Sons of Anarchy, The Bastard Executioner, Honor-based Culture

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It’s a long winter when Game of Thrones is off the air. In fact, it feels like years. So when Kurt Sutter’s The Bastard Executioner premieres in the United States on FX tonight, it might provide some respite.

The Bastard Executioner follows fourteenth-century warrior Wilkin Brattle after a messenger implores him to give up warfare to become an executioner.

I’m excited about the show because the showrunner is Kurt Sutter of Sons of Anarchy. Ron Howard’s partner superproducer Brian Grazer pitched Kurt Sutter on the idea of creating a show about a fourteenth-century executioner.

The now-finished series Sons of Anarchy is about an outlaw biker gang, and the show has heavy overtones of Hamlet. This series also contains many subtle connections to medieval knightly violence, which of course makes Sutter perfectly qualified for writing a tale about actual medieval violence.

To wet your appetite for Sutter’s The Bastard Executioner, this article briefly discusses Sons of Anarchy,  Hamlet,  The Sopranos, and the medieval honor-based culture therein.

This article contains Sons of Anarchy spoilers.

Hamlet and Sons of Anarchy

The fictitious town of Charming, CA – where Sons of Anarchy is set – isn’t exactly a fairy-tale village. The outlaw biker gang Clay Morrow runs rules the town, including the local sheriff’s office. Like the Middle Ages, justice is under the local leader’s thumb and the knights don’t exactly have shining armor.

Part of the magnificence of Sons of Anarchy is its heavy allusions to another less-than-charming prince: Hamlet. Sutter seems to have found inspiration for many storylines and characters in the Prince of Denmark’s trials and tribulations. The series’ ending is positively Shakespearean and Katey Sagal’s performance is superb.

I don’t want to go into an extended discussion of the allusions to Hamlet in Sons of Anarchy (aka SoA), but here are a few parallels between the characters just so you don’t think it is nothing more than ultra-violent man-cave porn.

Hamlet/Jackson “Jax” Teller – The son of the now-dead king (or founder) of the Sons of Anarchy motorcycle club. Like Hamlet, Jax is often indecisive and has terrible timing.

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Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnan). (c) FX.

Hamlet’s father’s ghost – After Jax learns that the current “king” of the motorcycle gang killed Jax’s father, he vows revenge. Jax’s father whispers to him from beyond the grave not as a ghost, but through old letters and a book manuscript.

Claudius/Clarence “Clay” Morrow – Clay is the current king of SoA club. Like Claudius in Hamlet, Clay murdered the former king and married his widow.

Gertrude/Gemma Teller Morrow – Gemma is Jax Teller’s Machiavellian mother and the de facto power-behind-the-throne in the series. This tough, manipulative power-broker commands from behind her king, Clay Morrow. She conspired with Clay to kill her first husband, John Teller. She will stop at nothing to protect her son — unless her throne is threatened.

Ophelia/Tara Knowles – Tara Knowles, the innocent surgeon who fell in love with Jax in high school, becomes re-entangled with SoA when she returns home to their town. Ultimately, she drowns herself in their culture, resurfaces with a renewed sense of self, and then makes a decision that she has to know at some level is potentially suicide. (Some writers have also likened Jax’s best friend Opie to Ophelia – especially due to their assonant names.)

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Tara Knowles (Maggie Siff). (c) FX.

It’s definitely possible to dig deeper and surface more Hamlet allusions. But, as cool as they are, from the medievalist’s perspective that’s not the greatest part of the show. After all, lots of shows allude to Shakespeare – as Ten Things I Like About You can attest.  Few draw on feudal culture.

Sopranos, SoA, Honor-based Culture

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The “knights” of Sons of Anarchy riding their steeds in formation. (c) FX.

To me, what makes Sons of Anarchy so special is how Sutter recreates the medieval world’s honor-based culture – and the, at times, outlaw behavior of its warrior classes.

Sons of Anarchy is told from the villains’ point of view. This morally ambiguous narration wouldn’t have been possible without trailblazing shows like The Sopranos, a debt Sutter himself acknowledges. (The Sopranos is another show that is subtly steeped in medieval culture.)

