Robin Hood outside Nottingham Castle (Wikimedia Commons, 2001).
Robin Hood, renowned outlaw, adventurer and hero of old, has somehow managed to forge himself an identity continually relevant to each new generation of admirers since his medieval origins. The strength of his appeal is readily apparent in both academic and popular circles. The BBC launched a primetime adaptation of the legend in 2006, whilst The University of Nottingham introduced a Robin Hood Pathway to its History MA course in 2007. Perhaps most indicative of his popular appeal, a Google search for ‘Robin Hood’ will turn up 10,500,000 hits in under a second.
The current perception of Robin Hood is heavily influenced by the many film and television portrayals of him which have been produced in the last hundred years, re-framing his character in a number of ways as a popular, heroic and self-sacrificing individual concerned above all with ‘robbing the rich to feed the poor’. While this is perfectly legitimate, and often highly entertaining, the outcome is a character, which although similar in many respects to his first persona, also features some notable differences.
The early prevalence of the Robin Hood legend is attested to by the references made in several medieval documents, including the work of the well-known poet William Langland in 1377, the English parliament rolls of 1429, and numerous Scottish chronicles between 1320 and 1450. The indication is that these authors deemed ‘Robin Hood’ to be so widely acknowledged that their meaning would be immediately clear to their intended audiences. Despite these early references, we have no real idea from where the story began, whether with a live individual, or from popular story or song, or from an older tradition of folklore.
The longest and most complex surviving story of Robin Hood, of which we are currently aware, comes from A Gest of Robyn Hode, composed in a poetic form and telling of the adventures of one Robin Hood and his men, including Little John, Much, and the Sheriff of Nottingham. The outlaws encountered a poor knight and learning of the in-justice of his current situation resolve to help him, a favour that is later repaid when the knight protects Robin Hood and co. from the Sheriff and his men after a series of robberies in the forest. This narrative represents a correlation of several shorter stories, woven together by the author into one composite whole, suggesting that at the time the Gest was produced the Robin Hood legend was already a popular tale.
It is possible that the stories used in this compilation had been composed many years before, being laid down in print after some time as a popular ballad. There are several lines in the ballad that indicate it may originally have been intended for oral dissemination, such as the opening lines “Lythe and listin, gentilmen” as does its division into ‘fyttes’ or chapters, allowing the reader to break down his account into several performances. However, one must beware when making such claims, as by the late medieval period such a format had also become literary convention and not necessarily indicative of reading aloud.
Current opinion suggests that the ballads were first written down in the late fifteenth century, being set in the era encompassed by the reigns of the first three Edwards. Such a date is far later than might be expected, familiar as we are with the placement of Robin Hood in the reign of King Richard I, 1157-99, dealing with the aftermath of the Norman invasion and the stewardship of Prince John. The re-designation of the legend to this earlier period is believed to have resulted from a sixteenth century fascination with the concept of the ‘Norman Yoke’ under which the English battled to survive and into which Robin Hood and his familiar attacks against the injustices of the social order happily fitted.
Whilst the Gest is considered the most significant of the late medieval ballads, a number of other tales feature the outlaw, including Robin Hood and the Potter, Robin Hood and the Monk, and Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, from a combination of which the Gest itself may well have been compiled. The tales feature many of the elements with which the modern audience will be familiar: Robin and his men are outlaws living in the forest; they dress in Lincoln Green; they steal from rich travellers passing through the forest; and the Sheriff of Nottingham remains the arch enemy of the piece. The outlaws also exhibit a predilection for disguise, as in Robin Hood and the Potter, a trait also seen in modern adaptations – the most memorable instances of which are to my mind found in the Disney’s Robin Hood of 1973 - and Robin Hood is easily persuaded on numerous occasions to swap his apparel for that of a passing tradesman and to use this is as an opportunity to cause chaos for his enemy the Sheriff in town. Significantly different from today’s representations however, is that once the rich have been suitably lightened of their wealth there is no large-scale redistribution to the poor - there are instances upon which Robin is inspired to make a charitable loan, but the poor do not feature in any number. This departure from the hero who ‘robs from the rich to feed the poor’ is often found to be the most surprising difference for those exploring Robin Hood’s beginnings.
Another striking differences between the modern representations of outlaw life and that of the medieval accounts is perhaps the use of violence. The ballads feature frequent and often extreme violence, describing it with a casualness that suggests its commonplace nature to its original audience. This has often been used as an insight into attitudes towards medieval crime, in which indisputably real outlaw gangs such as the Coterels and Folvilles, operating c.1330, committed numerous crimes against the Crown and its subjects. Outlawry was a common phenomenon in the medieval period, but the term outlaw has so far been rather casually applied to Robin Hood; to be outlawed meant quite simply to be put outside of the protections of the law. The outlaw is thus denied his or her ancient inherited privileges at law, and is consequently deemed to be of no more worth than an animal. Like the wolf the outlaw could be killed without fear of legal consequences. In the medieval ballads no explanation for the crime committed by Robin is ever given, but such details may not have been necessary for the ballads’ first audience who were likely familiar with the concept, and its sometimes arbitrary enforcement.
