1902 Encyclopedia > Robin Hood

Robin Hood

ROBIN HOOD. The oldest mention of Robin Hood at present known occurs in the second edition—what is called the B text—of Piers the Plowman, the date of which is about 1377. In passus v. of that poem the figure of Sloth is represented as saying:

"I can nou_te perfitly my pater-noster, as the prest it syngeth;
But I can rymes of Robyn Hood and Randolf Erle of Chesterer."

He is next mentioned by Wyntown in his Scottish Chronicle, written about 1420:

"Lytel Jhon and Robyne Hude
Waythmen ware conmaendyd gude;
In Yngilwode and Barnysdale
Thai oysyd all this time [c. 1283] thare trawale";

next by Bower in his additions to Fordun’s Scotichronicon about 1450:

"Hoe in tempore [1266] de exheredatis et bannitis surrexit et caput erexit ille famosissimus sicarius Robertus Hode et Littil Johanne cum eorum complicibus, de quibus stolidum vulgus hianter in comoediis et tragoediis prurienter festum faciunt et super ceteras romancias, mimos, et bardanos cantitare delectantur."

Of his popularity in the latter half of the 15th and in the 16th centuries there are many signs. Just one passage must be quoted as of special importance because closely followed by Grafton, Stow, and Camden. It is from Mair’s Historia Majoris Britanniae tam Angliae quam Scotiae which appeared in 1521.

"Circa haee tempera [Ricardi Primi], ut auguror, Robertus Hudus Anglus et Paryus Joannes latrones famatissimi in nemoribus latuerunt, solum opulentorum virorum bona deripientes. Nullum nisi eos invadentem vel resistentem pro suarum rerum tuitione occiderunt. Centum sagittarios ad pugnam aptissimos Robertus latrociniis aluit, quos 400 viri fortissimi invaders non audebant. Rebus hujus Roberti gestis tota Britannia in cantibus utitur. Faeminam nullam opprimi permisit nec pauperum bona surripuit, verum cos ex abbatum bonis sublatis opipare pavit. Viri rapinam improbo, sed latronum omnium humanissimus et princeps erat."

In the Elizabethan era and afterwards mentions abound; see the works of Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Drayton, Warner, Munday, Camden, Stow, Braithwaite, Fuller, &c.

Of the ballads themselves, Robin Hood and the Monk is possibly as old as the reign of Edward II; Robin Hood and the Potter and Robyn and Gandelyn are certainly not later than the 15th century. Most important of all is A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode, which perhaps was first printed about 1490, although the earliest extant complete copy belongs to about 1520. This is evidently founded on older ballads; we read in The Seconde Fytte, II. 176 and 177 :

"He wente hym forthe full mery syngynge,
As men have told in tale."

In fact it does for the Robin Hood cycle what a few years before Sir Thomas Malory had done for the Arthurian romances,—what in the 6th century B.C. Pisistratus is said to have done for the Homeric poems.

These are the facts about, him and his balladry. Of conjectures there is no end. He has been represented as the last of the Saxons,—as a Saxon holding out against the Norman conquerors so late as the end of the 12th century (see Thierry’s Norman Conquest, and compare Ivanhoe). Others maintain that he was a follower of Simon de Montfort. A third theory associates him with the earl of Lancaster of Edward II’s time: Hunter believed that he could identify him with a certain Robin Hood mentioned in the Exchequer accounts of this reign.

For our part, we are not disinclined to believe that the Robin Hood story has some historical basis, however fanciful and romantic the superstructure. We parallel it with the Arthurian story, and hold that, just as there was probably a real Arthur, however different from the hero of the trouvères, so there was a real Hood, however now enlarged and disguised by the accretions of legend. That Charlemagne and Richard I of England became the subjects of romances does not prevent our believing in their existence; nor need Hood’s mythical life deprive him of his natural one. Sloth in Langland’s poem couples him, as we have seen, with Randle, earl of Chester; and no one doubts this nobleman’s existence because he had "rymes" made about him. We believe him to have been the third Randle (see Bishop Percy’s Folio MS., ed. Hales and Furnivall, i. 260). And possibly enough Hood was contemporary with that earl, who "flourished" in the reigns of Richard I, John, and Henry III. Wyntown and Major, as we have seen, assign him to that period. It is impossible to believe with Hunter that he lived so late as Edward II's reign. This would leave no time for the growth of his myth; and his myth was, as is evident from what we have already said and quoted, full grown in the first half of the 14th century.

