Robin Hood is one of the most familiar characters in our popular culture, for who has not heard of the mediaeval outlaw who supposedly stole from the rich and gave to the poor? In children's novels, on television or in the movies, this anti-authoritarian hero eludes capture by his eternal adversary, the proud Sheriff of Nottingham. In the scholarly world the story is much the same, because after a century and a half of searching, sometimes by ingenious stratagems, no one has been able to conclusively identify the Robin Hood character in the historical records of mediaeval England.
Legal records have been combed, ballads analysed for clues, and topographical studies done for context. All these various efforts have in the end proved inconclusive. The purpose of this essay is try and explain why this is the case. The argument presented here is that the root of the problem may be an underestimation of the creative, hero-making power of popular culture. Surely it is condescending to the ordinary folk of past eras to assume that they could not simply manufacture an heroic figure, but that they had to base their stories and rhymes on a real person.
The earliest written versions of the Robin Hood stories date from the fifteenth to the early sixteenth centuries with the oldest possibly appearing in the year 1400. As is well-known, there is a literary reference in William Langland's Piers Plowman (ca. 1377) to the "rymes of Robyn hood" (Dobson and Taylor, 1). This means that the stories were well-known by then, one of the few chronological markers that everyone accepts. Another, more controversial, suggestion for a starting point is the introduction of the so-called longbow to England in 1282. That would place the origin of the tales, and the time of any real Robin Hood, in the period 1282 to 1377 (Phillips and Keatman, 57-58). Indeed, the period ca. 1310 to 1330 best matches the episodes of outlawry described in the Robin Hood stories.
It would seem a simple matter to search medieval records for a Robin Hood and other persons mentioned in the tales. In fact, the problem is very complex, since Robin Hood and its variations, such as Robert Hode or Robyn Hood, were common names. The historical records reveal several persons of that or a similar name, along with various Little Johns and Will Scathelocks. Moreover it appears that the compound "Robynhood" was a surname as well, perhaps indicating that the outlaw's name had become a synonym in its own right for a robber or fugitive. Nevertheless, the problem remains of numerous candidates with no substantial evidence linking them to the narratives of the Robin Hood stories.
A similar problem emerges with the topographical aspect of the problem. Certain names appear in the oldest Robin Hood ballads, most notably the name "Saylis" or "Sayles" (which refers to a long forgotten tenancy rather than a village). From the vantage point of the Saylis, the outlaws could survey the road to the North and pick out their victims. The location of Saylis was re-discovered in the nineteenth century, giving rise to a claim that the tales had historical authenticity.
Here there is a failure in basic reasoning. Created works of literature or an oral tradition often use geographical names to create a sense of realism. Who would argue that the geographical settings for novels or plays or movies are real, therefore the characters are also real? The fact that the tales of Robin Hood have settings like Barnesdale, Wentbridge and Saylis really doesn't help to confirm their historicity.
The same is true of the many place-names in England relating to Robin Hood. There are various caves, wells, butts, hills and fields named after either Robin Hood or a member of his outlaw band. The oldest of these, Robin Hood's Stone, can only be dated to the year 1422, perhaps as much as a century after any Robin Hood could have been living. Moreover, many of these topographical names occur in London, or in southern counties unlikely to be the setting of the outlaw's activity. (Dobson and Taylor, xvi and 295-311; de Vries, 11-13).
Finding the historical Robin Hood at times appears to be an insoluble problem. For this reason, many scholars have turned their attention to the more sophisticated and productive analysis of how the Robin Hood story has been re-interpreted in different media right down to our own time. (Carpenter, Hahn, Knight, 1994 and 2003, passim.)
If we employ the modern social historian's perspective to examine more recent examples of hero creation in popular culture, a pattern emerges. In the early 1830s, southern English agricultural counties were swept by the "Captain Swing" protest movement, and in the period 1811 to 1817, Yorkshire, Lancashire and parts of the Midlands had the Luddite movement. Similarly in Wales in the 1840s there were the so-called "Rebecca Riots," largely against toll gates. No scholar of early nineteenth century England and Wales would spend a moment trying to identify a real person as "Captain Swing" or "General Ned Ludd" or "Rebecca." We understand that these were fictional, community-generated characters expressing deep-seated discontent amongst working people.
Let us examine these figures using the hypothesis that there was in England an old, entrenched pattern in such matters, one that may stretch from the late middle ages all the way to the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century (Simpson and Roud, 298-299). This in turn may better inform our search for the origins of the Robin Hood story.
