by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the March 2001, A.S. XXXV issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.
Second only to King Arthur, Robin Hood is the best known persona of the Middle Ages. And like King Arthur, Robin Hood is so shrouded in myths that the kernel of truth behind the stories is obscured. This essay will explore some of these myths.
The original form of the Robin Hood story is a set of ballads. Each focused on a single incident. A coherent narrative is a product of Victorian England. The version of the story best known today is exemplified by the Errol Flynn movie. While there have been plenty of movies and TV shows since then, each with their own twist, the basic structure has remained the same. The setting is Midlands England around Nottingham. The basic conflict is Norman oppression. The time frame is around when Richard I was returning from the Crusades with his actual return being start of the climactic action.
The latter point would have the stories occurred around 1193 to 1194. This was first asserted in a 1521 history, but was popularized by Sir Walter Scott in ‘Ivanhoe’. Yet the earliest copies of the Robin Hood ballads are set in the time of Edward I or II, around 1300. One candidate for the historical Robin Hood was active in 1322 with a number of other candidates in-between. All that can be said for certain is that by 1377 William Langland was able to use him as an iconic figure in ‘Piers Plowman’.
The difficulty with these dates is that the Saxon identity had greatly disappeared. While the ruling nobility was a distinctive class of its own (speaking Norman-French), the general populace no longer saw them as foreign interlopers. The tensions between the two were those common to between the haves and have-nots without any larger political overtones.
So who was Robin Hood? The now classical answer names him Robert of Locksley, Earl of Huntington. The first irony of this is that Robert is a Norman name. Another difficulty is that county of Huntington is some 60 miles to the southeast of Nottingham, a not inconsiderable distance in the Middle Ages. A bigger difficulty is that all the early ballads explicitly call him a yeoman. It is only in the hands of the Elizabethan playwrights does Robin became a nobleman.
There are two major candidates for the historical Robin, though each has their own difficulties. The first was identified by Joseph Hunter in 1852. Using the earliest known ballad ‘A Gest of Robyn Hood’ as a guide, he identified a Robert Hood of Wakefield in the neighboring West Riding of York as the outlaw. This Robin Hood would have been active around 1322. The second candidate is another Yorkshireman named Robert Hood. This one operated around 1226.
Just as Arthur had his Excalibur, Robin Hood had his longbow. Though the Welsh are usually associated with the longbow, because they continued to use it militarily while everyone else was fascinated with the crossbow. Thus when Edward I decided to make missile fire a major part of his tactics, he drew most of his archers from Wales. The Assize of the Forest of 1184, which announced the forest laws that Robin Hood so casually ignored, specifically mentions banning bows from the forest. Around 1200 there were a few composite bows, and yew was known as the premier bow wood, but most were made of elm.
In the early ballads, Maid Marian makes no appearance. The character of Marian has her antecedents in the Earth Mother goddess. With the coming of Christianity the Earth Mother rituals were suppressed only to reemerge in the Cult of the Virgin Mary. Loosely associated were various spring revels which were generically known as May games. They were presided over by a Lord and a Lady. From plays about shepherds, they acquired the names or Robin and Marion. In England, the shepherd was replaced by the outlaw. By the last half of the 15th century, the May games regularly featured plays about Robin Hood and Maid Marian.
A major anachronism of the Robin Hood stories is Friar Tuck. The Friars Minor did not arrive until 1224, long after King Richard was dead. Like Maid Marion he appears to be another character from the May games, the final personification of comic church figures. Outlaw clergymen were not unknown, the most famous being Eustache the Monk (c. 1170-1217). Also around 1417 a Richard Stafford used the name ‘Friere Tuk’ during his crime spree.
John is the most reviled English monarch. He was despised in his own time, and is little better today. The usual portrayal is that of a weak and grasping ruler. Yet a more dispassionate look at his actions gives a kinder take on them. John was considered weak because he was unfortunate to have Philip Augustus of France as an opponent, who was his superior in military command. His constant demand for taxes was not from inherent greed, but a need to finance his unsuccessful military campaigns against Philip. He did not so much as imposed new taxes as maximized revenue from existing taxes. The nobles were squealing because they had to pay taxes they had previously ignored! Ironically, John is often considered the best administrating king of the medieval period. If he wasn’t so unlucky in war!
Like King Arthur, the image of Robin Hood is more important then the truth. And each round of stories molds them to fit the desires of the audience. The initial ballads were for the emerging middle class chafing under established privilege. So Robin Hood was a yeoman who took on the corrupt nobility. In the 19th century he was recast as a freedom fighter against the Norman overlords. Hollywood portrayed him as a romantic hero. His last incarnation on TV had him a mystic figure standing against a wrong headed social structure. Robin Hood is who we want him to be.
Davis, Stephen. Robin Hood's England. Washington, D.C.: Time Traveler Press, 1991.
Doel, Fran, and Geoff Doel. Robin Hood: Outlaw or Greenwood Myth. Stroud: Tempus Publishing, Ltd., 2000.
Hardy, Robert. Longbow: A Social and Military History. 3rd ed. New York: Lyons & Burford, 1992.
Ohlgren, Thomas H., ed. Medieval Outlaws: Ten Tales in Modern English. Gloucester: Alan Sutton Publishing, Ltd., 1998.
Pyle, Howard. The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. New York: Signet Classics, 1985.
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