Honor-based culture is the color or context that’s often missing in medieval history books; the behavior of medieval knights and nobles often doesn’t make sense if it isn’t framed against this context.

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Sons of Anarchy members were “sigils” (badges) that not only connect them to the larger group but also contain images, like the reaper, that reinforce the fearsomeness of their reputation. (c) FX.

The incredibly misnamed term honor-based culture refers to the idea that a man’s power comes from other’s perception of his fearsomeness. (My take on this bizarre nomenclature is that honor is an externally constructed concept kind of like respect. Honor is something you pay or bestow on somebody else.) When social scientists discuss honor-based culture, they don’t mean integrity, honesty or “nobility” – even though these may play a role in some honor-based cultures and these qualities are often conflated.

Honor-based cultures arise in regions or subcultures where there is a weak justice system1 Men need to project a willingness to wreak mayhem to prevent others from stealing what belongs to them.

A frequently referenced example of honor-based culture is that of herding cultures in scantily policed remote areas.

If you are a poor shepherd in the hills of medieval Scotland or Northern England and your neighbor steals one of your sheep, your family might starve2 Without a police force, how do you prevent such theft?

The answer is make it clear to everyone around you that you will go to the mattresses — wreak unholy mayhem on their asses — if anyone even dares to gaze longingly at one of your flock. And, your flock includes your women and children too.

In the Middle Ages, assaulting a woman under a man’s protection was an offense against the man, and so was deflowering a man’s daughter. (The medieval term for prostitute, common woman, referred to a woman so reputedly (albeit not necessarily) “loose” that she had become property of the community, and no longer fell under the protection of one man.3 ) No man who valued his fearsome reputation would let offenses against his womenfolk pass without violent retribution. Any man who could not protect his female family members was no man at all.

In Sons of Anarchy, SoA rival AJ Weston and his thugs rape Gemma as the ultimate attack on club-leader Clay. To save Clay’s life – who would have to go to war in retaliation — and resist Weston’s power play, Gemma keeps the rape quiet despite her severe injuries.

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A still from Gemma’s horrific gang rape. (c) FX.

In the same vein, the Sons of Anarchy club members are more than sympathetic as to business leader Elliot Oswald’s desire to violently avenge his young daughter’s rape. And, when Tig accidentally runs over the-most-dangerous-gangster-in-the-city Damon Pope’s daughter, it fits that Damon’s responds with searing cruelty; he burns Tig’s daughter alive as a bound Tig struggles helplessly to prevent it.

Many medieval and early-modern noblemen notoriously had flash-point tempers.

The impetuous Harry “Hotspur” Percy dumped Henry IV and sided with a Welsh rebel after the king failed to support his family’s military endeavors. The proud and pugnacious Edward Stafford (Duke of Buckingham) dared rail against a king, after Henry VIII bedded Buckingham’s sister – a breech that undoubtedly played a role in his the duke’s downfall.((Kelly Hart. The Mistresses of Henry VIII))  Thomas Howard, famous as the Duke of Norfolk and Anne Boleyn’s dastardly uncle, was “quick with his fists” and threatened to “tear Woolsey apart with his teeth4  .”

Sermons warned men not to be too quick to anger. At a minimum, there’s a reason theologians like Aquinas pondered the types of anger. Perhaps part of the reason late medieval society evolved to have such carefully constructed etiquette and rules of precedence is to avoid upsetting the apple cart by offending anyone’s pride of place.

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Giving Wall Street’s One Percent a run for their money… One percent of motorcycle clubs are outlaws, as this member’s patch proudly indicates.

In the Middle Ages, slights and feuds -– especially property disputes — were commonly answered with brutality. Broadly speaking, the justice system was pretty underdeveloped. They didn’t have police or standing armies. Nobles, and their retainers, were often effectively above the law. Weak or absentee kings (Henry VI, Stephen I, Richard I) found it hard to bring them to justice. Few common folk dared complain or testify against those who wore the dominant lord’s badge. Even in peasant villages, crime could be endemic in periods of scarcity like the Great Famine. In the late middle ages, in Northern England,  justice was often irregular, arbitrary, and rarely impartial.

