1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Robin Hood

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ROBIN HOOD, English legendary hero. The oldest mention of Robin Hood at present known occurs in the second edition — what is called the B text — of Piers the Plowman, the date of which is about 1377. In passus v. of that poem the figure of Sloth is represented as saying —

I can nou[?]te perfidy my pater-noster, as the prest it syngeth:
But I can rymes of Robyn Hood and Randolf Erie of Chestre.”

He is next mentioned by Andrew of Wyntoun in his Original Chronicle of Scotland, written about 1420 —

Lytel Jhon and Robyne Hude
Waythmen ware commendyd gude;
In Yngilwode and Barnysdale
Thai oysyd all this time [c. 1283] thare trawale”;

next by Walter Bower in his additions of Fordun's Scotichronicon about 1450 —

“Hoc in tempore [1266] de exheredatis et bannitis surrexit et caput erexit ille famosissimus sicarius Robertus Hode et Littill Johanne cum eorum complicibus, de quibus stolidum vulgus hianter in comoediis et tragoediis prurienter restum faciunt et super ceteras romancias, mimos, er bardanos cantitare delectantur.”

Of his popularity in the latter half of the 15th and in the 16th centuries there are many signs. Just one passage must be quoted as of special importance because closely followed by R. Grafton, J. Stow and W. Camden. It is from John Mair's Historia Majoris Britanniae tam Angliae quam Scotiae, which appeared in 1521 —

“Circa haec tempora [Ricardi Primi], ut auguror, Robertus Hudus Anglus et Parvus Joannes latrones famatissimi in nemoribus latuerunt, solum opulentorurn virorum bona deripientes. Nullum nisi eos invadentem vel resistentem pro suarum rerum tuitione occiderunt. Centum sagittarios ad pugnam aptissimos Robertus latrociniis aluit, quos 400 viri fortissimi invadere non audebant. Rebus hujus Roberti gestis tota Britannia in cantibus utitur. Faeminam nullam opprimi permisit nec pauperum bona surripuit, verum eos ex abbatum bonis sublatis opipare pavit. Viri rapinam improbo, sed latronum omnium humanissimus et princeps erat.”

In the Elizabethan era and afterwards mentions abound; see the works of Shakespeare, Sidney, Ben Jonson, Drayton, Warner, A. Munday, Camden, Stow, Braithwaite, Fuller, &c.

Of the ballads themselves, Robin Hood and the Monk is possibly as old as the reign of Edward II. (see Thomas Wright's Essays on England in the Middle Ages, ii. 174); Robin Hood and the Potter and Robyn and Gandelyn are certainly not later than the 15th century. Most important of all is A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode, which was first printed about 1510 (see A. W. Pollard's Fifteenth Century Prose and Verse, Westminster, 1903). This is evidently founded on older ballads; we read in The Seconde Fytte, 11. 176 and 177 —

He wente hym forthe full mery syngynge,
     As men have told in tale.”

In fact, it does for the Robin Hood cycle what a few years before Sir Thomas Malory had done for the Arthurian romances — what in the 6th century B.C. Peisistratus is said to have done for the Homeric poems.

These are the facts about him and his balladry. Of conjectures there is no end. He has been represented as the last of the Saxons — as a Saxon holding out against the Norman conquerors so late as the end of the 12th century (see Augustin Thierry's Norman Conquest, and compare Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe). J. M. Gutch maintains that he was a follower of Simon de Montfort. The Rev. Joseph Hunter associated him with the rebel earl of Lancaster of Edward II.'s time. This scholar in a brochure published in 1852 produced evidence from the exchequer accounts and the court rolls of the manor of Wakefield showing that a “Robyn Hod” and a “Robertus Hood” were living in this reign. The series of coincidences to which he points is undoubtedly striking, but had failed to convince most critics. Professor F. J. Child dismisses his inferences as “ludicrous.”

For our part, we are not disinclined to believe that the Robin Hood story has some historical basis, however fanciful and romantic the superstructure. We parallel it with the Arthurian story, and hold that, just as there was probably a real Arthur, however different from the hero of the trouvères, so there was a real Hood, however now enlarged and disguised by the accretions of legend. That Charlemagne and Richard I. of England became the subjects of romances does not prevent our believing in their existence; nor need Hood's mythical life deprive him of his natural one. Sloth in Langland's poem couples him, as we have seen, with Randle, earl of Chester; and no one doubts this nobleman's existence because he had “rymes” made about him. We believe him to have been the third Randle (see Bishop Percy's Folio MS., ed. Hales and Furnivall, i. 260). And possibly enough Hood was contemporary with that earl, who “flourished” in the reigns of Richard I., John and Henry III. Wyntoun and Mair, as we have seen, assign him to that period. It is impossible to believe with Hunter that he lived so late as Edward II.'s reign. This would leave no time for the growth of his myth; and his myth was, as is evident from what we have already said and quoted, full-grown in the first half of the 14th century. Whatever may have been the immediate genesis of the myth — and it may well be sought in the heartless forest laws — its vitality was assured by the English love of archery and historical repetition. In the rolls of parliament of 1437 mention is made of Piers Venables, a robber who took to the woods “like as it had been Robin Hood and his meyné.” There are indications that Robin was identified or confused with Robert Locksley, a manslayer of Bradfield in Hallamshire. The former is said to have been born in “Merry sweet Locksley town.”

