By Danièle Cybulskie
When we think about Robin Hood these days, we have him firmly placed in Sherwood Forest, outside of Nottingham, in the time of “Good King Richard” (Richard I, “The Lionheart”). This would put him in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. The first written records of the Robin Hood legend don’t appear until the late fourteenth century, however, and most written ballads do not start appearing until the fifteenth century. The probable reason for this scarcity of written material is that Robin Hood is not the type of story that would immediately appeal to the nobility. In other words, the people who could afford scribes to copy out stories for them would be much more likely to request stories that glorify the nobility (like those of King Arthur), rather than those which glorify the exploits of an outlaw. With the appearance of the printing press in England, written material became much less expensive, and therefore the content could be tailored to suit the less-moneyed classes. Probably the best early rendition of Robin’s legend is A Gest of Robyn Hode (circa 1510), which you can read online (with notes!).
The fact that stories of Robin Hood were not written down previously (at least not often enough to have survived through the ages) does not mean that they were not circulating. One of the first mentions of Robin appears in Piers Plowman, in which the author despairs that his character, Sloth, knows stories of “Robyn Hode” better than his prayers. In the early fifteenth century, Robin Hood was well-known enough to be featured in annual pageants and processions in which he would collect money from the people for community projects, such as structural improvements. (Who better to use as a fundraising mascot?)
In the beginning, Robin Hood was a merry outlaw who used trickery to outwit his opponents, but much of his legend took generations to develop. As time went on, different elements were added: King Richard and Prince John, Maid Marian, and the idea of the money stolen going to the poor (Robin wasn’t always altruistic). It wasn’t until Shakespeare’s day that Robin became the fallen Earl of Huntington – a noble forced into outlawry.
So where did Robin “originally” come from? I tend to agree with other scholars who think there was no “real” Robin Hood. Although there are two people with that name that appear in medieval records, there is no indication that either is the man who would become the legend. Rather, it is more likely that Robin Hood is the synthesis of several legends of outlaw heroes. One of the most interesting possible sources is the story of the real William Wallace, an outlaw whose challenge of an English king (Edward I, not Richard I) intensified when his wife, Marion (not “Murron” as suggested in Braveheart), was killed by an English sheriff. It is also possible that Robin’s legend may have come from France, as Prof. Stephen Knight has noted that Robin’s presence is most pronounced in the wine ports of Southwestern England.
Regardless of where he originated, Robin Hood was certainly a popular legend, as he is today. Though he lives outside the law, he is a “safe” hero to admire: he is loyal to the king, mindful of religion, respectful towards ladies, and kind to the poor. While there has (apparently) been some discussion surrounding the current reinvention of his myth that Robin is possibly a “terrorist” (since he challenges the established system of law and order), traditionally, Robin targets only the corrupt, and those who undermine society by betraying the people’s trust. Robin Hood is a romantic figure – a rebel with a cause – and, I think, will continue to be revived and reinvented for centuries to come.
If you want to be a half-hour medievalist, I would highly recommend listening to a podcast on Chivalry Today which features an interview with Prof. Stephen Knight. Prof. Knight knows more about Robin Hood than perhaps anyone else on Earth, and is a charismatic speaker, to boot. Almost everything I (and now you) know about Robin comes from him. (If you listen to the podcast, I recommend starting at about minute 14, when they get to the interview, unless you have an interest in the host’s discussion of modern, female chivalry.) You can also read Prof. Knight’s introduction to A Gest of Robyn Hode, which he has written with Thomas H. Ohlgren, or you can read his book, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist