Robin Hood, Sherwood Forest and the Sheriff of Nottingham
By A.J. Pollard
Nottingham Medieval Studies, Vol.52 (2008)
Introduction: Robin Hood has been long pursued not only by the sheriff of Nottingham but also by numerous scholars. We, like the sheriff, have been chasing him around the greenwood for decades. It is particularly appropriate, here in Nottingham, to think about this endless search on the fiftieth anniversary of Nottingham Medieval Studies, for the journal and the modern study of the medieval outlaw both began within a year of each other. Nottingham Medieval Studies, appropriately, has made its contribution to the swelling flood of publications on Robin Hood, though modestly.
It was not until volume 36, in 1992, that the famous robber first graced its pages, when Andrew Ayton published his article on military service and the development of the legend. A year later Colin Richmond’s piece on the social appeal of the outlaw tales appeared; and in 2001 and 2004 Tomas Ohlgren contributed studies of the contexts of the earliest manuscripts of two of the stories. These articles have reflected the development of Robin Hood studies in two ways: the manner in which Robin Hood has come in from the academic cold and the interdisciplinary character of recent study. In modern academic enquiry, historians have concentrated on the question of whether there was ever a real Robin Hood located in the early thirteenth century; on the social context of the stories and their audiences, especially the social status of the hero himself; and on the problem of whether they are subversive or affirmative of the social order. Literary scholars have looked at these issues too, but have additionally focussed on the composition of the early versions, their language and provenance and on Robin Hood in performance. All have shared the objective of seeking to understand the place of outlaw literature in popular culture in the pre-Reformation era. The Matter of the Greenwood is now taken as seriously as the Matter of Britain.
This piece, as befits a journal of medieval studies, focuses on the earliest known versions of the stories of Robin Hood. It does not consider the manifestations of Robin Hood after the Reformation, let alone his resuscitation in Music Hall, Film and Television in the last century and more. And it does not dwell on the question of whether there was ever a real Robin Hood or on the earliest putative roots of the stories of Robin Hood in the thirteenth century. The focus is on the fictional creation, possibly based on an actual historic figure, that emerged in the fourteenth century and who is the hero of surviving stories that are known to have been in circulation for a century and a half before 1540.