But, whether he lived or not, and whenever he lived, it is certain that many mythical elements are contained in his story. Both his name and his exploits remind us of the woodland spirit Robin Goodfellow and his merry pranks. He is fond of disguising himself, and devoted to fun and practical jokes. And the connexion of the May games with him points to a fusion with some older memory,—with some sun-god. In fact, the outlaw would seem to have become a centre around which gathered and settled older traditions of men and of spirits and of gods. Folk-lore that was rapidly perishing thus gave itself a new consistency and life. The name Robin (a French form from Rob, which is of course a short form for Robert) would serve both for "the shrewd and knavish sprite"—the German Knecht Ruprecht (see Grimm’s Teut. Myth., p. 504, trans. Stallybrass)—and for the bandit (see "Roberdes Knaues" in the Prologue of Piers the Plowman, 1. 44 and the note in Warton’s Hist. of Eng. Poet., ii. 95, ed. 1840). The name Hood is still a common enough surname, of which the earlier shape is Odo (see "Houdart," &c., in Larchey’s Dict. des Noms); notice too the name Hudson. But it also reminds one of the German familiar spirit Hudekin, or possibly of the German Witikind (see Wright’s Essays on the Middle Ages, ii. 207). How certain it is that the Robin Hood story attracted to it and appropriated other elements is illustrated by its subsequent history,—-its history after the 14th century. Thus later on we find it connected with the Morris dance; but the Morris dance was not known in England before the 16th century, or late in the 15th. And the form of the story was greatly modified in the beginning of the 17th century to suit the ideas of the age. It was then that a peer was imported into it, and the yeoman of the older version was metamorphosed into the earl of Huntingdon, for whom in the following century Stukeley discovered a satisfactory pedigree! At last, with the change of times, the myth ceased growing. Its rise and development and decay deserve a more thorough study than they have yet received.

What perhaps is its greatest interest as we first see it is its expression of the popular mind about the close of the Middle Ages. Robin Hood is at that time the people’s ideal as Arthur is that of the upper classes. He is the ideal yeoman as Arthur is the ideal knight. He readjusts the distribution of property: he robs the rich and endows the poor. He is an earnest worshipper of the Virgin, but a bold and vigorous hater of monks and abbots. He is the great sportsman, the incomparable archer, the lover of the greenwood and of a free life, brave, adventurous, jocular, open-handed, a protector of women. Observe his instructions to Little John:—

"Loke ye do no housbonde harme
That tylleth with his plough.
No more ye shall no good yeman
That walketh by grene wode shawe,
Ne no knyght ne no squyer
That wolde be a good felawe.
These bysshoppes and thyse archebysshoppes
Ye shall them bete and bynde
The hye sheryfe of Notynghame
Hym holde in your mynde."

And we are told

"Robin loved our dere lady
For doute of dedely synne;
Wolde be never do company harme
That ony woman was mynde."

See also Drayton’s Polyolbion, Song xxvi. The story is localized in Barnsdale and Sherwood, i.e., between Doncaster and Nottingham.

The best collections of the Robin Hood poems are those of Ritson (8vo, 1795) and Gutch (2nd ed., 1847), and of Professor Child in the 5th volume of his invaluable English and Scotch Ballads. The versions in the Percy Folio MS. are unhappily mutilated; but they should be consulted, for they are all more or less unique, and that on "Robin Hoode his death" is of singular interest. The literary and artistic value of the Robin Hood ballads cannot be pronounced considerable; their value is great, but it is in other respects. There is, however, real vigour and force in this fragment on the hero’s death. The earliest "Garland" was printed in 1670. (J. W. H.)

The above article was written by: John Wesley Hales, M.A.; Hon. Fellow of Christ's College, Cambridge; Professor of English Literature, King's College, London; author of Shakespeare Essays and Notes, Folia Litteraria, and Longer English Poems; joint editor of Percy's Ballads and Romances.

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-23 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries