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A motley crew is an informal expression for a roughly organized assembly of individuals of various backgrounds, appearance, and character. Typical examples of motley crews are pirates, college fraternities, Western posses, rag-tag mercenary bands, freedom fighters, and groups of programmers in high intensity tech startups.
Motley crews are, by definition, non-uniform and undisciplined as a whole. They are typified by containing characters of conflicting personality, varied backgrounds and, usually to the benefit of the group, a wide array of methods for overcoming adversity. Traditionally, a motley crew who in the course of a story comes into conflict with an organized, uniform group of characters, will probably prevail. This is generally achieved through the narrative using the various specialties, traits, and other personal advantages of each member to counterbalance the (often sole) specialty of a formal group of adversaries.
Archetypical instances of the "motley crew" overcoming adversity are commonly found in fantasy and science fiction. A motley crew is also the model for most sports stories, in which the opposing and antagonistic team that is ultimately defeated is also much more organized and coherent.
Motley from 13th-century Middle English means composed of elements of diverse or varied character. In the 15–16th centuries came the "motley", the official dress of the court jester. The jester was an important person in court circles, who could speak the truth without punishment even when it was contrary to the king’s or senior officials’ opinion. Their uniforms were generally lively and multi-coloured.
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- “A Motley Crew of Rebels: Sailors, Slaves, and the Coming of the American Revolution,” in Ronald Hoffman and Peter J. Albert, eds., The Transforming Hand of Revolution: Reconsidering the American Revolution as a Social Movement (Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Press/United States Capitol Historical Society, 1996), 155-198.