Outlaws vs. Vampires

By Stephen Basdeo

Vampires first appeared in English popular culture with the publication of Robert Southey’s epic narrative poem Thalaba the Destroyer (1801). Thalaba’s bride, Oneiza, dies on their wedding day, but she returns afterwards because her body had been reanimated when a demonic spirit invades her body:

Like the reflection in a sulphur fire

And in that hideous light,

Oneiza stood before them, it was she –

Her very lineaments, and such as death

Had changed them, livid cheeks, and lips of blue.

But in her eyes there dwelt

Brightness more terrible

Than all the loathsomeness of death.[i]

After the publication of Thalaba, vampyres would become a prominent feature of English gothic fiction; two notable Victorian examples are James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Peckett Prest’s Varney the Vampyre; or, The Feast of Blood (1847) and, of course, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897).

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Frontispiece to “Varney the Vampyre; or, The Feast of Blood” (c) Wikimedia Commons

 

Between the appearance of Thalaba and Varney the Vampyre, however, another vampire novel was written by John Polidori entitled The Vampyre (1819). The idea for The Vampyre was conceived on the same night as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). While entertaining his friends, Mary Godwin, Percy B. Shelley, Polidori, and Clare Claremont, at his house on the banks of Lake Geneva in 1816, Byron suggested that each of them should write a ghost story after having read aloud to each other extracts from Fantasmagoriana (1812). When Polidori returned to England, The Vampyre was published, although at the time it was attributed to Byron, much to his annoyance.

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Title page of Polidori’s The Vampyre – erroneously attributed to Lord Byron as late as 1884 (c) Wikimedia Commons

The Vampyre tells the story of Aubrey, a young English nobleman who, when he makes his debut into society, is entranced by a mysterious and aloof figure called Lord Ruthven:

It happened that in the midst of the dissipations attendant upon a London winter, there appeared at the various parties of the leaders of the ton a nobleman, more remarkable for his singularities than his rank. He gazed upon the mirth around him, as if he could not participate therein. Apparently, the laughter of the fair only attracted his attention, that he might by a look quell it, and throw fear into those breasts where thoughtlessness reigned. Those who felt this sensation of awe, could not explain whence it arose: some attributed it to the dead grey eye, which, fixing upon the object’s face, did not seem to penetrate.[ii]

One of the legends surrounding this mysterious man is that all who friends with him become usually end up experiencing some kind of misfortune. Nevertheless, Aubrey eventually becomes well-acquainted with this mysterious figure and the pair go on a tour of the continent together. At the time that Polidori was writing, it was very common for young noblemen, and the aspirant sons of the upper middle classes, to embark on a ‘Grand Tour’ of countries such as France, Italy, and Greece, as part of their education. As a man of high morals, however, Aubrey disagrees with Ruthven’s typical ‘aristocratic’ lifestyle, which mainly involves sleeping around with women, and the pair take their leave of each other.

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Illustration of a bandit from Charles Macfarlane’s Lives of the Banditti and Robbers (1833)

Aubrey travels on to Greece where, in the course of his antiquarian research into Ancient Greek monuments at Athens, he meets and falls in love with a young girl named Ianthe. However, one night she is killed in a very unusual manner:

There was no colour about her cheek, not even upon her lip; yet there was a stillness about her face that seemed almost as attaching as the life that once dwelt there: –– upon her neck and breast was blood, and upon her throat were the marks of teeth having opened the vein.[iii]

The locals immediately attribute Ianthe’s death to a vampire attack. Aubrey falls into a deep depression for several weeks and during much of the time he is insensible. When he recovers, he is startled to find that one of the men caring for him is Ruthven, who was also recently arrived in Athens. Gradually recovering, Aubrey asks Ruthven if they can begin making their way back to other parts of Greece because Athens holds too many unhappy memories.