Nonetheless, one should not come to believe that the original literary Robin Hood distributed violence in the same way that the modernised Robin of Lockley distributed gold coins; this medieval outlaw presented a clear manifesto of conduct to which he and his men must adhere, detailing the type of person from whom they may steal (the monks and abbots, bishops and archbishops, plus of course the Sheriff of Nottingham) and those who should be allowed to pass in peace (husbandmen, yeomen and all women). The most common, and most relished, victims of the outlaws were officers of the law and monastic landlords, largely because these were common targets which almost every strata of society would enjoy to deride. In this way the outlaw ballads were prevented from isolating any particular section of their audience, perhaps one of the components of the legends sustained success. This has made the intended social status of Robin Hood hard to determine, and a question that has caused much scholarly debate. Robin Hood is clearly described by the Gest as a “gode yeman”, but this has proved to be an elusive term to which numerous theories of meaning and significance have been attached. For example yeoman has variously been interpreted as: a free peasant; as a household office; and as denoting the gradation between the arms bearer and tillers of the soil.
Robin Hood is part of a wider tradition of outlaw literature dating from as early as the eleventh century, which included such tales as Gamelyn, Hereward the Wake, and Adam Bell, Clim of Clough and William of Cloudesley. Yet to most those figures will be wholly unfamiliar while Robin Hood has become a household name, kept alive in the popular imagination for nearly 700 years, reaching across time, culture and geography and installing him deep within the collective consciousness of modern society. The question as to why this legend has survived when others did not is one to which we are unlikely to ever find an answer; the historian Falaky Nagy, has proposed that the popularity of the wider outlaw legend may lie in the outlaw’s ability to exist beyond normal society, where he is free to enjoy adventures which normal people could not. Part of this appeal may lie with Robin Hood’s portrayal as something of a freedom fighter, attacking the corrupt elements of his society in a manner which would gradually result in his personification as a ‘social bandit’, seeking justice for those who could not obtain it for themselves.
This has led to much historiographical debate over the possibility that the earlier forms of the legend were formed with class conflict at their core, an argument inspired by Rodney Hilton’s 1958 ‘The Origins of Robin Hood’. Following such theories Robin Hood should be seen as a peasant hero striving to overcome class oppression by robbing the rich to feed his fellow poor. Yet there is little mention of any of the ideas surrounding social conflict in the earlier tales, other than the closing lines of the Gest which remark “For he was a good outlawe/ And dyde pore men moch god”. Only with their early modern/modern re-structuring did this become a central theme around which all else revolved. Thus by 1521 John Major was secure in his assertion that Robin Hood was a ‘noble’ outlaw. He was not, however, a social revolutionary; at no point does he seek to overturn society. He perceives the ultimate structures and laws of the land as just: the king is worthy but his officials are corrupt; religion and God are splendid, but monks are merely corrupt officials like any other.
Religious devotion forms a significant part of the earliest tales of Robin Hood, despite the clear denunciation of many of the avaricious business practices of the great monastic houses and of the church hierarchy. Robin Hood’s religious devotions are primarily dedicated to the Virgin Mary, in whose name he often acts and whose protection he frequently (and always successfully) seeks, and revolve around the celebration of the mass. Both were conspicuous elements of contemporary religious practice, though the degree of piety expressed by Robin Hood does exceed even that expected by the church. Doctrine required all lay persons to attend mass at least once a week, but to only receive the sacrament once a year, at Easter; Robin however, delights in hearing mass three times a day, and expresses such sorrow that he has not received the Eucharist for more than two weeks that he attempts a perilous journey to Nottingham for its sake. Such religious devotion and piety perhaps helps to reinforce Robin Hood’s image as a hero.
This is, unsurprisingly, a feature almost entirely absent in the more modern versions of the legend; whilst Robin originally expressed undying devotion to the Virgin Mary, suitably demonstrated in the many risky deeds he accomplished in her name, this is later replaced by his romantic, though no less perilous love for Maid Marian. This changing perspective, like the altered historical backdrop engineered a century or so after the printing of the Gest, can be attributed to the changing cultural needs of the audience, and the quest to maintain their interest and patronage. As Protestantism replaced Catholicism after the Reformation, the cult of the Virgin Mary became increasingly irrelevant and religiously suspect to the audience, making devotion to a secular woman far more appealing.
