The popular genre of literary forest law parody was established quickly after the Conquest, and functioned as a ready-made engine for the evolution of parody of the kind that would lead to the late medieval outlaw rhymes, masterworks of absurdist nonsense. Poachers, as well as poets, continued to perceive forest law on the ground as unjust and parodied it in word and action.
|William the Conqueror, the Bayeux Tapestry|
The pleas of the Forest Eyres also point to a widespread and intimate level of knowledge of forest law, as in the case of the man who thought he could legally take more deer if they were scared out of the official royal forest. He was mistaken: "When the lord king gave James of Panton two does in the forest aforesaid, the same James took six does, whereof four were without warrant. And by reason of the noise which he made by beating drums when he beset the does many beasts came out of the forest into the liberty and were taken; to the loss of the lord king and the detriment of his forest. And the aforesaid James comes, and being convicted of this is detained in prison." Here we have an example of someone willfully following the letter of the law—i.e., not to take more than his allotted amount from the Forest—but not its spirit. The performative quality of his careful law-following suggests he is prepared to engage in a hair-splitting conversation about technicalities in court, and does not mind making a public fuss. One cannot help but admire the many examples in the Forest Eyre rolls of such wily legal finagling.
A poetics of poaching had already been established by the time the Forest Charter entered the picture, a result of on-the-ground praxis and literary commentary. Several precedents for talking about the absurdity of forest law can be found in twelfth- and early thirteenth-century literature, as writers had been emphasizing the absurdity of repressive forest law for a century. John of Salisbury, Walter Map, and various chroniclers of kings’ lives had made a series of generically codified points about the way royal interest seemed out of proportion, as too much energy was spent on creating and maintaining royal forests and their denizens, and too little spent on the well-being of subjects; these literary protests likely echoed popular anger at a repressive legal reality of forest law. These literary works also helped establish a rhetoric of resistance. To break this message down to its most basic nonsensical equation: if a human is equivalent to an animal, then the law is absurd. Furthermore, if a beast equals a subject in the mind of a monarch, then the country is in the grip of despotism. In the fundamental equation of human life with animal, the murder of deer is, in folk terms, equal to the murder of a man, and poaching performed in such a context and with intent to make a point, was a potent act of transferred aggression towards the magnates themselves. Therefore, rhetorical performances as diverse as writing a political poem, poaching a king’s deer, or musing on the arbitrariness of forest law in a legal treatise were all taking part in typifiable, recognizable, repeatable genre of forest law critique. The most famous early example of the literary equation so central to this genre, which likely expresses a widespread opinion, is the rhyme of William the Conqueror in the Peterborough continuation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, quoted in full below: "He commanded castles be built and miserable men to slave away. The king was so very overpowering and took from his vassals many a gold mark and many hundreds of pounds of silver. Thus he took with cunning and injustice from his subjects without cause. He fell into avarice and he loved greediness over all else. He created many forests (a great deer-frith) and laid down laws for them such that whosoever slew hart or hind should be made blind. He forbade the hunting of harts, and also the bears, as if he were their father. Also he commanded that hares should travel/go free. His rich men protested; his poor ones bemoaned it. But he was so tough that he didn’t care about all their suffering, but rather they all had to follow this king’s will if they wanted to live and have land—land or possessions, or even his good regard. Welaway, that any man should in such a proud way heave up himself and hold himself over all others. May Almighty God decree mercy for his soul and forgive his sins."There's lots more interesting stuff here.