While travelling in the northern part of Greece, Ruthven, Aubrey, and his party are attacked by bandits. Banditry always flourishes in parts of the world where the government is weak and unable to effectively enforce the law. Nineteenth-century Greece was such a place; since the fifteenth century it had been ruled by the Muslim Ottoman Empire but by 1819, which was when Polidori published his book, Ottoman rule in Greece was on its last legs. A war of independence would break out in 1821 and last until 1830. There was a lot of sympathy for the Greek revolutionaries; firstly they were Christians fighting against “heathen” overlords, so many in Western Europe warmed to their cause; and because Ancient Greece was viewed as the birthplace of Western civilisation, at a time of European international supremacy, it was thought by many governments and members of the public that the Greeks should be supported in their cause. Thus, members of the public in London, through the London Philhellenic Committee, raised £2,800,000 to enable the Greeks to buy arms. Some Brits took a more active role in the Greek Revolution, notably Lord Byron, who took up arms and joined the Greek rebels. While the Mediterranean countries had historically had problems with bandits, the problem got worse with the decline of Ottoman rule.

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Italian bandits hiding out in Roman ruins. Illustration by J. Cattermole (c) Stephen Basdeo

While Aubrey tells us in The Vampyre that he set little store upon accounts of banditry, and both he and Lord Ruthven decline the assistance of armed guards and take only two escorts with them. They soon regret this decision, however:

Scarcely were the whole of the party engaged in the narrow pass, when they were startled by the whistling of bullets close to their heads, and by the echoed report of several guns. In an instant their guards had left them, and, placing themselves behind rocks, had begun to fire in the direction whence the report came. Lord Ruthven and Aubrey, imitating their example, retired for a moment behind the sheltering turn of the defile: but ashamed of being thus detained by a foe, who with insulting shouts bade them advance, and being exposed to unresisting slaughter, if any of the robbers should climb above and take them in the rear, they determined at once to rush forward in search of the enemy. Hardly had they lost the shelter of the rock, when Lord Ruthven received a shot in the shoulder, which brought him to the ground. Aubrey hastened to his assistance; and, no longer heeding the contest or his own peril, was soon surprised by seeing the robbers’ faces around him—his guards having, upon Lord Ruthven’s being wounded, immediately thrown up their arms and surrendered.[iv]

Aubrey pleads with the robbers to allow him to take his friend to a nearby house, and promises them a greater reward than they would have gotten by simply robbing the party if they help to nurse Ruthven back to help. The robbers, enticed by the reward, agree to help Aubrey by accepting such a ‘ransom’. They are taken to a nearby dwelling and the outlaws stand guard outside until one of Aubrey’s men returns from the city with the promised money. The collection of a ransoms was one way in which many bandits, who often professed to be against all forms of wanton violence, made money from their victims. The celebrated Rob Roy in the Scottish Highlands often resorted to this manner of robbery; he would hold a (usually very wealthy) victim hostage and they would not be released until their family produced the required sum. One person who documented the problem of banditry in the Mediterranean was Charles Macfarlane, who published his findings in a book entitled The Lives and Exploits of the Most Celebrated Robbers and Banditti of All Countries (1834), and he documents several cases of bandits resorting to this method of robbery.

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Bandits from Macfarlane’s Banditti (c) Stephen Basdeo

Lord Ruthven seemingly dies of his injuries and the robbers take his body out of the hut to be buried the next day. Yet when Aubrey and one of the robbers arrive at the burial spot, they find that the body is no longer there. The outlaws immediately tell Aubrey that the only possible explanation for the body’s disappearance is that Ruthven was a vampire, but Aubrey dismisses this explanation, thinking that the real reason is that the outlaws have buried him secretly and stolen his clothes.

On his return to England, Aubrey is increasingly plagued by visions of Lord Ruthven, and gradually he puts all the pieces together and concludes that Ruthven was, in fact, a vampire. Aubrey temporarily loses his sanity but when he recovers, he finds out that his sister has gotten married to a young nobleman who of course turns out to be Lord Ruthven. He relates all of his adventures to his servants who immediately rush to save Aubrey’s sister, but it is too late:

When they arrived, it was too late. Lord Ruthven had disappeared, and Aubrey’s sister had glutted the thirst of a VAMPYRE![v]


References

[i] Robert Southey, The Complete Poetical Works (Paris: Galignani, 1829), p. 122. Southey also introduced the word ‘zombie’ into the English language.

