The first page of A Gest of Robin Hode.
As a primarily literary tradition the printed sources related to Robin Hood have already been discussed, to some extent at least, in previous sections. However here I would like to explore in slightly more detail the evolution of the literary approach to Robin Hood and useful sources to survey for those wishing to know more.
The strength of the Robin Hood legend can be found in the wealth of printed materials produced on the subject, embraced perhaps by a series of entrepreneurial printers who saw in the outlaw a story that would sell. As a result Robin Hood’s tale has been told in a number of different formats over time - for an extensive discussion of these and the specific details of each ballad and its printed history see Dobson and Taylor.
The first print
The first surviving printed Robin Hood story is The Gest of Robyn Hode of which two versions are of particular note. One, a reprint of a previous edition by Richard Pynson, judged to have been printed on Dutch presses for the English and Scottish markets in the sixteenth century is now to be found in the National Library of Scotland. The other, likely somewhat earlier, between 1491 and 1534 was printed in London by Wynkyn de Worde and is now kept at the Cambridge Library University.
- Here begynneth a lytell geste of Robyn hode.
Enprented at London: In fletestrete at the sygne of the sone by Wynkyn de Worde, (1506?)
University Library MS Sel.5.18
- Available on microfilm from Leeds Brotherton Library Store BL Microfilm 1799
- Available on microfilm from Birmingham: ML Spec.Coll STC1 /Reel 49:21 and Shakespeare Inst STC1 /Reel 49:21
- Also available electronically from Early English Books Online (EEBO).
The broadside and the garland
The Robin Hood stories were quickly adapted from a traditional oral format, to manuscript and then to ‘street balladry’, that is a song that was printed on a broadside and sold on the street. Greatly enhanced by the establishment of the cheap press from the seventeenth century onwards, this format enabled large quantities of one-sheet tales of the legend to be printed and enjoyed.
By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the broadside was declining and the garland – anthologies of stories printed on cheap paper – was taking its place. The Robin Hood Garland typically contained between sixteen and twenty-seven tales, making them larger than the average garland, and also more expensive.
- The American University of Rochester hosts a useful website which contains most of the early texts at: www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/rh/rhaumenu.htm
- These can also be found in: Rymes of Robin Hood: an introduction to the English Outlaw, ed. R. B. Dobson and J. Taylor (1976, 2nd edition, 1997)
- And Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, ed. S. Knight and T. H. Ohlgren (1997, 2nd edition, 2000)
- The Kings Meadow Special Collections contains some examples of the garlands including: Robin Hood’s garland: being a complete history of all the notable exploits performed by him and his merry men: in which is given a preface containing a more full and particular account of his birth, &c. than any hitherto published.
- King’s Meadow Campus East Midlands Special Collection Not 1.S16 ROB
The next step came with Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs and Ballads, now extant, relative to the celebrated Outlaw in 1795. This volume, unsurpassed until Child’s anthology in 1888, saw almost every major piece of Robin Hood literature compiled together for the first time, providing a source book for the many novelists who would later come to compose a tale of the outlaw legend.
Of these novels two in particular stand out: Thomas Peacock’s Maid Marian of 1818 and Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe also written in 1818, which features an appearance from both Robin Hood and Friar Tuck. Contemporary to these novels, John Keats also wrote of Robin Hood, in a poem bewailing the loss of his dream of forest freedom, a similar tone to that taken by Alfred Noyes in his play entitled Sherwood.
- Child, F. J., ed. The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 5 Volumes (Boston, 1904; reprinted New York, 1965)
- Keats, J. The Poems of John Keats, ed. M. Allott (London, 1970)
- Peacock, T. L., Maid Marian (London, 1822)
- King’s Meadow Campus East Midlands Special Collection Not 1.S16 PEA
- Ritson, J., ed. Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, songs and Ballads Now Extant Relative to the Celebrated English Outlaw (to which are prefixed historical anecdotes of his life), 2 Volumes (London, 1795; reprinted London, 1823)
- Available at King’s Meadow Campus East Midlands Collection Not1.S16 RIT
- Scott, W., Ivanhoe (London, 1820, 1992)
Of the most enduring forms of printed Robin Hood literature is the children’s book, and from the 1800s onwards writers and publishers became increasing willing to produce tales specifically aimed at children, introduced in the highly popular format of the children’s novel.
Since, tales of Robin Hood and his men have continued to flourish, spreading into France where they connected with an older tradition of Robin du bois (Robin of the wood) to America and beyond. In general the content of these tales has altered little over the centuries, remaining close to the format developed with the chapbooks of the sixteenth century.
- Egan, P., Robin Hood and Little John, or the Merry Men of Sherwood Forest (London, 1840)
- King’s Meadow Campus East Midlands Collection Not 1.S16 EGA
- Gilbert, H., Robin Hood and His Merry Men (Edinburgh, 1912, Rev. Ed. Ware, 1994)
- Pyle, H., The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, of Great Renown, in Nottinghamshire (New York, 1883)
See those texts included amongst the references in the Overview, or, for a more detailed exploration, consult the bibliographies of:
- Dobson and Taylor, Rymes of Robyn Hood (1997)
- Knight, S., Robin Hood: a complete study of the English Outlaw (Oxford, 1994)
- Knight, S., Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (New York, 2003)