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Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”


Basic Information

An outlaw is one from whom all protection of law has been withdrawn, who for real or perceived crimes has effectively been stripped of his personhood by his society and who may be robbed, enslaved or killed by anyone without them being held liable for their actions. Outlaws were historically forced to live in the wilderness and subsist by foraging or crime - to stray too close to human habitation was to risk attack on the assumption that you were a threat and indeed in many times and places a outlaw's killer could claim a bounty for his head (sometimes leading to outlaws being known as wolfsheads - since a wolf was also typically a wilderness dwelling predator on which a bounty was payable1). It was also illegal to knowingly provide aid of any kind to an outlaw and in most cases an outlaw's property was escheat to the crown (or some other legal authority such as a bishop).

Outlawry is, in effect, a form of exile and may have it's origin in the Roman laws of exile that forbade a condemned man the use of fire or water on Roman soil, as well as the protection of the law. Certainly this punishment was alive and well in early medieval England, Germany and Scandinavia - although this may be a case of convergent evolution rather than direct transmission, and whilst the Roman law sought to avoid the execution of a fellow Roman, in many cases the medieval version was merely a way of avoiding the trouble and expense of a prosecution and punishment. Ancient Scandinavia (including colonies such as Iceland) also practiced a form of time-limited outlawry, which was similar to the full version but expired after a certain number of years.

A man could become outlawed for all sorts of crimes - including a failure to appear for trial, escape from custody or breach of bail. Aiding a known outlaw also worked, as did various kinds of political crimes. Indeed anyone who it might seem too much effort to arrest could be outlawed in the hope that someone would the kill him on their own initiative. Arguably the risk of being outlawed could be seen as an incentive to turn oneself in for any non-capital offence. Conversely, once outlawed a man had little or nothing left to lose and could be extremely dangerous and desperate - gangs of outlaws often turned to banditry and could be a severe nuisance in some times and places.

See Also


Game and Story Use

  • Note that it was entirely possible to be outlawed without knowing about it.
  • Also, the potential to sieze an outlaw's property, goods and person could be a powerful incentive towards corrupt sentencing.
  • Likewise, it was entirely possible for no-one to know that you were an outlaw - news did not travel well in the Middle Ages, and if you could manage to make it even to another part of your own country it could well be possible to build an entirely new life.
    • Of course, there's then significant drama in the risk of someone from back home outing you as an outlaw, leading to blackmail, murder and the like.
  • Getting outlawry rescinded without dying in the attempt could be tricky.
  • On the other hand, sufficiently powerful individuals could be outlawed without much effect - you can outlaw a baron all you like, but unless you have an army to enforce it, he's unlikely to end up living up a tree.
  • In fantasy settings, outlawry might come with a curse, whether the Mark of Cain in the example text, being refused by fire and water, or the outlaw's head literally becoming a wolf's.
    • Very fantastical settings could even have criminals transformed into animals and hunted. The type of animal might reflect the crime, although it would seem socially irresponsible to punish a dangerous human predator by turning them into a dangerous non-human predator and turning them loose in the countryside. Still, it's entirely within the scope of bad ideas that have been turned into traditions in real life, let alone the caprices of mad wizards.
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