Turning first to the Luddites, so famous for their machine-wrecking attacks in the early industrial era, it is the origin of their name that is of interest. "Luddite" or "Ludds" is a posthumous eponym. It is derived from the surname of one Ned Ludd of Leicestershire who in the late eighteenth century, decades before Luddism, destroyed a framework knitting machine. His surname was later appropriated in the 1810s and bestowed on the machine-wrecking of that time. Typically the mythical leader of the Luddites was referred to as "General Ludd," and threatening letters were sent under that name.
To focus exclusively on the notoriety of the Ned Ludd name is to miss the creative processes at work. Other threatening letters of the time were sent by such characters as "Mr. Pistol," "Lady Ludd," "Peter Plush," "General Justice," "Eliza Ludd," "No King," "King Ludd," and "Joe Firebrand," with addresses like "Robin Hoods Cave" and "Sherwood Forest" (Thompson, 1963, 601, note). Still others purport to be from various wives of General Ludd, solicitors to and lieutenants of General Ludd, and even General Ludd, Jr. (Navickas, 284, 292).
The Luddite movement also had a literary impact. Charlotte Bronte inserted an account of it in her novel Shirley (1849), Lord Byron wrote a poem about it, and a local Yorkshire work of fiction covered it in detail (Sykes and Walker). Moreover there were ballads including "General Ludd's Triumph," with words of note for Robin Hood scholars:
Chant no more your rhymes about bold Robin Hood, His feats I but little admire. I will sing the Achievements of General Ludd Now the Hero of Nottinghamshire….(Quoted in Thompson, 1963, 547 and Thomis, 1-2).
Turning to the "Swing" movement of the southern English agricultural counties in the early 1830s, we encounter a similar pattern. Rural people had many grievances, notably the introduction of new threshing machines. Their response was to send threatening letters, burn hayricks, and march about in large demonstrations. Some of their bloodcurdling letters were signed by "Captain Swing," a non-existent person clearly concocted to both frighten and confuse. The name derives from the swinging of the flail in agricultural work, according to one historian who offered no source for this information (Halévy, 7, note 2). We might point out that "swing" can also mean to wield a weapon or to hang by the neck, which would be consistent with the letters' threatening tone (Griffin, 161-162). Perhaps the expression was intended to have multiple meanings.
Local individuals who led these protests, in spite of their humble status, also had popular or ironic titles. Several were called "captains" like Captain Revell of East Kent. Others were known by pseudo-titles such as "Counsellor," "General," "the King," and "Lord Hunt," indicating a familiar pattern of mimicking actual designations of rank (Hobsbawm and Rudé, 207). The Swing disturbances also generated three biographies of this non-existent person, but authorities quickly realised that they had no basis in fact.
The Rebecca Riots against toll gates on roads in south Wales in the period 1839 to 1843 provide a somewhat different example of a community-generated champion. In a typical incident, a gang of 50 to 100 men with blackened faces took orders from "Rebecca," a man in woman's dress mounted on a white horse, to destroy toll gates. It is clear that no one person was Rebecca but that several different persons assumed the role at different times. The origin of the name is biblical. It appears in Genesis, XXIV, 60: "And they blessed Rebekah and said unto her, let thy seed possess the gate of those which hate them" (Rudé, 150 note, and Malloy, passim). A threatening letter from the summer of 1843 to a county sheriff reads in part "I and my dutiful daughters from 5 to 10 hundred of us will visit your habitation…and you would do well to prepare a secure place for your soul we will do well with your body your flesh we will give to the Glausevin hounds…." It is marked with a mysterious ring of crosses and signed "Rebecka Dogood" (quoted in Thompson, 1975, 316-317).
The overall pattern is one of community-generated heroes with appropriately frightening names, using eponyms, double or triple meanings, Biblical inspiration, and ironic titles. Can the same features of popular image creation be found in earlier periods of English history?
If we examine a much older set of disturbances, from the period of Jack Cade's Revolt of 1450 to various riots of 1629, the pattern still holds. We find a variety of persons called "Captain" leading disturbances, including some women. Cade was termed "Captain Amendalle," while in 1536 and 1537 rebels were led by a "Captain Poverty" and those of 1549 by a "Captain Commonwealth." Meanwhile rebels at Lavenham in 1525 were asked to name their leader, and their response was "that Povertie was their capteine, the which with his cousin Necessitie had brought them to that doing." An anti-enclosure rioter of 1607 was called "Captain Pouch" after a pouch that he wore which, he claimed, contained a royal warrant to tear down fences (Wood, 102-103).
