On Saturday, I’ll be sitting on a panel at “Going Freelance,” a workshop sponsored by AIW and the Johns Hopkins writing program. Tilt your head and you can see the medievalist traces in this event if, like me, you were told in grade school that “freelance” was a term to describe medieval soldiers of fortune. Of course, medieval mercenaries did exist, but “freelance” isn’t a medieval word at all. The term was coined by Sir Walter Scott, the 19th-century author who almost singlehandedly inspired quasi-medieval fandom in the English-speaking world.
From The Knight and the Umbrella, here’s Ian Anstruther explaining how Scott lit the fire under the Victorians who romanticized and reinvented the Middle Ages:
It is hardly possible to realize today the immense influence of this author on contemporary drama, literature and art. His early poems like the Lay of the Last Minstrel and Marmion, which were first published in 1805 and 1808 respectively, and his great series of tales in prose which began with Waverley in 1814 and reached its peak, according to many critics, with Ivanhoe in 1819 . . . truly hypnotised all who read them.
The proof of this may be seen at a glance in the catalogues of the major exhibitions throughout the country. In the twenty-five years between the first appearance of the Waverley Novels in 1814 and the Eglinton Tournament in 1839, two hundred and sixty-six different pictures inspired by the pen of the “Wizard of the North” appeared in public galleries; every summer without a break, a scene from Ivanhoe was the subject of two of them.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first use of some version of “freelance” appears in 1820, in chapter 34 of Ivanhoe: “I offered Richard the service of my Free Lances.” The OED cites subsequent uses of “free-lance” or “freelance” as a negative term to describe politicians and journalists with minds of their own. By the early 20th century, “freelance” was a verb; soon, it came to refer to the self-employed.
If, in the spirit of medievalism (or at least dorkiness), freelance writers wanted to liken themselves to an authentic figure who represents the reality of late-medieval English contract law, they might see a kindred spirit in the Franklin from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. In the late 14th century, franklins were a newly prominent class of independent landholder. Not bound by hereditary feudal obligations, a franklin could sell his produce to the highest bidder while negotiating or even canceling deals. Like any successful freelancer, a franklin was blessedly exempt from the 14th-century equivalent of corporate team-building exercises, i.e., clearing woodlands, draining swamps, or taking an arrow in the sternum for a leek-breathed feudal lord.
But can you imagine telling your friends you’re a franklin? Can you imagine writing “franklin” under “occupation” on your tax return? It’s a legacy of the romanticized Middle Ages bequeathed to us by Sir Walter Scott and other writers, artists, and poets that we overlook the agricultural drudgery that defined most medieval lives, so that even we who sit and type all day can dream of jousts and banners bright, and tell ourselves we’re charging into battle.