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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Two Early Ballad Tales of Robin Hood

The story of Robin Hood is remarkable for its longevity. The films and television shows based on the medieval outlaw have proliferated to the present day, not to mention such phenomena as the Robin Hood Foundation (whose goal is to “end poverty in New York”), Robinhood (a “zero-commission stock broker”), the Robin Hood Brewing Company, and the like. These latter-day uses of his name only emphasize the unsurprising fact that the meanings of stories about him have varied over the years.

Some of those that might appear to be firmly rooted in history are in fact of fairly recent origin. For instance, the association of Robin Hood with the virtuous King Richard against the villainous John and with the Saxon nobility who resent domination by tyrannical Norman lords gained currency only with Scott’s immensely popular Ivanhoe (1820). [1] Late versions often credit him with noble birth (such as the 17th century broadside of “Robin Hood and Maid Marian” which calls Robin the Earl of Huntington), though the earlier texts regularly exhibit hostility to the gentry. Two of the earliest ballad tales, “Robin Hood and the Monk” and “A Gest of Robyn Hode,” both extant in manuscripts dated to the mid-fifteenth century but recording older songs, suggest an archaic background of myth, ritual, and magic against which complaints arise against the wealthy aristocracy and clergy.

The stories are, like all folk tales, first of all entertainment. They regularly feature suspense and reversals while, in the popular manner, always ending in the defeat of the bad guys. Robin’s role as a trickster figure resembles countless figures worldwide. Disney was not only complying with “funny animals” conventions when he portrayed Robin Hood as a fox in his 1973 film. Readers had long noticed similarities between the tales of Renard and those of Robin Hood. The most popular trickster figure of the Middle Ages is particularly appropriate for the subversive elements of Robin Hood’s story. As an outlaw guile and cunning are essential to his cause. Disguise and trickery play a markedly greater role than force. In “Robin Hood and the Monk,” Robin behaves rather churlishly toward Little John, refusing to pay a bet which he had himself proposed. When he is captured after attending mass alone, [2] his party manages to free their leader by impersonating the monk and page (whom they had killed) before the king and then acting as the king’s emissaries toward the sheriff. In “A Gest of Robin Hood” the entire tone is light-hearted (in spite of deaths) and several characters employ subterfuges. Robin anticipates a victim as though he were awaiting a dinner guest. (“Gest,” 24) Little John manages to find service with the sheriff and later the king himself (named as Edward) dresses as a monk to locate the band of thieves and finds himself striking Robin after besting him at archery.

Robin Hood, like Renard, provided a vehicle for social protest. In many ways he is a prime example of what Hobsbawn called “social bandits.” [3] The “Gest” concludes with the lines “For he was a good outlawe,/And dyde pore men moch god.” (1823-4) He will steal neither from yeomen nor men who have little nor from any company that includes women. He exempts as well small farmers and even knights and squires should they be “gode felawe[s].” (“Gest,” 53, 973, 39-40, 51, 55-6) Indeed, he will give or lend money to those in need. An early 15th century clerical author refers to him as “much praised," [4] yet various judicial records use his name to indicate a dangerous miscreant or a murderer. He enumerates his local foes as “bisshoppes” and “archebishoppes,” as well as “the hye sherif of Notyingham.” ( “Gest” 56, 58)

The early ballads assume a very specific social focus. Their authors and presumably their audiences identify as yeomen, not as peasants or bourgeois. Though “yeoman” was an elastic term in the fifteenth century [5], Robin’s animus against the wealthy is evident. He demands payment from the knight (“Gest” 148) yet gives him money when he finds him poor. His sympathy multiplies when it turns out that the knight has been impoverished by a “ryche abbot.” (215) In “Monk” Robin is fingered by a “grete-hedid [i.e. arrogant] munke” (75) who later is decapitated unceremoniously in the safety of the greenwood. (203)

Robin Hood is, however, very conventional in his piety and in his loyalty to the crown. He endows a chapel to Mary Magdelene and goes on pilgrimage. (“Gest,” 1757, 1767) In “Monk” he is described as one who “has servyd Oure Lady many a day,” (133) and he is apprehended only because he insists on attending Mass (and refusing to take an adequate company). In the “Gest” he is said to attend mass daily (32) and to be especially devoted to Mary. (35) The Marian emphasis acquires an edge in “Gest” however, when he indulges in considerable play over the concept that the loan he made to the poor knight has been cosigned by the Virgin Mary, entitling him to collect the purse from any passing monk. (“Gest,” 259, 940) Surely in his era his religiosity, if not his witty (seemingly cynical) elaboration of it, would be a natural concomitant with virtue in general.

The Robin Hood texts are meant for a popular audience (the story-teller addresses his listeners on occasion), Robin has some courtly characteristics, though these early poems have no love interest. “Robyn coud his courteysy.” (1539) In certain ways he follows the rules of his culture more scrupulously than do his antagonists. He is captured in “Monk” only because his enemies ignored the tradition of sanctuary within a church (83-86), while the Sheriff in the “Gest” is said to violate such civilized rules as those governing hospitality (1186).

