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People You May Not Have Known Were Badass: Sir Thomas Malory

I'm starting a new series of blog posts. Occasionally I run across people (historical figures, typically) who are badass. These people are the rightful subjects of our awe/adulation, and someone should spread the word, lest they be missed or forgotten.  So, without further adieu, installment 1 of

People You May Not Have Known Were Badass: Sir Thomas Malory

When one looks at the storied history of English literature, there is a great gaping hole between Chaucer in the late 14th century, and the age of Shakespeare in the late 16th century/early 17th century. For a space of about two hundred years, you'd be hard pressed to find a literary giant.

Unless of course you count Sir Thomas Malory.

Sir Thomas Malory wrote Le Morte d'Arthurwhich collected a passel of old stories from various sources and forged from them the modern conception of the Arthurian romance. Oh sure, stories of courtly love and knights and whatnot were common currency across Europe from the dark ages. However, it was Sir Thomas Malory who put them together into a readable, semi-coherent plot, worked with William Caxton (the first Britich printer and publisher of books, and somewhat of a badass himself) to print them, and provided the source material for romantics for generations to come. 

T.H. White and The Once and Future King and Disney's The Sword and the Stone? All due to Malory, who in fact has a cameo at the end of White's book.

Tennyson and The Lady of Shalott? That's coming from Malory as well.

All of that old Victorian capital-R Romance, with knights and chivalry and saving maidens and wizards and castles and all of that stuff, which spawned so much art and so many other stories, both classic and crappy?

The posters in the dorm rooms of female college freshmen, like this

and this?

Malory, baby. It's all due to him.  In fact, has 289 results for books by Sir Thomas Malory. If you could count all of the different editions of Le Morte d'Arthur as a single book, it would still be a bestseller, more than 500 years after his death.

Pretty badass, ain't it?

Well, you don't know the half of it.

Turns out that this writing career of Malory's was just the capstone on a life of violent and bawdy rabblerousing.  While the details of his life are up for some debate (I mean, we are talking centuries ago, here), here are some things we are fairly certain of:

- He became an honest-to-god knight, at a time when that was expensive to do.

- He was elected to Parliament. Twice.

- He was accused on more than one occasion of extortion. Back then, extortion wasn't a namby-pamby affair; it involved telling someone basically face-to-face that "You need to give me money, because I'm more badass than you."

- In January 1450, Malory "and 26 other armed men were said to have laid an ambush for [the Duke of] Buckingham in the Abbot of Combe's woods near Newbold Revel". So there's the attempted murder thing.

- On more than one occasion he allegedly raped Joan Smith and stole money from her. However, it should be noted that the husband brought the charges, and she did not corroborate them. This was very unusual at the time, and most historians think that Malory seduced Mrs. Smith and her cuckolded husband brought the charges for this reason.

From an account by P.J.C. Field: On March 5, 1451, a warrant is issued for his arrest, and a few weeks later "he and various accomplices were alleged to have stolen cattle in Warwickshire -- 7 cows, 2 calves, 335 sheep, and a cart worth 22 pounds at Cosford, Warwickshire. Buckingham, taking with him 60 men from Warwickshire, attempts to apprehend Malory, but "in the meantime Malory apparently raided Buckingham's hunting lodge, killed his deer, and did an enormous amount of damage" -- 500 pounds worth. I'm sorry, but when the local sheriff goes after you for theft and in the meantime you raid his house? That's just badass, my friends.

- Also according to Field, Malory was "arrested and imprisoned at Coleshill, but after two days escaped by swimming the moat [at night]. He then reportedly twice raided Combe Abbey with a large band of [one hundred] men, breaking down doors, insulting the monks, and stealing a great deal of money". You know all of those movies where the clever medieval ruffian escapes by swimming the moat? Yeah. He did that. Then he celebrated by attacking monks and stealing their money, and history makes sure to record that he insulted them as well.  

Because the man had style.

- Overall, he was imprisoned something like six or eight times, though never brought to trial. He was so badass that he was specifically excluded from general pardons. When the king says, "Yeah, let everyone go free. EXCEPT that Malory guy," then you know you're badass.

- Eventually he was imprisoned for the last time in his life. He died either in prison, or shortly after being released. And what did he do during that last three-year prison stint?

He wrote the book that would basically launch our modern concept of chivalry and medieval romance.

So next Hallowe'en, when half of your friends are dressed up like stupid pimps, with fake purple fur and giant plastic diamonds on their canes, I'll be the guy dressed up like Thomas Malory.  And most people will think I'm just a knight. But I'll wink at you, while stealing some food, insulting the host, makin' it with the women and writing a timeless bestseller, and you'll know who I am.

Clearly, you should buy yourself a five dollar Penguin copy of Le Morte d'Arthur (though be careful you don't get the original Middle English version, yeesh), but you might also look at the following references:

Tags: badass
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