Under the Greenwood Tree: Outlaws in Medieval England and modern medievalist crime novels
By Rhiana Bergh-Seeley
Master’s Thesis, University of Oslo, 2007
Abstract: In medieval England the outlaw was both an outcast from society while at the same time he was also a hero to many. His heroic status is attested to by the many ballads about various outlaw heroes that were written in the Middle Ages. Today the outlaw is gone from England, but he lives on in the medieval ballads and in the medievalist crime fiction where the outlaw is a stock character, and sometimes also plays a very important role.
The first part of this thesis takes a brief look at the economic, social and political factors that shaped England in the period 1066-1485, and also looks at the legal system that created the outlaws and the representatives of this system. In the next part I examine the medieval outlaw as we find him in the ballads and as a historical character, specifically in relation to the traits that characterize the good outlaw, in order to see if there are any conclusions that can be drawn about typology. I then analyze the outlaws in four medievalist crime novels in relation to the typology and the traits of the medieval outlaw, to see how their various roles tie in with the typology and the ideal of the good outlaw.
It is my opinion that the genre of medievalist crime fiction is useful because it makes history accessible to many who would otherwise not learn of the past, and it helps to keep history alive. In addition to this the character of the outlaw still has strong symbolic power, something that is demonstrated by the fact that there are still TV-series and movies made about the outlaw, usually in the character of Robin Hood. Just as the outlaw was a symbol of freedom and independence during the Middle Ages, he has that same function for many today. The medieval outlaw may be gone, but he is definitely still around, and will be for a long time.