In spite of the fact that he identified as a “traytur” (“Monk,” 91) He regularly expresses his obedience to the nation’s leader and falls to his knees when he recognizes the king. (“Gest,” 1620) Indeed, he reconciles with the crown and is pardoned. Declaring loyalty to his sovereign, he lives for a short while in town. The king even decides he would like some outfits of Lincoln green for his own men. (“1669 ff.) After a time he notices he is spending money and his archery skills are in decline. (1741) Given a week away, he does not ever return and apparently lives in the forest for twenty-two years. It is as though his essential wildness was not possible to contain for more than a short while.

The archaic mythic layer of the Robin Hood stories is signaled by the emphasis on the wild forest setting which acquires an almost numinous quality in the tales. Robin is clearly associated with “green man” or “wild man of the woods.” [6] The “Monk” begins “In somer, when the shawes be sheyne,” and the date turns out to be Whitsun or Pentecost, an important springtime holiday for the Middle Ages closely paralleling the pagan Beltane, which included a fair, festivals, dancing, and the rule of a King and Queen of the May. [7] These figures, themselves derived from more ancient pagan deities and among the clearest vestiges of pre-Christian survivals were replaced in many villages by Robin Hood and Maid Marian. [8] The forest’s green, adopted by the band of thieves for their costume (Lincoln green, produced from woad and weld [9]) is mentioned repeatedly in an almost incantatory refrain. Surely the passage in which Robin is called a green “ryght fayre harte,” a “mayster-herte” (“Gest,” 738, 752) sounds like a reference to a theriomorphic deity obscured by time. Since Thomas Wright’s speculations in early Victorian essays, Robin Hood has been linked to the Celtic Cernunnos, the Greek Pan, even the Germanic Odin, while to Margaret Murray he was the high priest of a witches’ coven. [10] The cliché of the “merry men” was still novel in the fifteenth century. Flush with the joy of nature and the reverdie of the springtime Robin’s men are lifted by a sort semi-divine afflatus.


Hit befel on Whitson
Erly in a May mornyng,
The son up feyre can shyne,
And the briddis mery can syng.

"This is a mery mornyng," seid Litull John,
"Be Hym that dyed on tre;
A more mery man then I am one
Lyves not in Cristianté.
“Monk,” 9-16


Surely this joyful and sensual impression of the gathering energies of the organic world about them underlies the nature introductions of a thousand medieval poems. Telling tales of such an inspiriting flush of élan vital doubtless acted as a sort of mild recreational sympathetic magic for the medieval audience.
Though Robin Hood was yet to acquire a lover or an aristocratic pedigree, these early texts provide powerful examples of the character’s potential for expressing social discontent against the rich and criticism of the religious hierarchy not long after the era of the Peasant’s Revolt and of Wyclif. Much of the brooding, if belated, numinous glow the ancients saw in the natural world survives in these lively and colloquial tales.



1. The dating to Richard’s realm derives from William Stukeley, the eighteenth century divine and antiquary who studied Stonehenge so long he began to fancy himself a druid. Scott may also have been influenced by the Scots role in the United Kingdom (Union was hardly more than a hundred years earlier and the battle of Colloden less than that). Was it a similar sympathy for the underdog that was expressed in Ivanhoe’s highly sympathetic depiction of the Jews Isaac of York and his daughter Rebecca?

2. Robin was alone because he insisted on entering town accompanied only by Little John who left him after his leader churlishly refused to pay a bet he had proposed and lost. The hero is not portrayed as a perfect valorous and powerful fighter. His lapses in judgment often generate action and early ballads show him defeated in scuffles with random tradesmen and acting unfairly to his own followers.

3. See Eric Hobsbawm Primitive Rebels 1959 and Bandits 1969. In the introduction of the former Hobsbawm refers to “the classic Robin Hood who was and is essentially a peasant rebelling against landlords, usurers, and other representatives of what Thomas More called ‘the conspiracy of the rich.’” (page 4)

4. Andrew of Wyntoun's Orygynale Chronicle says they were “commendit gud.”

5. Deriving from the simple expression “young man,” the term originally meant an attendant on a nobleman. According to the OED, it came to be used for a “mediocre” individual, neither aristocracy nor peasant, but it was not commonly used for the bourgeois residents of cities engaged in trade or professions. I am reminded of the American phenomenon in which virtually everyone considers him or herself “middle-class.”

6. See Lady Raglan’s article in The Folklore Journal coined the term "Green Man" in her March 1939 article "The Green Man in Church Architecture"(no. 50, pages 45–57). A related figure is the “jack of the green” of May day festivities.

7. Whitsuntide was one of three week-long holidays for medieval peasants. Whit Monday continues to be a holiday in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and many other countries, as it was until 1967 in the U.K., 1973 in Ireland, and 2004 in Sweden.

8. Marian is unmentioned in the early texts. It seems clear that she was imported through the influence of Adam de la Halle’s late thirteenth century Jeu de Robin and Marion though the play is a dramatized pastourelle in which Robin is simply a shepherd. The coincidence of the name must have been irresistible, though Robin was sometimes used as a generic male name as a modern American might use Joe or Mac.

9. The color was no literary fancy. In Spenser’s Faerie Queene a “woodman” is described as "clad/ Of Lincolne Greene, belay'd with silver lace." (VI, 2, stanza 5)

10. See Essays on Subjects Connected with Literature, Popular Superstitions, and the History of England (1846). Wright had published on the topic of Robin Hood as early as 1837. Margaret Murray’s argument for Robin as god and priest is included in The God of the Witches (1937).

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