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Robin Hood – The Man, The Myth, and The History – Part 1: Of Tales and Legends

By Andrew Latham and Rand Lee Brown II

“I kan nought parfitly my Paternoster as the preest it singeth,
But I kan rymes of Robyn Hoode and Randolf Earl of Chestre.” – William Langland, Piers Plowman

There is perhaps no other literary character from Medieval Europe so readily and widely recognized the world over than the notorious forest outlaw of Robin Hood. The stories of his adventures – and those of his band of “Merry Men” – have been adapted to nearly every form of artistic media from the 14th Century to the present day. In each specific era, the tales of the “Hooded Man” retain the core elements of the medieval myth.

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But in each era they are also adapted to the tastes of that era. This has resulted in a wildly varied genre: in modern times alone, we have all manner of adaptation from Errol Flynn’s swashbuckling hero from the Golden Age of cinema, to Walt Disney’s beloved and dashing anthropomorphic fox, to the grittier (and factually uneven) attempts at a more “historical” outlaw like that seen in Ridley Scott’s vision. However, the core character – that of a forest outlaw, masterfully adept with a longbow, terrorizing the upper classes in defense of the medieval English commoner – remains virtually unchanged since the first Robin Hood ballads came to be.

This series will seek to delve into the history behind the legends and to investigate the critical questions that they raise: who was the real Robin Hood? Did he even exist? And what can these stories we know so well today tell us about the real-world society that spawned them? Before we can really explore the man within the myth, however, we must first look to the myths themselves.

The precise origins of the Robin Hood mythos are as elusive as the man himself is often portrayed to be. The total corpus of the various source ballads that are associated with him span the period from the 13th to 16th centuries. The vast majority, however, seem to originate in the 14th-15th centuries – most likely reflecting when they were at their most popular and a detail that will be key in our later discussions.

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While the earliest surviving work we have exclusively about the outlaw comes from the brief 1450 ballad “Robin Hood and the Monk,” by-name references are made in works from much earlier (the earliest being the quote from Langland’s Piers Plowman at the beginning of this piece), indicating that the stories had been an established cultural phenomenon in medieval England for quite some time.

English medieval society, like most of Christendom at that time, placed a great deal of emphasis on the tradition of oral tales passed down through generations and each with their own unique local flavors and inspirations. Eventually, many of these various literary streams would converge over long periods of time into a more unified narrative that still displayed some components of the various source materials. We see this phenomenon in the Robin Hood stories as there appear many different Robins the earlier back one explores.

Starting with the almost “proto-Robin Hood” poems of “The King and the Hermit” and “The King and the Shepherd” in which the Robin-esque character (never named as such, though) appears as a clever, but unassuming character who unknowingly encounters the King by chance and tells him of grievous injustices in his kingdom. The 1450 sung ballad “Robin Hood and the Monk” is a brief and incomplete tale that introduces the Robin we are much more familiar with – as well as other characters like Little John and “Moche the Miller’s Son.” Its main plot is short and violent, in which a curiously pious Robin is betrayed by an avaricious monk and is eventually rescued by Little John and his band through clever deceit (even to the unnamed king himself) and the outright murder of any responsible for the betrayal.

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The Lyttell Geste of Robyn Hode – possibly written originally in the late 15th Century, is usually cited as the origin of the Robin mythos as we know it, but even the outlaw’s exploits portrayed here noticeably differ from the modern popular narrative. Split into four distinct ballads, some features of the recognizable Robin – his penchant for operating out of Royal Forests, his skillfulness with disguise, his cat-and-mouse games with his Sherriff nemesis, and his master talent with archery contests – can readily be seen in the Lyttell Geste. However, the historical context of the story is left a complete mystery, the King is identified merely as an “Edward,” and well known characters like Maid Marian and Friar Tuck are completely absent whilst other lesser known figures, like the poor knight Richard atte Lee, feature heavily.

Then there is the question of whether the Robin Hood stories were themselves drawn from even earlier popular tales of similar English outlaws-turned-folk heroes with much firmer roots in regional English medieval history. Going back to the 11th Century, there is the Gesta Herewardi – a ballad celebrating the deeds of Hereward the Wake, the Anglo-Saxon noble who led a spirited, but ultimately doomed resistance against William the Conqueror during his infamous Harrying of the North. Hereward in his Gesta displays many similar traits to the outlaw Robin as he uses the wilderness of Northern England to his advantage against his Norman opponents, gathers about him a fiercely loyal band of fellow outlaws who fight against the oppression of the invaders, and often uses disguise (often as a monk) and deception to stay a step ahead of his foes.

Later in the 13th century, two important Anglo-Norman predecessor legends arise, both of which feature main characters who lived during the turbulent years of the Magna Carta period and feature the notorious King John I as their villain. The subject of the Fulk Fitzwarin is an Anglo-Norman noble who falls afoul of the lecherous King John after insulting his pride and goes into the forest with his retainers as an outlaw at odds with King and Sherriff – and the hero’s love interest is even named Marian, the first one encountered. Again, the themes of outlaws cheekily resisting a tyrant through selective banditry are overwhelming. In the tale of Eustace the Monk, the story follows a highly dramatized version of the career of the real-life notorious 13th Century monk-turned Channel pirate and sellsword from the title. It could be persuasively argued that the Robin Hood myth as we know it is heavily indebted to these earlier stories. But to conclude definitively that these were its origins would be a bridge too far.

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Dr. Andrew Latham is a professor of political science at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He is the author, most recently, of a monograph entitled Medieval Sovereignty, to be published in 2020 by ARC Humanities Press.  You can visit Andrew’s website at www.aalatham.com or follow Andrew on Twitter @aalatham

Capt Rand Lee Brown II is a commissioned officer in the United States Marine Corps currently assigned to Marine Forces Reserve.  Holding a Master of Arts degree in Military History from Norwich University with a focus on medieval warfare, Capt Brown has written on military history for a variety of forums, including the Marine Corps Gazette and Medievalists.net.

Click here to read more from Andrew and Rand

Further Readings:

Bellamy, John. Robin Hood: An Historical Inquiry (Indiana University Press, 1985)

Bradbury, Jim. The Medieval Archer (The Boydell Press, 1985)

Top Image: A sixteenth-century printed edition of the Lyttell Geste of Robyn Hode

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