[ii] John Polidori, The Vampyre; A Tale (London: Sherwood, Neely, and Jones, 1819), p. 27.

[iii] Polidori, p. 48.

[iv] Polidori, p. 52-3

[v] Polidori, p. 72.

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Pierce Egan’s “Robin Hood Ballads” (1840)

This post is not one of my usual essay style posts, with an introduction and conclusion, etc., but more of a research note after having got hold of a first edition of Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood novel.

Pierce Egan the Younger was one of the most popular Victorian penny-a-liner authors. Although he was the son of the more famous Pierce Egan the Elder (1772-1849), very little is known of the son’s early life.[i] The younger Egan first came to public notice when he provided the illustrations to a work that his father had written entitled The Pilgrims of the Thames in Search of the National (1838). In the same year that he collaborated with his father on the Pilgrims, he began writing Robin Hood and Little John; or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest. The novel is one of the best (in my opinion) Robin Hood novels published during the nineteenth century. It is also one of the longest: it was sold for a penny in weekly instalments over the course of two years, between 1838 and 1840.

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Title Page to Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood Ballads (1840)

The novel, targeted primarily towards working-class and lower middle-class adults, is filled with sex, violence, and radical politics, and is the story of Robin Hood’s life from his birth to his death. Egan is clearly acquainted with earlier Robin Hood works such as Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood (1795); Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819); and Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822). Egan’s novel went through several editions throughout the nineteenth century. As an appendix to the first edition in 1840, however, he included a collection of Robin Hood ballads.

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Egan’s collection is based upon eighteenth-century versions of Robin Hood’s Garland. These were anthologies of seventeenth-century Robin Hood ballads. And it is only the early modern ballads included in Egan’s collection, such as Robin Hood and the Tanner, Robin Hood and the Jolly Pinder of Wakefield, Robin Hood and Allen-a-Dale, and Robin Hood and the Bishop of Hereford. The medieval poems such as A Gest of Robyn Hode and Robin Hood and the Monk are, strangely, not included in Egan’s version.

The extent of his ‘editing’ of the texts is minimal. In fact, one might be forgiven for thinking that the appending of the ballad collection at the end of Egan’s novel was perhaps the publisher George Pierce’s idea. The preface included at the beginning is virtually plagiarised from Charles Johnson’s account of Robin Hood, with one or two notes from Joseph Ritson inserted towards the end, and there is no attempt to relate the ballads to the sequences and plotlines in Egan’s actual novel.

One contribution to the ballad collection that we can tell Egan did make, however, is in the illustrations he provided (he had also provided all of the illustrations to the novel in the first edition). Through his images, Egan did attempt to provide some continuity with his preceding novel. This is because the characters of Robin Hood and his men who appear in the novel look exactly the same as those which appear in this ballad collection. Furthermore, as the ballads accompany the first edition, and Egan often insisted on providing the illustrations to all of his first editions (later publishers incorporated entirely new illustrations in later editions), then there is no reason to suppose that these illustrations are not his.

First editions of Egan’s Robin Hood with the ballads are rare: more common is the 1850 edition, published by W. S. Johnson, which will still fetch approximately £100.


[i] To learn more about some of the facts I have managed to reconstruct about his early life from archival records clink this link.

Post-Apocalyptic Bandits: Mary Shelley’s “The Last Man” (1826)

I am the native of a sea-surrounded nook, a cloud-enshadowed land, which, when the surface of the globe, with its shoreless ocean and trackless continents, presents itself to my mind, appears only as an inconsiderable speck in the immense whole. [i]

The Last Man (1826)

Mary Shelley is popularly known as the author of the gothic novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). Her talents were not limited to the creation of horror stories, however, for, unbeknownst to most general readers today, she also gave birth to another genre: the post-apocalyptic story. The novel interests me for two reasons: I enjoy post-apocalyptic sci-fi stories, and the principal protagonist, Lionel, spends the first few chapters of the novel as a bandit.