During periods like the Anarchy and the years around the French Jacquerie revolt, knights and warriors formed bands or gangs in which they terrorized the countryside, held villages ransom, and used their skill in violence to make a buck. (This reign of terror was (partially) primogeniture’s dark progeny. After all, how was a displaced second and third sons of the warrior classes supposed to make his way in the word?) Today who uses their skills in violence to cash in? The mafia, organized crime, outlaw biker gangs (aka the other 1%), street gangs, etc. Enter Sons of Anarchy and The Sopranos.

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Sons of Anarchy members appear to like the word “mayhem” — which means “violent or damaging disorder; chaos”. They even reference mayhem on the patches on their vests. (c) FX.

Sons of Anarchy operates by its own internally-constructed justice system. SoA club members vote on whether an offending member must meet Mr. Mayhem (be executed). When one biker disses another – perhaps calling into question the other’s toughness —  a fight instantly breaks out. An open part of the club’s strategy is to discuss whether not taking action will make them look weak in the eyes of a rival, a behavior that leads to constantly escalating violence that would do the Nevilles and the Percies proud.

To be continued…

  1. See the introduction in R. Nisbett and D. Cohen’s Culture of honor: The psychology of violence in the South among many others. []
  2. See Albion’s Seed by David Hackett Fisher; Nisbett and Cohen, etc. []
  3. See Ruth Karras’ Common Women: Prostitution and Sexuality in Medieval England. p. 3 []
  4. J. Childs Henry VIII’s Last Victim p. 90-91.  []

Jamie Adair is the editor of History Behind Game of Thrones, a website about the history behind George RR Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" novels and the hit TV show, "Game of Thrones."

3 Comments

  • Reply September 16, 2015

    G Hiatt

    Funny how the word “villain”
    c. 1275-1325 … “base or low-born rustic,” from Anglo-French and Old French vilain “peasant, farmer, commoner, churl, yokel” (12c.), from Medieval Latin villanus “farmhand,”

    originated around the same time as the word “villein”
    c. 1275-1325….vileyn, spelling variant of villain in its reference to a feudal class of half-free peasants.

    and now we know “villain” as a bad guy to be feared and hated.

    Coincidence?

    • Reply September 17, 2015

      Jamie Adair

      Oh I doubt it – sadly. This is a very interesting observation though.

      Teofilo Ruiz, the great American medievalist, discusses the nobility’s hatred of the peasants in his lectures. Their hatred became so endemic that it affected not only the peasant’s perception of themselves but I believe our perception of them to this day. Peasant and commoner are often modern-day pejoratives.

      Ruiz tells this terrible story of a traveller who stumbles upon a peasant village in the hills. Never having met or heard of these peasants before, he asks them who they are. They reply, “We are nothing, we are nobody.” The peasants saw themselves as less than nature.

      I don’t do this story justice but to hear Ruiz tell it with his wonderful, rich passion-filled voice is truly moving.

  • Reply October 12, 2015

    Watcher on the Couch

    I haven’t seen either “Sons of Anarchy” or “The Bastard Executioner”. For that matter I haven’t seen “Breaking Bad” though I have heard good things about it. Some of these shows are hard to see in the UK if one doesn’t have the UK equivalent of HBO. When you mention the lawlessness that was endemic in Northern England at one time are you thinking, at least in part, of the rustling “reiving” of livestock that went on over the Scottish-English border at the time (you probably know they were still separate nation states at the time). This is what Wikipedia has to say about it:- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Border_Reivers – you have to read quite a long way down but it says that at one time the English government of the day considered rebuilding Hadrian’s Wall.

    I haven’t seen “Hamlet” performed for a long time. I’m interested in what you say about its similarity to “Sons of Anarchy”. I’ll have to see if I can hunt down some DVDs of the latter (preferably on library loan).

    I’m interested in what you have to say about the dark side of primogeniture – but of course where a piece of land was split between all the siblings in a time when there were likely to be a great many siblings (though I’m not saying everyone had as many children as Walder Frey) the parcels of land thus created could become very small and less valuable than the original piece of land and that caused another set of problems.

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