Extralegal and English: the Robin Hood Legend and Increasing National Identity in the Middling Sorts of Late Medieval England
Tiffany Elyse Black
North Carolina State University: Master of Arts History, Raleigh, North Carolina (2012)
Evidence for the legendary hero Robin Hood exists from at least the thirteenth century in England; however, throughout the long fifteenth century, a great efflorescence of Robin Hood materials appears. Village games, plays, and written ballads became increasingly popular during this period and were some of the first secular writings to be published when the printing press arrived in England at the close of the fifteenth century. While there were many different Robin Hoods, a common theme did exist. The legend was inextricably linked to the English legal system and relied upon the pervasive nature of the law in late medieval English society for its popularity. Through examination of the early printed ballads and culture of the village plays and games, it can been seen that Robin Hood was a hero shaped for and by the propertied middling sorts through the lens of legality. As this group gained means following the collapse of the manor in the second half of the fourteenth century, they were able to begin to shape a new popular culture for themselves independent of aristocratic chivalric culture. This paper argues that the Robin Hood legend exemplified this new popular culture based in legality and created out of a growing need for some sort of English identity.
Quite often one thinks of Robin Hood as a fictional product of Victorian sentimentality or perhaps more frequently, as a quasi-historical product of the high Middle Ages contemporary with Richard the Lionheart; however, few realize that his origins are in fact more at home in the later medieval period where the legend experienced an increase in popularity. This period was marked by great political and social change in England, but there was also a sense of continuity with the past. For every upheaval, there was a cultural response designed to adapt to the changes and familiarize them. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries also saw a greater use of the vernacular and a growing emphasis on being English. This was possible due to the increasing separation of England from its continental rivals and an increasing need for the middling sorts to justify and maintain their place in English society. Robin Hood was a cultural phenomenon which enabled this process. The legend was clearly not the only work of popular culture in what I propose as the long fifteenth century, but it does serve as a very useful representation for examining the growth of Englishness.