The Last Man was published in three volumes in 1826, presents a vision of England in the year 2073: England has become a republic, but a deadly plague is sweeping the earth. Society breaks down, and England and Scotland become increasingly lawless places. On the continent, in France as in Britain, all government infrastructures have broken down and a Messiah-like cult leader has taken political power and promised his followers that, in return for their support, they will be spared from disease.

Before this nightmarish vision of society comes about, however, we first meet Lionel as a boy in rural Cumberland. Shelley’s vision of England in 2073 is a lot different to the emerging industrial powerhouse that she would have been familiar with in the 1800s. We see a predominantly agrarian country composed of peasants and lords. For her description of Lionel’s early life, Shelley follows a similar formula to that found in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century criminal biographies such as Alexander Smith’s A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen (1719), Charles Johnson’s History of the Highwaymen (1734), and The Newgate Calendar (1784). We are told that Lionel was born to poor but honest and respectable parents, but due to them having died when he was young, and having a duty to care for his sister, Perdita, in his adolescent years he is forced to pursue a career as a shepherd.

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Title Page to the First Edition

Lionel soon finds that he must supplement this meagre income from shepherding by becoming a bandit. Although the novel is set in England in the future, Shelley likely based her depiction of banditry upon the stories she had heard of them when visiting Italy in 1818.[ii] At this time, the after-effects of the political upheavals of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815), combined with rising food prices and the sale of common lands, meant that many southern Italians turned to banditry in order to sustain themselves. Eric Hobsbawm in Bandits (1969), when speaking of the types of men who turn to crime, notes that in predominantly agrarian societies such as nineteenth-century Italy, shepherds often turned to banditry, not only due to their low socio-economic status, but also because they often become acquainted with such highway robbers, which offers them a route into banditry:

There are, once again, the herdsmen, alone or with others of their kind – a special, sometimes a secret group – on the high pastures during the season of summer pasture, or roving as semi-nomads across the wide plan … the mountains provide their common world, into which landlords and ploughmen do not enter, and where men do not talk much about what they see and do. Here bandits meet shepherds, and shepherds consider whether to become bandits.[iii]

Thus Lionel tells us that,

I was in the service of a farmer; and with crook in hand, my dog at my side, I shepherded a numerous flock on the near uplands. I cannot say much in praise of such a life; and its pains far exceeded its pleasures. There was freedom in it, a companionship with nature, and a reckless loneliness; but these, romantic as they were, did not accord with the love of action and desire of human sympathy, characteristic of youth. Neither the care of my flock, nor the change of seasons, were sufficient to tame my eager spirit; my out-door life and unemployed time were the temptations that led me early into lawless habits. I associated with others friendless like myself; I formed them into a band, I was their chief and captain.[iv]

Another thing which, in agrarian societies, makes banditry an attractive option for shepherds is their existing familiarity with the terrain. This means that they are often able to attack travellers quickly, and then swiftly disappear into the hills and mountains of the countryside to avoid pursuit.[v] Although it should be said that the youthful Lionel is not the world’s most skilled bandit, for he regularly finds himself in the town lock-up:

It was seldom indeed that we escaped, to use an old-fashioned phrase, scot free. Our dainty fare was often exchanged for blows and imprisonment.[vi]

While other countries also suffered socio-economic setbacks in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, it was Italy which witnessed the largest amount of banditry. Shortly after Shelley authored The Last Man in 1826, Charles Macfarlane published The Lives and Exploits of Banditti and Robbers in all Parts of the World (1833), which deals mainly with contemporary Italian brigands. A further indication of how common ‘shepherd-banditry’ was in Italy during the nineteenth century is provided by Hobsbawm, who notes that, for example, during the 1860s, out of thirty three bandits arrested, twenty eight of them listed their occupations as either ‘shepherd’, ‘cowherd’, or ‘field guard’.[vii]

