THE GREEN KNIGHT is a new, Arthurian-age fantasy film that was released at the end of July. The crux of the story: The Green Knight offers a challenge at King Arthur’s court. He will allow any knight to take a swing at him with his great axe, as long as that knight agrees to receive a blow a year and a day later. Sir Gawain, one of the youngest of the Round Table, accepts the challenge. He beheads the Green Knight with one swing—only to see the Green Knight recover his head and tell Gawain he shall see him in a year and a day.
The rest of the saga is about what happens to Gawain leading up to their second meeting. It’s filled with the ideals of knightly honor and chivalry that now seem lost in the past. I contend, however, that this 14th-century tale has much to teach us about how we should conduct ourselves in today’s legal and financial worlds.
The medieval tale has been studied at length. What many literary analyses overlook is the significance of the contract being a year and a day. English common law held that a contract for services that could not be performed within a year’s time had to be written down. (Every first-year law student meets his own challenging knight when facing its statutory form, the Statute of Frauds of 1677.) As the Green Knight’s contract was oral, Gawain has no technical obligation to make good on his oath. Yet he keeps his word.
This is not just chivalry. It’s about preserving the order of things. At a time when most people were illiterate, keeping public oaths was vital to society. If folks could shake hands and promise but later renege, no contract was safe. Indeed, nobody wanted a reputation for being untrustworthy. Traders would avoid such individuals. The root of the word “warlock” is not about magic. It comes from “oath breaker.” In the Inferno, Dante reserves hell’s lowest level for Judas, Brutus and Cassius. All were guilty of breaking their oaths and changing loyalty.
As literacy has improved, we’ve become more reliant on written contracts. We click that we agree to a website’s terms and conditions, and then move on. Disclaimers and fine print abound. Yet the national ethos of personal gain, combined with mobile buyers and sellers with whom you may never again do business, has led to sharper dealings.
If someone doesn’t live up to the terms of a contract, we can run to the courts. Legal resolution, however, should be the fallback position. It costs a great deal to sue. No lawyer enjoys telling clients that they’re legally correct, but the case will cost more than they can expect from the court.
We could use more dedication to oath-keeping today. People like knowing they can rely on a seller or service provider. Merchants have easy ways to demonstrate their trustworthiness. Good online reviews translate to more sales. Customers want an assurance of fair dealing before clicking the “buy” button.
Life was not perfect in medieval times. There were enough cheats and oath-breakers to populate Chaucer’s many tales. When I taught high school, I used the Pardoner’s Tale in my media literacy class as an early example of marketing chicanery. Still, most businesses understand that their future business depends on their honesty in today’s transactions.
Unfortunately, we may feel outrage at a dishonest dealer, yet return later strictly out of convenience. Or, if powerful businesspeople are accused of dishonesty but we like their politics, we may excuse their behavior as “smart business.” Then there’s “cause fatigue.” It seems that every business today has some black mark against it. It’s nearly impossible to be aware of them all, let alone separate fact from rumor.
My advice: Start small. Go local. Frequent that mom-and-pop store in your neighborhood. Reward both its “local-ness” and its reliability in the community. If you know of oath-breakers, let them know their dishonesty has led you to withhold your patronage. Shout it out on Yelp, Twitter, Google reviews or wherever there’s a local forum. Sometimes companies do respond to criticisms. Yes, businesses do game sites by leaving positive reviews for themselves. Still, a truthful negative review may raise a red flag. The reviews matter. And don’t forget to post praise as well when you find a knightly merchant who is both fair and true.
Jim Wasserman is a former business litigation attorney who taught economics and humanities for 20 years. He’s the author of a three-book series on how to teach elementary, middle and high school students about behavioral economics and media literacy. He has authored several educational children’s books, including “Summa,” a children’s story for multiracial, multi-ethnic and multicultural families. Jim lives in Texas with his wife and fellow HumbleDollar contributor, Jiab. Together, they are currently working on a book, “Your Third Life: Reflections on Finding Our Way by Taking the Long Route.” Check out Jim’s earlier articles.