton reports that during the Rising of 1381 "the commons asked of the king that all game, whether in waters or in parks and woods should become common to all, so that everywhere in the realm, in rivers and fishponds, and woods and forests, they might take the wild beasts, and hunt the hare in the fields, and do many other such things without restraint" (Knighton 219).
14 A statute was passed in 1390 that extended the prohibition on hunting by the commons (as defined by income) to all unenclosed land rather than only the previously protected areas. Like the labor and sumptuary laws, the act was part of the aristocratic effort to maintain their social status. A. J. Pollard, Imagining Robin Hood: The Late-Medieval Stories in Historical Context (London: Routledge, 2004) 88-89.
15 Dyer reports that such fowl were a minor part of aristocratic diet and served only on special occasions (194). Christopher Dyer, "English Diet in the Later Middle Ages," Social Relations and Ideas: Essays in Honour of R. H. Hilton, ed. T. H. Aston, et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983) 194.
16 The game is seen elsewhere, such as in the roughly contemporary King Edward and the Hermyt, and in the early thirteenth-century tale of Henry II by Geraldis Cambrensis, the plot of which is closely analogous to King Edward and the Shepherd. Francis James Child, ed., The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Vol. V (1889. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2003) 72.
17 The feast and its related activities are one of the main sources used to connect King Edward and the Shepherd with A Gest of Robyn Hode. For a discussion of the relationship between the two poems, see Thomas H. Ohlgren, "Edwardus Redivivus in A Gest of Robyn Hode," Journal of English and Germanic Philology 99:1 (2000):1-28.
18 Sumptuary laws regulating dress to maintain class distinction were passed in 1363 but were unenforceable and soon withdrawn.
19 For example, see Rachel Snell, "The Undercover King," Medieval Insular Romance: Translation and Innovation, ed. Judith Weiss, Jennifer Fellows and Morgan Dickson (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000).
20 The crown sought financing, especially for the wars, through loans from a variety of individual, corporate and institutional sources, and many were not repaid. Edward III went bankrupt and Italian banking houses were ruined. In 1392, Richard II extracted funds from the city of London, which had ceased making loans to the crown, by withdrawing its liberties. The city capitulated, and the costly pageantry of the restoration of its relationship with the king was witnessed and recorded by Richard Maidstone in Concordia: (The Reconciliation of Richard II with London).
21 Several of Edward III's most influential magnates are named in the poem: the Earl of Surrey, the Duke of Lancaster, his chief advisor, and Ralph de Stafford, also an earl.
22 See Paul Freedman, Images of the Medieval Peasant (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1999) for a broad analysis of attitudes towards the peasantry.
23 In her discussion of The Tale of Gamelyn, Barnes suggests that conventional romance endings of idealized solutions and wish fulfillment combined with accounts of corruption and injustice "invite the appellation 'romance of complaint'" (52). The term may also describe other similar romances such as Sir Cleges and Sir Launfal, as well as a wider range in recognition of authors' ability to use the romance genre for social criticism.
24 These and other related issues are examined, particularly from a legal viewpoint, in Richard Firth Green, A Crisis of Truth: Literature and Law in Ricardian England (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1999). For a discussion of oathkeeping in cultural context, see Lois Roney, "Chaucer Subjectivizes the Oath: Depicting the Fall from Feudalism into Individualism in the Canterbury Tales," The Rusted Hauberk: Feudal Ideals of Order and Their Decline, ed. Liam O. Purdon and Cindy L. Vitto (Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1994).
25 Passilodion and berafrynde are generally considered nonsense words but meaning can be traced linguistically. Friendship is built into the drinking game in the response berafrynde: "bere" (OE "bera"), to bear, and "frynde," friend. The word may be a double entendre: the player or cup bears a drink to a friend and contains a friend, the beverage.
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