Make no mistake, however, for Lionel and his fellow brigands bear no resemblance to the ‘good’ outlaw/Robin Hood archetype:

I feared no man, and loved none … My life was like that of an animal, and my mind was in danger of degenerating into that which informs brute nature. Until now, my savage habits had done me no radical mischief; my physical powers had grown up and flourished under their influence, and my mind, undergoing the same discipline, was imbued with all the hardy virtues. But now my boasted independence was daily instigating me to acts of tyranny, and freedom was becoming licentiousness.[viii]

However, Lionel changes his course of life when the deposed king, Adrian, comes to live in the same area as Lionel, having been pensioned off by the new Republican government. It turns out that Lionel’s father had been friends with Adrian’s in his youth, and the latter does all he can to help ‘civilise’ Lionel and turn him from his lawless ways. Eventually Adrian succeeds in educating and refining the manners and morals of his new friend, and the pair forms a strong friendship.

Of course, this is not to last, for soon the plague makes its way to England spreading havoc and desolation. In this volatile situation, four people, Lionel, Adrian, and two other survivors attempt to journey to a colder climate where, they hope, the disease will not be as virulent. However, along the way all but one of them succumbs to the disease. The remaining character, Lionel, “the last man”, is then shipwrecked on a Greek island. The novel ends in the year 2100.

This is not one of Shelley’s most famous novels, but it was one of her personal favourites. Given the recent popularity of post-apocalyptic stories such as The Walking Dead, etc., perhaps you migth also consider giving it a read.


[i] Mary Shelley, The Last Man, 3 Vols. (London: H. Colburn, 1826) [Internet <https://www.rc.umd.edu/editions/mws/lastman> Accessed 7 July 2017].

[ii] Shelley, The Last Man [Internet <https://www.rc.umd.edu/editions/mws/lastman/i-intro.htm> Accessed 7 July 2017].

[iii] Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits, rev. ed. (London: Abacus, 2000), p. 39.

[iv] Shelley, The Last Man [Internet <https://www.rc.umd.edu/editions/mws/lastman/i-1.htm> Accessed 7 July 2017].

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Hobsbawm, Bandits, p.39.

[viii] Shelley, The Last Man, op cit.

Available for preorder: “The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler” (2018)

My book entitled The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler (Pen & Sword, 2018) is now available to preorder on Amazon and Waterstones’s website.

Follow the Amazon link: Stephen Basdeo, The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader (2018)

The blurb on the back of the book reads:

In 1381, England was on the brink – the poor suffered the effects of war, the Black Death, and Poll Tax. At this time the brave Wat Tyler arose to lead the commoners, forming an army who set off to London to meet with King Richard II and present him with a list of grievances and demands for redress. Tyler was treacherously struck down by the Lord Mayor. His head hacked from his shoulders, pierced on a spike, and made a spectacle on London Bridge. Yet he lived on through the succeeding centuries as a radical figure, the hero of English Reformers, Revolutionaries, and Chartists. ‘The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler’ examines the eponymous hero’s literary afterlives. Unlike other medieval heroes such as King Arthur or King Alfred, whose post medieval manifestations were supposed to inspire pride in the English past, if Wat Tyler’s name was invoked by the people, the authorities had something to fear.

If you buy it, I hope you enjoy it and are likewise inspired to learn more about the hero of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.

“The Bondman” (1833): Wat Tyler, Medievalism, and the Great Reform Act of 1832

In the course of my research for my book The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler, due to be published by Pen & Sword in 2018, I came across a now little-known novel written by a Mrs. O’Neill (I have been unable to find out her full name) entitled The Bondman: A Historical Narrative of the Times of Wat Tyler (1833). O’Neill’s text is the first time that the story of Wat Tyler and the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 received its ‘big break’ in the historical novel. Now, during the nineteenth century, novelists would often appropriate the medieval past to comment upon contemporary social, political, and economic issues. Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), about which I have written a lot on this site, was written as a response to the parlous, divided state of England at the time. As I was reading The Bondman, I realised that in the novel there are echoes of the political agitation that occurred in the lead up to the passage of the Reform Act of 1832.

