A Compound Moral Conundrum

     First, some music:

     The tale of Jack Orion is a British Isles Traditional ballad. It’s been performed by several musicians and groups, including (of course) Pentangle. For villainy and woe, it ranks high among stories of its kind. While the traditional lyric is beautiful and evocative, it’s also rather long, so I’ll provide a condensation of the tale it tells here.

     Jack Orion is the son of a lord and a master fiddler. When he performs at the King’s court, he charms a princess into loving him. Indeed, she invites him to spend the night with her, and Jack agrees.

     Jack makes two fatal mistakes. First, he tells his “footpage” Tom, a lowborn lad, about the invitation. Second, he relies upon Tom to wake him “three hours before ‘tis day.” After Jack is abed and asleep, Tom disguises himself as Jack and goes to the princess’s bower. Thinking he’s Jack, the princess allows Tom into her body: rape by subterfuge.

     Now comes Tom’s mistake: he hastens back to Jack’s abode and wakes him, rather than fleeing and hoping never to be found. Jack goes to the princess’s bower and discovers the rape. The princess takes her own life out of disgust:

“Oh then it was your young footpage
That has so cruelly beguiled me
And woe that the blood of the ruffian lad
Should spring in my body”
Then she pulled forth a little sharp knife
That hung down at her knee
O’er her white feet the red blood ran
Or ever a hand could stay
And dead she lay on her bower floor
At the dawning of the day

     Jack, enraged by events, returns to his abode and summons Tom:

Jack Orion ran to his own house
Saying, “Tom my boy come here to me.
Come hither now and I’ll pay your fee,
And well paid you shall be.
If I had killed a man tonight,
Tom I would tell it thee.
But if I have taken no life tonight
Tom thou hast taken three.”
Then he pulled out his bright broad sword
And tried it on his sleeve
And he smote off that vile lad’s head
And asked for no man’s leave
He set the sword’s point to his breast
The pommel to a stone
Through the falseness of that lying lad
These three lives were all gone

     So: We have two suicides and an execution. The princess’s suicide was out of sheer revulsion at having been hoodwinked and raped by a churl. In medieval times, such a suicide would not have excited controversy, despite what we of Twenty-First Century America might think.

     Jack’s peremptory execution of Tom only hastened the inevitable. The King would have ordered Tom’s death the moment he learned of the rape of his daughter. No one of that time would have called it unjust. But the King might well have had Jack executed for his presumption. In that time usurping a royal prerogative – the King’s power to dispense justice – often cost the usurper his life.

     Persons of our time might say that “none of that was necessary.” Our contemporary attitude toward capital punishment differs greatly from that of earlier eras. Today we apply it only for first-degree murder, and oftentimes not even then. But historically rape has been deemed worthy of death. Indeed, it was a capital crime in certain states as recently as 2008, when the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty as Constitutionally impermissible on Eighth Amendment grounds in cases not involving the death of a victim (Cf. Kennedy v. Louisiana).

     Ponder the tale of Jack, Tom, and the princess in light of contemporary moral convictions, American law, and your own moral, ethical, and religious beliefs. How would you adjudge each of those three deaths? Wholly justified, unjustified even though inevitable, or wholly unjustified? Discuss!


    • Butch DuCote on July 30, 2021 at 7:54 PM

    Personal responsibility. What are we without?

    • SteveF on July 31, 2021 at 11:56 AM

    Today we apply it only for first-degree murder, and oftentimes not even then. But historically rape has been deemed worthy of death.

    Under Common Law, a felony was any crime which carried the death penalty: murder, rape, arson, burglary, and a few others. The crimes were defined much more tightly than they are now, so that burglary was “breaking and entering a dwelling at night with the intent to commit a crime”. The death penalty is the traditional reason that convicted felons can’t vote and have other rights restricted: It is only through our mercy that you were not killed for what you did, so you have no room to complain about losing some rights.

    Today’s United States, of course, has such a tangle of vague or contradictory laws that I know I can’t walk down the street without three felonies. (A line from one of my songs, but I’m hardly the first to express it.) And most of the defined felonies are pathetically trivial, including such things as not submitting paperwork to a federal agency on time.

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