King and Commoner tales were hugely popular across the late medieval and early modern periods, their cultural influence extending from Robin Hood ballads to Shakespearean national histories. This study represents the first detailed exploration of this rich and fascinating literary tradition, tracing its development across deeply politicized fifteenth-century comic tales and early modern ballads.
The medieval King and Commoner tales depict an incognito king becoming lost in the forest and encountering a disgruntled commoner who complains of class oppression and poaches the king’s deer. This is an upside-down world of tricksters, violence, and politicized feasting that critiques and deconstructs medieval hierarchy. The commoners of these tales utilize the inversion of the medieval carnival, crowning themselves as liminal mock kings in the forest while threatening to rend and devour a body politic that would oppress them. These tales are complex and ambiguous, reimagining the socio-political upheaval of the late medieval period in sophisticated ruminations on class relations. By contrast, the early modern ballads and chapbooks see the tradition undergo a conservative metamorphosis. Suppressing its more radical elements amid a celebration of proto-panoptical kings, the tradition remerges as royalist propaganda in which the king watches his thankful subjects through the keyhole.
Table of Contents
Introduction: "A rolle he had reading, / A bourde written therein he ffound" 1. Feasts and Surveillance in King Edward and the Shepherd: "Wode has erys; fylde has siȝt" 2. The Carnivalesque and Insurrection in John the Reeve: "I will cracke thy crowne!" 3. Hybridity and Transformation: Rauf Coilȝear, A Gest of Robin Hood, King Edward and the Hermit and The King and the Barker 4. Containment in the Early Modern Ballads: The King at the Keyhole. Conclusion. Appendix One: Early Analogues in Other Cultures, Chronicles, and Romance. Appendix Two: The King and Commoner Tradition on the Stage: "Mingling Kinges and Clownes". Appendix Three: Select King and Commoner Publication History
Mark Truesdale completed his PhD in 2016 at Cardiff University, producing a study of the fifteenth-century King and Commoner tradition and its early modern afterlife.