During the early nineteenth century, by and large, neither the working nor the middle classes had the vote. The franchise was restricted to those who owned over 40 shillings of freehold property. Electoral constituencies were not equally sized, and many were not fit for purpose. Some constituencies, the ‘rotten boroughs’, such as Old Sarum in Wiltshire (which was a mere field in 1832), returned two MPs to Parliament. Yet new towns such as Leeds and Manchester had no representation in Westminster. The system needed changing, and after the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815), reform-minded members of the middle and working classes came together to secure representation in Parliament. Mass meetings were held throughout the country, but it was only in 1832 that the Whigs passed the ‘Great’ Reform Act, which widened the franchise by lowering the property qualification to £10. This went some way to addressing the demands of the reformers, but it still excluded many members of the working classes from voting. From that point on, the middle classes, who had been allies with the lower classes previously, now abandoned all further actions towards reform (the working-class Chartist movement would be founded six years later).[i]

So how does The Bondman reflect the events of 1832?

Firstly, perhaps a précis of the plot is in order. The narrative revolves around the life of a serf named Stephen Holgrave, who lives on Baron Sudbury’s estate in the South of England. He is set free from bondage after having saved his master Sudbury’s life on campaign in the Hundred Years’ War. Now a free man, he goes off to marry his sweetheart. Yet he falls victim to the schemes of Thomas Calverley, the Baron’s sergeant-at-arms, who is secretly in love with Holgrave’s life. Accused by Calverley of poaching in the Royal forest, Holgrave must submit to becoming a bondman again. From that day forward he experiences a radical awakening. He begins to resent the upper classes, a resentment fuelled by the preaching of his brother-in-law, John Ball (a historical figure and one of the key men in the Revolt of 1381), as well as by the revolutionary ideas of the local village blacksmith, Wat Tyler. Soon the revolt breaks out, and Holgrave joins with Tyler, Ball, and Jack Straw.

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Joan of Kent, the Queen Mother. Frontispiece to The Bondman (1837 edn.). Personal Collection.

Essentially, the novel is the story of the growth of a labouring class consciousness, and the language of class is prominent throughout the novel. Having resubmitted to bondage, Stephen asks himself,

Can it be that the lord of the castle and I are sons of the same heavenly father?[ii]

In one of his speeches given to a crowd of peasants, John Ball speaks of bondmen as being,

The labouring class.[iii]

When the Poll Tax of 1381 is initiated by Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury (who also has a personal rivalry with John Ball), opposition to the tax creates discontent, nnot simply among the peasants, but amongst merchants, skilled workers, and professional people. What emerges in the novel is

A coalition of the lower classes.[iv]

This ‘coalition of the lower classes’ mirrors the alliance of the working and middle classes seen prior to the passage of the Reform Act. Reflecting the strikes and the political agitation seen in the lead up to the passage of the Act in 1832, O’Neill’s novel speaks of how there was,

In many places a total suspension of labour.[v]

In the novel, the rebels have a very specific set of demands which are in keeping with the historical rebels’ demands, such as the abolition of serfdom, the right to freely buy and sell in the marketplace, as well as a general pardon for all offences committed during the rebellion. But in O’Neill’s novel, added on to this list of demands, is the general enfranchisement of serfs and freemen.[vi]

At the end of the novel, Tyler and Ball die, but Holgrave survives and must go back to serving his Lord. But the Baron of Sudbury soon realises, through twists and turns in the plot which are unnecessary to repeat here, that Holgrave was falsely accused of the crime. the Baron immediately restores Holgrave to freedom, and in a show of good faith, he releases all of his other serfs from bondage as well, because it is, in the Baron’s opinion, much better to be served by freemen. Of course, O’Neill points out that it is only some people in medieval England who get emancipated, while the rest carry on as before. Holgrave, instead of adhering to Tyler and Ball’s revolutionary principles throughout his life instead settles down to family life and thinks no more about his fellow bondmen in England. Such scenes mirror the ‘Great Betrayal’ of the working classes by the middle classes after 1832.

