Robin’s Hoods

Patrick Wormald

  • Robin Hood by J.C. Holt
    Thames and Hudson, 208 pp, £8.95, May 1982, ISBN 0 500 25081 2
  • The Early History of Glastonbury: An Edition, Translation and Study of William of Malmesbury’s ‘De Antiquitate Glastonie Ecclesie’ by John Scott
    Boydell, 224 pp, £25.00, January 1982, ISBN 0 85115 154 X
  • Megalithomania by John Michell
    Thames and Hudson, 168 pp, £8.50, March 1982, ISBN 0 500 01261 X

It has been said of the early Christian Irish that they were very interested in their history, but preferred it in the form of fiction. If one English reaction to his observation is likely to be that things have not changed much in the Emerald Isle, another ought to be that their own self-satisfaction is misplaced. Of the ‘facts’ of early English history which Every Schoolboy Knows – Alfred and the Cakes, Canute and the Waves, Harold and the Arrow – only the last has any claim to be in a real sense true (and even that has only recently been rescued from understandable scepticism by painstaking scholarship). The legends discussed in these books concern Robin Hood, the early history of Glastonbury, and the meaning of the megaliths. Such material poses problems for the professional historian or archaeologist: is it worth the trouble to debunk what are, after all, fairly harmless stories? A society’s legends are arguably as much a part of its history as the actual events of its past: too dry-as-dust an approach risks isolating the scholar from the very audience that he or she is trying to convince. And what, to coin a phrase, is Truth? Two of these books are by modern scholars, the other by one of the greatest English Medieval historians. Two, though not unsympathetic to the importance of legends, are critical in their approach; the other, not the Medieval historian’s, seems to want to dispense altogether with the methods of modern scholarship.

Professor Holt observes that Robin Hood has a unique distinction: his is the only entry in the Dictionary of National Biography devoted exclusively to proving that its subject never existed. But he has another distinction too. Over the last twenty years or so, he has elicited some of the very best historical writing by English Medievalists. Among recent contributions, a sparkling (and remarkably good-humoured) debate in Past and Present, a splendid survey of The Outlaws of Medieval England by Maurice Keen, a delightful collection of Rymes of Robin Hood by Barry Dobson and John Taylor, and a constructive reassessment of ‘the birth and setting of the ballads of Robin Hood’ by John Maddicott, have not only cast a flood of light on the origins and significance of the legend, but also materially extended knowledge of what it is just legitimate to call the ‘popular culture’ of later Medieval and Early Modern England. Professor Holt, a native of the part of Yorkshire where the legend probably originated, and sometime professor at Nottingham, the outlaw’s conventional urban haunt, was himself a major contributor to the Past and Present series. His new book is a more than worthy member of the illustrious company it seeks to keep. Sustained by a mellifluous style, meticulous scholarship, a powerful historical imagination and profound human sympathy, it is, if not definitive, then at least as good a book as one can readily imagine, even at the level of competition which the subject has already inspired.

The consensus of Robin Hood studies as it has emerged in the past twenty years may be summarised as follows. First, as regards the legend: the earliest reference to ‘rymes of Robyn Hood’ is in the 1377 text of Langland’s Piers Plowman. By the early 15th century, references have become relatively abundant. The earliest extant Robin Hood ‘ryme’, ‘Robin Hood and the Monk’, is found in a manuscript of 1450 or soon after. The central text of the cycle, A Gest of Robyn Hode, is extant only in early 16th-century printed texts, but some of its linguistic forms suggest that it may have been composed nearer to 1400 than to 1500. Together with three or four other ‘rymes’ and a fragment of a play, these form the core of the legend as it was bequeathed by the Middle Ages. Robin already has his most familiar companions, Little John, Will Scarlett (or something similar), Much the Miller’s son and Friar Tuck. He is at home in Sherwood Forest and the sworn enemy of the Sheriff of Nottingham. He is an archer of genius and a master of disguise. He is loyal to the king, and ‘dyde pore men moch god’, but he had no time for the wealthy and grasping religious orders: the Gest begins with the story of how Robin helped an impoverished knight pay his debt to the abbot of St Mary’s York, and fleeced the abbey in the process. Though he ruthlessly slays and mutilates the hired killer, Guy of Gisborne, he scraps heartily with a potter who has the better of him.

But already by 1500 Robin and his band had been incorporated in the ‘May Games’, whence the hero first acquired his Marian. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, play-wrights, ballad-mongers and historians combined to give him his unsupported date in the time of King Richard’s exile, his wholly bogus aristocratic status as a dispossessed heir to the earldom of Huntingdon, and, somewhat incongruously, a greatly enlarged corpus of unashamedly plebeian opponents with an ever-increasing tendency to improve on the potter’s performance in single combat with him. The classical series of Robin Hood stories was compiled, complete with pseudo-historical introduction, by Joseph Ritson in 1795, and it was Ritson, inspired by the French Revolution, who first introduced the notion that Robin robbed the rich to give to the poor. It remained for Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe to create the figure who underlies the children’s stories and Hollywood epics of modern times.

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