The argument presented here is that we should not underestimate the creative power of popular culture to invent mythical leaders in order to address some deep-rooted discontent. Perhaps ironic titles given to real leaders somehow evolve into more abstract labels for fictional heroes. Moreover, the creation of a fictional leader has a certain logic to it. Such leaders can never be caught, no matter how hard the authorities try. In addition, imaginary leaders might confuse officials in their attempts to suppress popular discontent. Finally, the creation of such a hero or leader is an elaborate joke, a sort of cultural revenge, played on the rich and powerful by humbler fellows.
If we project this analysis further back in time we may find similar community-generated characters appearing at times of stress. In order to accomplish this, the later glosses on the Robin Hood story have to be stripped away. In the older stories he was not a dispossessed nobleman, a crusader returned from the Holy Land, or a noble robber (Hobsbawm, 41-43, 54-56, 127). He did not redistribute wealth by stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. Instead, the earliest Robin Hood has the following characteristics. He is an outlaw of yeoman rank. He is courteous, worships the Virgin Mary, and is the leader of a loyal band, meting out a form of natural, but sometimes very deadly, justice.
These characteristics alone make up the essence of the oldest Robin Hood stories. They also illuminate his almost universal appeal across the social spectrum; it is not clear to most modern readers why Robin is courteous, and why a yeoman should be a hero to peasant and nobleman alike. The explanation is simple enough. Robin is an outlaw who lives beyond the boundaries set by church and state to maintain good order in society. According to the ruling elite, without these constraints of law, rank, religious orders and taxes there would be chaos and barbarism. And yet here is "merry" Robin Hood living quite happily without these things and still being courteous, fair, loyal and religious. This is the really subversive aspect of the Robin Hood tales: they are a primitive folk statement of what later political philosophers would call the state of nature.
Robin Hood is thus cousin to another popular custom: carnival. Both may be social (partly humorous) responses to the stress of living in an hierarchical and rigid society, yet the two are not the same. Carnival was a festival of inversion or misrule which once a year acted as a "safety valve" to relieve social tensions (Burke, 202-203 and Scribner, 326-328). By contrast, Robin Hood and the outlaws are a reflection of the rigid social order, but a version that is fairer, milder, and minimalist. Stories of the outlaws "satisfied repressed wishes, enabling ordinary people to take imaginative revenge on the authorities to whom they were usually obedient in real life" (Burke, 166).
Here it should be noted that May Day mediaeval pageants were one route for the transmission of the Robin Hood tales. Moreover, the similarity between elements of the Robin Hood stories and those of other medieval romances weighs against the outlaw's historicity (Dobson and Taylor, xxxiii-xxxiv, Holt (1995), 33 and Keen, passim.)
With these perspectives in mind we can take a different approach to examining the characters of the Robin Hood stories. We don't need to search historical records, because these figures have names of a different type. This can be demonstrated with the aid of the Oxford English Dictionary [hereafter OED].
Robin Hood: The hero's name is a play on words. Depending on the accent used, it might be rendered as "robbing" "hood," the latter meaning a head covering sometimes useful in hiding a person's face, hence the word "hoodwink."
Little John: This is a humorous inversion of the man's proper name, John Little, used to describe a man of great stature.
Much or Mutch the Miller's son: This is the opposite case to that of Little John. "Much" is a small man, so again the name is a humorous appellation. In popular culture the miller was seen as a parasitic villain, charging too much to process grain and by various means cheating the poor husbandman. Thus the fact that the miller's son is a little fellow called Much reverses the negative miller stereotype.
Will Scarlett, a.k.a. Scathelocke: "Scat" is an obsolete word meaning to smash to pieces, and the audience would have understood this outlaw's most appropriate surname to mean "breaker of locks." Alternatively, "scat" can mean "to oppress by exactions" or levies, and "lock" can also mean "to entice" (OED, xiv, 596-597 and viii, 1087). Isn't that exactly what Robin's outlaws did? They enticed travellers on the road with the offer of a meal, then exacted a payment. Indeed, in one tale the outlaws exact "pavage" or a toll from travelers, in imitation of a governmental levy of that name (Dobson and Taylor, 33 note 3, 126 and 216-218).