In addition, Kathryn Gleadle points out in Borderline Citizens: Women, Gender and Political Culture in Britain, 1815-1867 (2009), the role of women and the events of 1832 are not well-researched.[vii] The novel is also interesting because it illustrates how one woman, at least, in an era when women could not vote, was engaging in politics (some wealthy women could vote in elections in some instances prior to 1832, but it was rare, and this right was taken away from them after the passage of the Act). Unfortunately, I have been unable to find out any further information about Mrs. O’Neill. She was definitely an educated woman, for footnotes appear throughout the novel referencing primary sources such as Froissart’s Chronicles. Of what social class she was I do not know, but it is evident that her sympathies lay with the rebels of 1381, for she calls Wat Tyler ‘the Worthy’.


Notes

[i] See the following works on the Great Reform Act of 1832: Edward Pearce, Reform! The Fight for the 1832 Reform Act (London: Random House, 2003); Eric J. Evans, The Great Reform Act of 1832 2nd Edn. (London: Routledge, 1992).

[ii] Mrs. O’Neill, The Bondman: A Historical Narrative of the Times of Wat Tyler (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1833; repr. 1837), p. 139.

[iii] O’Neill, The Bondman, p. 250.

[iv] O’Neill, The Bondman, p. 244.

[v] O’Neill, The Bondman, p. 259.

[vi] O’Neill, The Bondman, pp. 263-265.

[vii] Kathryn Gleadle, Borderline Citizens: Women, Gender and Political Culture in Britain, 1815-1867 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)

‘Robin Hood Should Bring Us John Ball’: The Outlaw in William Morris’ “A Dream of John Ball” (1886)

I am currently working on two projects: my PhD thesis examining post-medieval representations of Robin Hood, and my forthcoming book examining the post-medieval cultural history of Wat Tyler, the leader of the so-called Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The two projects are admittedly similar – they both deal with primitive medieval rebels. Yet there is no great degree of overlap between the two figures because both men lived ages apart: Robin Hood (supposedly) flourished in the 1190s, while Wat Tyler died in 1381 at the hands of the treacherous William Walworth. But I finally found one text in which I could, albeit briefly, see the stories of Robin Hood and Wat Tyler united: William Morris’ A Dream of John Ball (1886).

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William Morris (1834-1896) [Credit – Wikimedia Commons]

According to his entry in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Morris (1834-1896) was ‘a designer, author, and visionary socialist’.[i] From an early age he loved reading tales of medieval times, devouring the works of earlier nineteenth-century writers such as Walter Scott (1771-1832). When he grew up he was involved with the Pre-Raphaelites, a group of painters who were heavily influenced by the medieval period. By the late 1870s and 1880s, Morris was increasingly attracted to the cause of social justice: in 1883 he joined the Democratic Federation (soon to be renamed as The Social Democratic Federation), and began reading Karl Marx’s Das Capital (1867). A number of socialist writings followed. Still retaining his love of the medieval period which had developed in his youth, Morris looked to the medieval period to find prototypical socialist ideas.

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Detail from the Kelmscott Edition of A Dream of John Ball (1892) (c) Maryland University

Thus it is with A Dream of John Ball. It was originally serialised in a magazine called The Commonweal, and depicts a time traveller travelling back to the fourteenth century and meeting John Ball. Ball, or Balle, was a radical priest who lived during the fourteenth century and is famous for having the following phrase attributed to him:

Whan Adam dalf, and Eve span, Wo was thanne a gentilman?[ii]

(When Adam delved, and Eve span, who then was the Gentleman?)

That was quite a powerful statement for the medieval period, in which it was taken as a given that the lords were superior to commoners.

