‘What shall these bowes do?’ : the gift and its violence in A Gest of Robyn Hode.
Date of Issue2012
College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences
This essay proposes that gift exchange in Middle English tales of outlawry serves to negotiate problems of violence and social conflict endemic to late medieval England. Repeated scenes of giving reaffirm ‘fellowship’ as an oft-noted ideal of this literature, but gifts also work as a form of symbolic violence, suggesting that coercion is the not-so-hidden basis of community here. Seemingly part and parcel of the outlaw hero’s rebellious appeal, his generosity turns out to serve a surprisingly conservative function. Yet this conservative message is not strictly a matter of feudal nostalgia. In fact, reading the logic of the gift in these tales allows us to move beyond the long-standing debate over their economic ideology. Neither purely feudal nor mercantile in their function, the outlaw’s gifts constitute a form of violence whose appeal lies precisely in its forceful resolution of conflicting economic and social interests. The relatively popular A Gest of Robyn Hode (after 1450) provides the clearest example of how generosity intersects in outlaw literature with anxieties about violence and social order. Like its analogues, the Gest testifies to the survival of the gift as a fantasy of order in an emergently modern world.