Guy of Gisborne: This adversary of Robin Hood presents serious problems of analysis. He is referred to as a "yeoman," but more than once with the improbable title of "Sir" before his name. We are never told why Robin so dislikes him. Again in contradiction,Guy is at once "good" and a "traitor." In a gruesome story Robin kills him in a sword fight, decapitates him and then mutilates his face: "That hee was never on a woman borne/Cold tell who Sir Guye was"(Dobson & Taylor, 144). Something has been lost here, and the meaning of Sir Guy's surname may lead us towards an explanation. The conventional interpretation is that "Gisborne" is a corruption of a place-name, "Gisburn." However, by conflating his forename with his last we might read it as "guise-borne," indicating some falsehood or subterfuge connected with his birth. Alternatively, it may refer to the archaic agricultural term "gise," possibly pronounced with a soft "G," giving a sound like "jis" or "juice." It means to let another's livestock run on your lands (OED, vi, 532). Possibly this also had a cuckolding connotation for common folk in a rustic world remote from our own. So "Gisborne" doubly means "base-born," or illegitimate. In short, Guy is a bastard.
Friar Tuck: This late addition to the band has a name with several layers of meaning. "Friar" is a homonym for "fryer," meaning one who cooks with a skillet. The word "Tuck" refers to the shortness of his costume as a "curtail friar." In addition, "tuck" refers to a meal or a feast. We understand the friar to be a cleric who looks as if he never wants for a meal, perhaps in violation of his vows of poverty. In his swordplay he also contravenes the priestly commitment to be a man of peace.
Did anyone hearing the rhymes of Robin Hood in, say, the fifteenth century understand these names to be those of real persons? They look more like word games, inversions, stereotypes and double meanings used for humorous effect. Suppose in our own time we came across a criminal gang whose members had names like "Hacker," "Conman" or "Fence." We would quickly understand these to be fictional names.
The other possibility is that these are the nicknames or "noms de guerre" of real outlaws. Presumably they would have changed their names both to confuse the authorities and to protect their non-outlaw relatives. Indeed, "Little John" undergoes a sort of initiation ceremony on becoming an outlaw, during which he receives his new inverted name (Dobson and Taylor, 169). Perhaps all the outlaws changed their names in this way, but this is omitted from the rhymes of Robin Hood.
Either way, this presents a serious problem for those who seek historical documentation for the existence of Robin Hood and his band. Fictitious names or pseudonyms will not connect easily to legal records. What will turn up is a number of coincidences: persons with the same or similar names to those of the outlaws. Yet in all these cases, names noted in legal records cannot be linked in any substantial way to the narratives of the Robin Hood stories.
In the research of recent years, the claim has not been that these stray names were those of Robin Hood or his band. Instead the current argument is that the tales date from before the time that the record was made, and that the records themselves reflect a wide familiarity with the Robin Hood name, and perhaps contain the work of copycats or pranksters. One such clerical entry for the name "Willelmi Robehod fugitivi" occurs in a Berkshire plea roll of 1262. The interpretation offered is that the clerk crossed out the man's original name and inserted a Robin Hood nickname (Dobson and Taylor, xxi). Such a conclusion creates two problems. First, the clerk did not write the outlaw's name. He wrote what looks to be a simple compound surname, "Robe" plus "hod" [hood], meaning two articles of clothing. Second, even if we concede that this is a reference to Robin Hood, we still have the problem that it does not tell us whether the reference is to a person, or to a tale about an imagined outlaw. It may be useful in dating the tales earlier than was previously imagined, but otherwise it has little significance.
In conclusion, the scholarly quest for a real Robin Hood underestimates the power of ordinary people to imagine a hero suitable to their needs. There are many examples of this phenomenon from the period 1450 to 1844 in English history—why not earlier in, say, the early fourteenth century? There is a danger that, for all our supposedly sophisticated scholarship, we too have been taken in by this old popular joke, and have been sent in search of a non-existent person. In poring over the oldest Robin Hood ballads, there has been a tendency to mistake word play for sword play.
As we have seen from the examples of Ludd, Swing, Rebecca and others, the common folk probably derived some satisfaction from despatching their social superiors on a fool's errand. Perhaps research into the historicity of Robin Hood and his merry men needs reassessment from a new perspective, lest we fall for the same cultural prank.--Fred Donnelly
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