By Nicole Carter
Ex Post Facto: Journal of the History Students at San Francisco State University, Vol.17 (2008)
Introduction: In Warner Brothers Pictures’ 1938 film The Adventures of Robin Hood, Robin asks his peasant followers to swear an oath which encapsulates the values with which Robin Hood is associated today:
Do you, the free men of Sherwood Forest, swear to despoil the rich only to give to the poor? To shelter the old and the helpless? To protect all women, rich or poor, Norman or Saxon? To fight for a free England, to protect her loyally until the return of our king and sovereign, Richard the Lionheart? And swear to fight to the death against our oppressors?
This rousing speech is met with a resounding chorus of ‘Aye’s.’ The medieval Robin Hood, however, was far removed from modern moviemaking.
The oldest extant literary reference to Robin Hood is found in Piers Plowman when the ignorant priest Sloth confesses, “I can noughte perfitly my pater-noster as the prest it syngeth, / But I can rymes of Robyn Hood and Randolf erle of Chestre.” Commonly dated to 1377, this reference suggests that a strong oral tradition concerning Robin Hood existed prior to that date, and that such a tradition was considered idle and foolish—a priest who should be able to recite prayers has instead spent time learning trivial rhymes.
From 1377 on, references to Robin Hood proliferated. Robin Hood appeared in texts, proverbs, topographical references and general comments. By one count, Robin earned 260 mentions by 1600. He became the subject of annual plays and games held around Whitsunday in late May or early June as a mock-king who presided over dances, sports, pageants, and processions.
As a representative of outlaws, Robin Hood was associated with criminal court cases. The ballads, well known by the early fifteenth century, influenced the legal language of the time, as demonstrated by the phrase ‘Robin Hode en Barnesdale stode’—a popular opening line—quoted in court in 1429. In 1439 a petition denouncing the misdeeds of the criminal Piers Venables, charged that he gathered around him misdoers ‘beyng of his clothinge, and in manere of insurection wente into the wodes in [the] country like it hadde be Robyn Hode and his meynee.’ Criminals also often assumed names associated with the Robin Hood legend: criminal records have turned up a ‘Frere Tuk’ in 1417, a ‘Robyn Hood’ in 1497, and a ‘Greneleff’ (an alias used by John) in 1502.