Stop me if this sounds familiar: you've woken up to the sound of birdsong, slipped into your evergreen hose, and are enjoying a quiet commute through Sherwood Forest when a shabbily-dressed man loitering by the side of the road sticks out his hand and says:
“Noble sir! This very morn hath the wicked Sheriff of Nottingham burned our poor village to the ground, for we had not enough barley to pay the Prince's tax this harvest. The harsh winter approacheth, and we lack even firewood to keep the cold from our tired bones. Wilt thou lend us thine aid?”

If you're like me, your first instinct is to do what so many people do in this situation, namely: dash off into the sylvan cover; waylay the next merchant caravan you find; steal a kiss from the spice trader's swooning daughter; then swing—on a conveniently-hung vine—back the way you came, before dropping a clinking sackful of Angevin pounds in the beggar's grasping hands.

Here's the thing, though: while robbing from the rich and giving to the poor may assuage your guilt, it doesn't solve the underlying problem.

I've learned the hard way that when you use your near-mythical abilities as an archer and swordsman to solve all the peasants' little dilemmas for them, then they never have incentive to learn the skills they need to stop being peasants. It's like the old saying goes: Give a man the gold circlet you obtained by cross-dressing as a pair of delicate maids with your six-and-a-half-foot-tall second-in-command (which allowed you to sneak into Prince John's camp undetected and lift the diadem from his very head, even as you planted a kiss on the oaf, you rascal you), you feed him for a day; teach a man to volunteer for the Crusades, win honor for himself in bloody combat with the Saracens, and thereby earn a modest title, and you feed him for life.

You never know for sure what a peasant is going to do with that signet ring you slipped from the archbishop's finger while pretending to kiss his hand: sure, he says his daughter is dying of the grippe, and her not yet a twelvemonth, and that he plans to buy healing herbs from the village witch; all the while, he might be counting up how many draughts of ale he can put away thanks to your handout.

If you really want to make a difference, consider making a donation to your local Carthusian order. The monks won’t be able to boost your ego with thanks, like the peasants will—what with the vow of silence and all—but they will help address the greater systemic issues at work by directing their prayers against the Devil and his minions. You can also, in lieu of loose pfennigs, carry around a few small writs of indulgence to hand out to people asking for heroic intervention.

So the next time you're thinking about helping a peasant by engaging Sir Guy of Gisborne in a duel, slicing his belt so that his britches fall around his ankles, then making off with the rubies he'd been charged with delivering to Barnsdale, ask yourself: am I doing this for him, or for me? The best thing to do might be to move on.

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