Before the time traveller goes to hear Ball speak, however, he is conducted by one of the villagers to a tavern, and tells the men assembled there a story. After he is finished, attention turns to another villager whose friends request to

Hearken [to] a stave of Robin Hood; maybe that shall hasten the coming of one I wot of.[iii]

To the villagers, Robin Hood prefigures John Ball. As a lifelong medievalist, Morris will evidently have been acquainted with the printed collections of Robin Hood ballads such as Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795), as well as J. M. Gutch’s A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode (1847), and perhaps the oft-reprinted editions of Robin Hood’s Garland that flourished throughout the nineteenth century.

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Morris’ A Dream of John Ball was originally serialised in The Commonweal: The Official Journal of the Socialist League (c) William Morris Archive

I think it is the spirit of Joseph Ritson’s radical and republican interpretation that Morris is trying to resurrect here. The song of Robin Hood that the villager sings to the time traveller is a described in the following manner:

My heart rose high as I heard him, for it was concerning the struggle against tyranny for the freedom of life, how that the wildwood and the heath, despite of wind and weather, were better for a free man than the court and the cheaping-town.[iv]

The statement that Robin’s career as an outlaw is a ‘struggle against tyranny’ is reminiscent of Ritson’s sentiments in Robin Hood:

Robin Hood: a man who, in a barbarous age and under a complicated tyranny, displayed a spirit of freedom and independence, which has endeared him to the common people, whose cause he maintained, (for all opposition to tyranny is the cause of the people,) and, in spite of the malicious endeavours of pitiful monks, by whom history was consecrated to the crimes and follies of titled ruffians and sainted idiots, to suppress all record of his patriotic exertions and virtuous acts, will render his name immortal.[v]

Morris was less bombastic than the vehement republican Ritson, but the idea of freedom against tyranny is strong in his depiction of a Robin Hood ballad performance.

After the ballad of Robin Hood has finished, all of the men in the tavern congregate in the centre of the village. John Ball has been rescued and is due to give a sermon on the steps of the Church. The time traveller’s companion, Will, turns to him and says:

Was it not sooth that I said, brother, that Robin Hood should bring us John Ball?[vi]

Robin Hood has prepared the way, both literally (in that the man was singing a song of Robin Hood before he arrived), and figuratively: Robin was one of the first steps in the fight to freedom. After him comes John Ball, preaching egalitarianism and telling people that they need no master. But as the time traveller will later reveal to Ball in conversation, the work is not yet done: powerful Victorian industrialists will rise to take the place of the cruel medieval nobles.

While Robin had been appropriated by radicals on several occasions, he has always been an awkward figure for socialists. One might be tempted to argue that the famous notion of him stealing from the rich to give to the poor is an example of socialist redistribution of wealth and resources, but this is far from the case because Robin has never had any ideology underpinning his actions. Still, Morris’ very brief appropriation of Robin is the heir of Robert Southey, Ritson, Thomas Miller, Pierce Egan, and the anonymous Little John and Will Scarlet (1865), but it also anticipates Geoffrey Trease’s left-wing portrayal of the Robin Hood legend in Bows Against the Barons (1934).


REFERENCES

[i] Fiona MacCarthy, ‘Morris, William (1834–1896)’ in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004; Online Edn. 2009) [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/19322 Accessed 4 Dec 2016]. There are a number of biographical and critical works onn Morris available: Fiona McCarthy, William Morris: A Life for Our Time (London: Faber, 2015); Charles Harvey & John Press, William Morris: Design and Enterprise in Victorian Britain (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991); Norman Kelvin, ed. William Morris on Art and Socialism (New York: Dover, 1999).

[ii] ‘John Ball’s Sermon Theme (Walsingham, Historia Anglicana)’ in Medieval English Political Writings ed. by James M. Dean (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1996), p.140.

[iii] William Morris, A Dream of John Ball (London: Kelmscott, 1892; repr. London: W. Jonson [n.d.]), p.15.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Joseph Ritson, ed. Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads 2 Vols. (London: T. Egerton, 1795), 1: xi-xii.

[vi] Morris, A Dream of John Ball, p.17.