Robin Hood

Robin Hood
   With the possible exception of King ARTHUR, Robin Hood remains the most popular character from medieval English literature. Originally a mythological character connected with pre-Christian nature rites and folk dramas, the name became attached over the course of time to a variety of social conflicts. Although specific features of Robin Hood’s character and even particular plot episodes have become fixed, the historical flexibility of his story has allowed the heroic outlaw to remain a “living” character long after the Middle Ages. Robin Hood predates the written records of him.Many attempts have been made to identify a specific historic individual who inspired the legend, but there are too many candidates. Robert Hood was a fairly common name in medieval England, and legal records from the 13th century refer to several who ran afoul of the law. But the same records also report that “Robynhod” or “Hobbehod” was a surname in use at the time, suggesting that the character was even older and had become a sobriquet for outlaws or foresters.At the same time, hundreds of place names such as Robin Hood’s Field or Robin Hood’s Well are spread across the length and breadth of England, suggesting an early and broad distribution of the story.
   Popular poems about Robin Hood are first mentioned in William LANGLAND’S ALLEGORICAL POEM PIERS PLOWMAN, written in the late 1370s. Langland’s reference to “rymes of Robyn Hood” doesn’t tell us much about the outlaw or the sorts of poems that were composed about him, but he was probably thinking of ballads like “Robin Hood and Guy of Gisbourne,”“Robin Hood and the Monk,” or “Robin Hood and the Potter,” all of which survive in forms from about a century later. Since these poems were composed, memorized, and performed without being written down, they are probably much older than the surviving written copies but may also have changed frequently in ways that have not been preserved. The author of the GEST OF ROBYN HODE, a poem from the mid-15th century, appears to have woven together three or four independent poems in order to create a longer and more complex narrative about the outlaw. These early ballads are vigorous and violent.Not only men at arms, but monks, a page boy, and the sheriff of Nottingham are killed, and the bounty hunter Guy of Gisbourne is grotesquely disfigured. Robin Hood waylays the rich and takes their money, but he does not pass it on to the poor.Rather he embodies the freedom, solidarity, fidelity, and hospitality of the Greenwood, the imagined arboreal refuge from the social economy of town, court, and church. Robin is generous to his companions, devoted to the Virgin Mary, and keeps his word rigorously. All of this puts him at odds with the sheriff and various members of the clergy, who exploit the law to enrich and empower themselves. The goal in these early poems is to embarrass these authorities of state and church and to preserve the outlaw’s own skin, although Robin himself is not immune from making mistakes and requiring the help of his men, especially Little John, to restore his fortunes. The dramatic action of the ballads has a clear affinity with performance. It is difficult to determine, however, which came first, the poem or the play. Performances of Robin Hood plays and games and festivals are recorded widely across England and Scotland in the 15th and 16th centuries and surely represent a much older tradition. These were originally connected with midsummer celebrations of the seasonal cycle and the new genesis of flocks and crops. Prominent members of the community underwrote the performances, and the festivals were frequently used to raise funds for parish expenses. The papers of the Paston family of Norfolk from 1473 refer to a servant who played the part of Robin Hood (see PASTON LETTERS). Only a few “scripts” of these dramas survive. One, referred to as “Robin Hood and the Sheriff,” seems to tell the same story found in the ballad “Robin Hood and Guy of Gisbourne.” This text consists of 24 lines of dialogue without stage directions and, in fact, without even a clear indication of who is speaking. This text suggests that the chief interest in this drama was the sword fighting, wrestling, shooting, and throwing, and the actors had a great deal of freedom in choreographing this physical action. Indeed the violence and the antiauthoritarian character of the outlaw also led the plays to be condemned by churchmen and eventually to be banned.
   From an early date, historians made an attempt to place Robin Hood at a particular point in English history. The plays and ballads are almost silent about Robin’s historical situation, but the Gest of Robyn Hode places him in the reign of “Edward oure comely kyng,” probably Edward III (1327–77). Early chroniclers, however, worked the outlaw into their historical narratives. Andrew of Wyntoun wrote in his Orygynale Chronicle (ca. 1420) that in 1283 Little John and Robin Hood were living in Inglewood, a royal forest near Carlisle, and Barnsdale. This is substantially earlier than the period suggested by the Gest, but coincides with the rebellion of William Wallace and a period of antiauthoritarian feeling in Scotland. One hundred years later, another Scottish historian, John Major, placed Robin Hood in the historical situation where he is most often depicted now, the 1190s. This shifted the outlaw’s activity to a period when the king, RICHARD I, was absent and the authority of the ruler, John, was questionable.
   Major’s dating also allowed later writers to make social conflict between Saxons and Normans a central issue of the Robin Hood story as well. Of course none of these dates have historical grounding, but they reveal a consistent desire to make Robin Hood real and to make his rebellious actions historically understandable. Of course the story of Robin Hood has continued to grow and adapt after the Middle Ages. During the 17th century, several writers created entire biographies of the hero, some including elaborate genealogies to verify his historical existence. Late in the 18th century, the medieval ballads were rediscovered as part of nationalist and romantic movements, and Robin Hood was reconceived as representative of both Englishness and egalitarianism. In the 20th century, television and film have recognized the dramatic potential in Robin Hood and adapted him to embody freedom versus fascism, communalism versus corporate greed, individual conscience versus organized religion, and other social and cultural issues. Because he has proved to be such a resilient character, consistently appealing and continually adapting, Robin Hood remains a vital figure in the cultural imagination nearly 1,000 years after his first appearance.
   ■ Dobson, R. B., and J. Taylor, eds. Rymes of Robin Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw. 3rd ed. Stroud: Sutton, 1997.
   ■ Fowler, David C. A Literary History of the Popular Ballad. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1968.
   ■ Gray, Douglas. “The Robin Hood Poems,” in Robin Hood: Anthology of Scholarship and Criticism, edited by Stephen Knight. Cambridge: Brewer, 1999, 3–37.
   ■ Holt, J. C. Robin Hood. 2nd ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 1990.
   ■ Knight, Stephen. Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw. Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell, 1994.
   ■ ———. Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2003.
   ■ Knight, Stephen, and Thomas Ohlgren, eds. Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Medieval Institute Publications, 1997.
   ■ Matthews, John. Robin Hood: Green Lord of the Wildwood. Glastonbury, U.K.: Gothic Image, 1993.
   ■ Potter, Lois, ed. Playing Robin Hood: The Legend and Performance in Five Centuries. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1998.
   ■ Wiles, David. The Early Plays of Robin Hood. Cambridge: Brewer, 1981.
   Timothy S. Jones

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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