by Lana Williams
As with many tales of old, whether the protagonist is an outlaw or hero depends on the view of the one telling the story. Such is the case with Eustache the Monk, a manuscript written in Old French between 1223 and 1284. While the author’s identity remains in question, the story is known to be based on a real person, Eustache Busquet, who was born in Northern France in 1170 and died in 1217.
Eustache lived an extraordinary life. He trained as a knight, then as a seaman, and traveled to Spain to study black magic, though no evidence technically supports this. The story embellishes his deeds, telling readers how Eustache and his companions got into a fight in a tavern and cast a magic spell and made the tavern keeper and her customers strip naked, straddle wine casts, and get a bit crazy. Or maybe that should be a lot crazy. Eustache continues his journey and casts another spell on a man driving a cart and makes the cart and horse appear to go backwards.
Soon after, he joined a Benedictine abbey at the age of 20 and wreaked havoc there by casting more spells. The monks eat when they should be fasting, go barefoot when they should wear shoes, and swear when they’re supposed to be silent. He also casts a spell on a side of bacon, changing it into an old ugly woman which frightens the cook. Eustache remained at the monastery until his father was murdered by a man named Hainfrois de Heresinghen.
As with any good son, Eustache left the monastery to demand justice from his father’s overlord, the Count of Boulogne, for his father’s murder. A judicial duel was arranged, but alas, Eustache’s champion lost. Apparently the count was impressed with Eustache, for he appointed him seneschal for an expedition with King Philip of France to win back territories in Normandy which King John of England held. Unfortunately, Eustache’s enemy, de Heresinghen, returned to the picture and accused Eustache of mismanaging the finances of the expedition, convincing the count as well.
Eustache suspected treachery and fled into the forests near Boulogne. The count, displeased with Eustache, seized his properties and burned his fields. That is when the story grows even more interesting. Eustache began to methodically harass the count, his allies, and his soldiers. The story tells of Eustache leading a band of up to 30 men, as well as operating alone, often in disguise. As the story progresses, Eustache moves from casting spells to using trickery and deception instead. While this period of outlawry was brief as it lasted only a year, it takes up the majority of the story. Not so different from the action movies at the theaters these days!
Leaving his homeland, Eustache wandered the English Channel where he acted as a pirate, eventually offering his services as a mariner to King John. As a reward, Eustache is given lands in Swaffham, Norfolk. Soon after, while he still served King John, he acted as English ambassador to the Count of Boulogne. That did not go well though, for as soon as King Philip learned of his return to France, he outlawed him.
In London in 1212, the Count of Boulogne was able to negotiate a charter of allegiance with King John. Again fearing treachery, Eustache fled, this time back to France where he joined King Philip. Nothing like changing allegiances as circumstances dictate. In 1214, King John was faced with a rebellion of his English barons, and Eustache was said to have supplied them with arms. Needless to say, King John was less than pleased and seized the lands he’d previously given Eustache in Norfolk.
Over the next few years, Eustache continued to control the English Channel and to support the English barons. He provided transport to Prince Louis of France to the Isle of Thanet during the Baron’s War. Alas, his ship was later attacked by four English ships. They captured him and beheaded him immediately in August of 1217.
Despite his time as an outlaw, Eustache was supported by his family and friends, suggesting he was worthy of loyalty, a heroic quality for certain. The story written about him tells of the code by which he lived. Following such rules is also a quality we can admire and suggests chivalric behavior. He rewarded those who were truthful and loyal to him. If someone betrayed him, they were killed but he did release some adversaries unharmed. If someone lied to him about the amount of money they had on their person, they were robbed. However, if a person told the truth about the amount of money they had, they were allowed to keep it.
There are similarities in Eustache the Monk’s story to Robin Hood and other ‘good outlaw’ legends. Eustache was of noble birth, he set out to avenge his father’s murder, and he lived by his own version of chivalry. However, the story also contains rather shocking cruelties which put the term ‘hero’ in question. He forces a young man to twist his own rope from which to hang. When several of his men have their eyes gouged out, he retaliates by chopping off the feet of four of the culprit’s men. He tortures another person in a mud pit. There’s also a passage in the story of Eustache disguising himself as a prostitute, humiliating the count’s man, and taunting him for trying to sodomize a monk. None of those acts seem heroic.
As with all great heroes and villains/outlaws, there are shades of gray in both characters and real people, some darker than others. Often it is how we authors tell the story as to what the reader decides.
For additional information on Eustache the Monk, I recommend: Ohlgren, Thomas H., Medieval Outlaws, Sutton Publishing, United Kingdom, 1998 and http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/eustache-the-monk-introduction
This post is an Editors' Choice post and was first published on 12th Sep 2013
Lana Williams is the author of medieval romances intertwined with mystery and a pinch of paranormal, including A Vow To Keep, Trust In Me, and Believe In Me, all part of The Vengeance Trilogy. More information about her books is on her website.