But whether he lived or not, and whenever he lived, it is certain that many mythical elements are contained in his story. Both his name and his exploits remind us of the woodland spirit Robin Goodfellow and his merry pranks. He is fond of disguising himself, and devoted to fun and practical jokes. These frolics suggest the wind. “The whole story,” says Mr H. Bradley, “is ultimately derived from the great Aryan sun-myth. Robin Hood is Hod, the god of the wind, a form of Woden; Maid Marian is Morgen, the dawn-maiden; Friar Tuck is Toki, the spirit of frost and snow.”

The name Robin (a French form from Rob, which is of course a short form for Robert) would serve both for “the shrewd and knavish sprite” — the German Knecht Ruprecht (see Grimm's Teut. Myth. p. 504, trans. Stallybrass) — and for the bandit (see “Roberdes Knaues” in the Prologue of Piers the Plowman, 1. 44, and the note in Warton's Hist. of Eng. Poet. ii. 95, ed. 1840). Hood is a very usual dialectal form of wood; and in his play Edward the First, George Peele actually alludes to the bandit as “Robin of the Wood.” Mr Gutch thus explains the origin of the name. It is still a common enough surname, of which the earlier shape is Odo (see “Houdart,” &c., in Larchey's Dict. des Noms); notice, too, the name Hudson. But it also reminds one of the German familiar spirit Hudekin, or possibly of the German Witikind (see Wright's Essays on the Middle Ages, ii. 207). Mr Sidney Lee suggests that Robin was a forest elf so called because elves wore hoods (see Dict. of National Biography, sub. “Robin Hood”). How certain it is that the Robin Hood story attracted to it and appropriated other elements is illustrated by its subsequent history — its history after the 14th century. Thus later on we find it connected with the Morris dance; but the Morris dance was not known in England before the 16th century or late in the 15th. The Friar Tuck and Maid Marian elements have been thought to have been introduced for the purpose of these performances, which were held on May-day and were immensely popular (see Latimer's Frutefull Sermons (London, 1571), p. 75; also Paston Letters, ed. J. Gairdner, iii. 89). After 1615, the date of the pageant prepared for the mayoralty of Sir John Jolles, draper, by Anthony Munday and entitled Metropolis Coronata, a peer was imported into it, and the yeoman of the older version was metamorphosed into the earl of Huntingdon, for whom in the following century William Stukeley discovered a satisfactory pedigree! The earl of Huntingdon was probably a nickname for a hunter. At last, with the change of times, the myth ceased growing. Its rise and development and decay deserve a more thorough study than they have yet received.

What perhaps is its greatest interest as we first see it is its expression of the popular mind about the close of the middle ages. Robin Hood is at that time the people's ideal as Arthur is that of the upper classes. He is the ideal yeoman as Arthur is the ideal knight. He readjusts the distribution of property: he robs the rich and endows the poor. He is an earnest worshipper of the Virgin, but a bold and vigorous hater of monks and abbots. He is the great sportsman, the incomparable archer, the lover of the greenwood and of a free life, brave, adventurous, jocular, open-handed, a protector of women. Observe his instructions to Little John —

Loke ye do no housbonde harme
     That tylleth with his plough;
No more ye shall no good yeman
     That walketh by grene wode shawe;
Ne no knyght ne no squyer
     That wolde be a good felawe:
These bysshoppes and thyse archebysshoppes
     Ye shall them bete and bynde;
The hye sheryfe of Notynghame
     Hym holde in your mynde.”

And we are told —

Robin loved our dere lady;
     For doute of dedely synne
Wolde he never do company harme
     That ony woman was ynne.”

See also Drayton's Polyolbion, Song xxvi. The story is localized in Barnsdale and Sherwood, i.e. between Doncaster and Nottingham. In Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire a host of place-names testify to the popularity of the Robin Hood legend — Robin Hood's Bay, Robin Hood's Cave, Robin Hood's Chase, Robin Hood's Cup (a well), Robin Hood's Chair, Robin Hood's Pricks, and many more.

The best collections of Robin Hood poems are those of Ritson (8vo, 1795) and Gutch (2nd ed., 1847), and of Professor Child in the 5th volume of his invaluable English and Scotch Popular Ballads (Boston, 1888). See also Professor F. B. Gummere's Old English Ballads (Boston, 1894). The versions in the Percy Folio (edited by Hales and Furnivall, 1867, vol. i.) are unhappily mutilated; but they should be consulted, for they are all more or less unique, and that on “Robin Hoode his death” is of singular interest. The literary and artistic value of many of the Robin Hood ballads cannot be pronounced considerable, but eight of them attain the high-water mark of their class. Robin Hood and the Monk and Guy of Gisborne are perhaps the best. There is, however, real vigour and force in this fragment on the hero's death. The earliest “Garland” was printed in 1670, and in 1678 appeared a prose version which was reprinted by W. J. Thoms in his Early English Prose Romances (vol. ii., 1858). Mr Lee's memoir in the Dictionary of National Biography is extremely erudite, and two valuable articles, contributed by Sir Edward Brabrook to the Antiquary for June and July 1906, might be consulted. See also Stukeley, Paleographia Britannica, No. i. 115; Thierry, Conquête de l'Angleterre (1830) ; and J. Hunter's Great Hero of the Ancient Minstrelsy of England, Robin Hood (1852).

(J. W. H.; F. J. S.)