The general theme of the earliest extant tales remains broadly similar. Robin Hood, generally in the company of Little John and Much, attempts to discredit and humiliate the officers and high status members of their society by whatever means should occur to them. Frequently the story begins with an individual passing through the forest (sometimes described as Sherwood and sometimes Barnsdale, another matter of some contention) who is subsequently asked for a ‘donation’ to Robin’s monetary fund. Robin Hood also makes frequent trips to town: in Robin Hood and the Monk his desire to attend mass causes him to be ambushed by the Sheriff’s forces, whilst in Robin Hood and the Potter an encounter with a travelling pot salesman provided Robin with the perfect disguise to go to town and taunt the Sheriff. The characters are familiar, as a whole, including Little John, Much and the Sheriff. There are some characters that one might expect to see who do not make an appearance, particularly Maid Marian and Friar Tuck. The name ‘Friar Tuck’ is mentioned in two royal writs of 1417 as the alias of the leader of a gang of outlaws, Robert of Stafford, before becoming associated with the jolly friar frequently portrayed in the plays of Robin Hood at the end of the fifteenth century. The character became thoroughly entwined with the legend thanks to Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. Marian’s involvement with the outlaw legend began with the Tudor May Games, but it is originally suspected that her origins lay with the medieval French pastourelles, gradually becoming associated with the English legend, and given a particularly elevated status in Thomas Love Peacock’s publication of a novel bearing her name in 1822. Although she made little real impression in the earlier written narratives, the romantic relationship which she developed with Robin was central to the legend’s development and continued success through the eighteenth century and beyond.
The death of Robin provided the final scene of the Gest, as well as comprising a separate play, the earliest surviving manuscript of which dates from the seventeenth century but which undoubtedly existed in some form in the fifteenth century. To see the outlaw hero in this tragic light is rather unusual, especially for the modern audience who have been exposed to a body of Robin Hood stories of an often sentimental character and devoid of the violent, life and death themes found in some of the early tales. However both the 1976 film Robin and Marian and the 1980s television production Robin of Sherwood included the death of the hero, whilst the most recent BBC television production, Robin Hood, saw Marian killed by Guy of Gisborne.
There is a great deal of literature relating to Robin Hood, of a varying quality. Here are listed some of the key scholarly texts for those wishing to further explore the legend:
- R. B. Dobson and J. Taylor, Rymes of Robin Hood (Stroud, 1997)
- J. C. Holt, Robin Hood (1982, Rev. ed. 1989)
- M. Keen, The Outlaws of Medieval Legend (1961, Rev. ed. 2000)
- S. Knight, Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw (Oxford, 1994)
- S. Knight (ed.), Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (2003)
- J. Pollard, Imagining Robin Hood (London, 2007)
For insights into alternative theories of the outlaw and his links to other mythical figures, see:
- N. Falaky Nagy, ‘The Paradoxes of Robin Hood’, in Folklore 91 (1980), pp. 198-214.
- J. Matthew, Robin Hood: Green Lord of the Wildwood (1993)
- L. K. Stock, ‘Lords of the Wildwood: The Wild Man, the Green Man, and Robin Hood’, in T. G. Hahn (ed.) Robin Hood in Popular Culture (2000)
For sources related to Robin Hood and the legends development, see:
- F. J. Child (ed.), The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, in five volumes (1904, reprinted 1965)
- J. Ritson (ed.), Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs and Ballads now extant relative to the celebrated Englsih Outlaw, in two volumes (1795, reprinted 1832, and various later editions)
- Dobson and Taylor – for the Gest and other Robin Hood ballads plus some other tales from the outlaw tradition.
- S. Knight and T. H. Ohlgren (eds), Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales (1997, rev. ed. 2000)
- The University of Rochester Resource Page: [www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/rh/rhaumenu.htm]
The University of Nottingham’s Manuscripts and Special Collections department also homes a wealth of sources and local history related to Robin Hood and Sherwood Forest and may be a useful next step for those wishing to undertake serious research. However, should you wish to visit, it is always best to contact the archives beforehand to ensure that there will be someone to explain the archives. For more details and contact information, please consult their webpage at: www.nottingham.ac.uk/mss/
The Manuscript and Special Collections department has also produced an exhibition detailing some of the specific resources featuring Robin Hood which their collection includes at:
For sources discussing the social status of Robin Hood and the audience for the tales see:
- R. L. Almond and A. J. Pollard, ‘The yeomanry of Robin Hood and social terminology in fifteenth-century England’, in Past and Present 170 (2001), pp. 52-77.
- R. H. Hilton, ‘The origins of Robin Hood’, in Past and Present 14 (1958), pp. 30-44.
- J. C. Holt, ‘The origins and audience of the ballads of Robin Hood’, in Past and Present 18 (1960), pp. 89-110.
- C. F. Richmond, ‘AN outlaw and some peasants: The possible significance of Robin Hood’, in Nottingham Medieval Studies 37 (1993), pp. 90-101.