Robin Hood by Stephanie Stephenson

The Gest of Robin Hode
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.

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 novel

Riton's Robin Hood

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.

Children’s Literature

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.


See those texts included amongst the references in the Overview, or, for a more detailed exploration, consult the bibliographies of: