By Alice Blackwood
Published Online (2013)
Winner of the University of Chicago’s National Guild of St. Margaret of Scotland Prize for the best BA paper on a medieval topic
Introduction: Item dato lusoribus ludentibus lusum Robyn Hood…xx d.
This line of Latin, part of a longer list of all the payments of the city of Exeter for the yearlong accounting period from 1426 – 1427, constitutes the earliest mention in the extant records of what would soon become one of the most widespread — yet, simultaneously, one of the most localized — features of the late medieval and early modern English festal calendar. By the late fifteenth century, the Robin Hood figure had claimed a leading role in parish church ales and May games, to the point where some parishes renamed their May celebration the “Robyn hode Ale.” Robin Hood ales, games, processions, and plays all occurred in the summer months, usually near Whitsuntide in the month of May, which was the traditional time for the May gamesand church ales that had been celebrated prior to the introduction of the Robin Hood figure to the festivities. Traditionally held on Sunday, Robin Hood ales could involve any number of different forms of entertainment, including Morris dances, bull-baiting, and archery contests.
The most common features of Robin Hood ales, however, were processions and plays — and, of course, drinking ale. Typically, men of the parish would be elected to play Robin and Little John,and Robin would rule over the ale and lead a procession of townspeople to visit other parishes and towns. Sometimes there was also an informal play based on the Robin Hood legend, and players might perform in the towns they visited, asking for donations to the parish coffers and sometimes giving out livery badges in return, marking the recipient as one of Robin Hood‘s men.
Though plays were sometimes performed at these events, they were centered around mock-combat and rarely used a written script. In fact, there are only three extant scripts that scholars consider to have possible medieval origins, and one was written to be performed in anaristocratic household, while the other two were published to be sold; none of them are likely to have been played in popular Robin Hood festivals. Instead of being able to use scripts, we are required to piece together our understanding of the festal Robin Hood tradition from two conflicting bodies of sources. The most substantial group of sources are parochial churchwardens‘ accounts— financial records kept by the churchwardens of each parish, which list expenses for costumes, food, ale, and hiring minstrels, and record income brought in by the men playing Robin Hood and his company. In contrast to the elaborate Corpus Christi play cycles held in the same period by trade guilds in large cities, Robin Hood ales were almost always held by parish congregations in villages or small market towns.