A J Pollard

Robin Hood: The Academic Study of a Legend | Stephen Basdeo

This is the text of a talk that Stephen Basdeo delivered to students and faculty at University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) on 8 November 2021

Joseph Ritson (1752-1803)

Introduction: The Man of Law’s Tale

Today’s story of Robin Hood does not begin in the medieval period, as one might expect, but in late eighteenth-century London. The rapid improvement and expansion of the city, gilded with a neoclassical façade, masked a great many social problems. Poverty was rife; a great majority of the population lived in rickety slum houses—all they could afford on their low wages—with poor sanitation and ventilation. Little wonder, then, that 340/1000 children died before their first birthday, or that life expectancy was a mere 41 years.  Across the channel the worst excesses of the French Revolution and its Reign of Terror had come to an end in 1794. But a world war was raging; Britain, her colonies, and her European allies and their colonies, had declared war on revolutionary France and its colonies. Except for a temporary truce in 1802, the war would continue until 1815 with the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo.

William Pitt the Younger

In Britain, there were many radicals who sympathised with the French revolutionaries and they desired that this ‘regeneration of humanity’ would spread to Britain. British radicals hoped for the foundation of a republic on their shores that would be arranged along the lines of those set forth in the writings of Thomas Paine and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. In response, the British government, led by William Pitt the Younger, began to crack down on home-grown radicals’ activities by suspending habeas corpus and curtailing people’s freedom of assembly and the freedom of the press. These measures came to be known as ‘Pitt’s Terror’—an ironic reference to the Reign of Terror. In the opinion of historian Robert Reid is that, so repressive did the British government become during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, that it became ‘closer in spirit’ to the Third Reich than at any other time in its history.

The Reign of Terror

It is in our brief foray into eighteenth-century London that we must make the acquaintance of a middle-aged attorney named Joseph Ritson, who lived at 8 Holborn Court, Gray’s Inn. Ritson, in his leisure time, was also an antiquary and scholar and had, by 1794, published several anthologies of Old and Middle English poetry. Ritson was one of those radicals targeted by Pitt, and there were several moments during the 1790s that he felt his life and liberty were at stake, owing to the fact that his correspondence with like-minded ‘citizen’ friends was likely being monitored by the Pitt government’s agents (the fact that Ritson had a print of Thomas Paine on his front door surely did nothing to divert attention away from him). So Ritson needed an outlet to express his revolutionary sympathies somewhere. In the end, he gathered all of the materials he had researched on one particular anti-establishment medieval British figure and published a book about him. The man he was researching of course was Robin Hood. The book that Ritson published was Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads.

Ritson, J. ed. Robin Hood (1795).

The title of Ritson’s book seems like a dry scholarly anthology but this was certainly not the case. As one turns the pages of Ritson’s little two volume work, the picture of Robin Hood that emerges is one of a revolutionary—almost a medieval Thomas Paine. According to Ritson Robin Hood was

A man who, in a barbarous age, and under a complicated tyranny, displayed a spirit of freedom and independence which has endeared him to the common people, whose cause he maintained (for all opposition to tyranny is the cause of the people), and, in spite of the malicious endeavours of pitiful monks [medieval chroniclers], by whom history was consecrated to the crimes and follies of titled ruffians and sainted idiots, to suppress all record of his patriotic exertions and virtuous acts, will render his name immortal.

Yet Ritson did something more: He made the search for a real Robin Hood matter. Ritson wrote a biography of this medieval outlaw, formed of sources he had collected from medieval chronicles, poetry, plays, and out of these concluded that Robin was born c.1160, was outlawed for debt, and died around in 1247, having been murdered by the prioress of Kirklees. Prior to Ritson’s book, Robin was either a violent criminal—as he is portrayed in medieval poetry—or largely a figure of fun, as he was depicted in early modern ballads. Very few people before Ritson, it is fair to say, cared whether Robin Hood was real or not. Ritson, whose book was reprinted many times throughout the nineteenth, and even into the twentieth century, made people care. As a result, Ritson initiated the modern academic study of Robin Hood.

Following in Ritson’s footsteps, what we will discuss is today are the origins of the legend, a look at the most likely ‘real’ Robin Hood candidate, the origin and significance of the medieval Robin Hood text and, briefly, the key critical themes underlying Robin Hood’s representation in post-medieval British popular culture.

The Woodsman’s Tale: The Real Robin Hood

So where does Robin Hood begin? When does the ‘real’ figure emerge in history and when do stories about him begin to appear? I should say that it’s very flattering to know some of you have read my book, but I must confess my own book has been superseded in some respects by two very recent scholarly works—David Crook’s Robin Hood: Legend and Reality (2021) and Lesley Coote’s Storyworlds of Robin Hood (2020). Some of their conclusions deserve an in-depth discussion here. Both of these scholars have both pinpointed the emergence of the legend to the early 13th century. We’ll discuss Crook and Coote’s work in a moment but suffice it to say for now that their pinpointing of the legend’s origins in the 13th century tallies, interestingly, with the appearance of a man—a ‘fugitive’—named Robin Hood who appears in the York Assize Records for the years 1225 to 1226.

Lesley Coote’s Storyworlds of Robin Hood (2020)

As many of you will know who have completed the set reading prior to this session, there are in fact a number of candidates over time. L.V.D. Owen in the 1930s found a reference to a man named Robert Hod in the Yorkshire Assize records for 1225–26 (called Hobbehod in some of the accounts for later years). This Robert was listed as ‘fugitive’ and seemed like a worthy candidate for a historical outlaw, especially in view of the fact that he was a fugitive because he was in debt to the Liberty of St Peter’s in York. This would have made this Robin a tenant of the Archbishop of York, who is one of Robin’s enemies in A Gest of Robyn Hode. During the 1980s, David Crook argued that this Robert Hod, fugitive, was the same as Robert of Wetherby who in the 1220s was described as ‘outlaw and evil-doer of our land’. Further facts seemed to fall into place: the man who was charged with hunting down Robert of Wetherby was Eustace of Lowdham, the High Sheriff of York. Prior to taking up his appointment at York, however, Lowdham was the Deputy Sheriff of Nottingham. Thus, this Robert Hod/Robert of Wetherby could have been the Robin Hood.

This would also explain why, in late-medieval Robin Hood poems, Robin Hood, although based in Barnsdale, Yorkshire, was pursued by ‘the hye sheryfe of Notynghame’. This vague biography which seemed to emerging of this Robert Hod’s life seemed to make sense with the reputed date of Robin’s death in 1247 and followed these circumstances: he was active as an outlaw in the 1190s, as recorded by some later chroniclers; still an outlaw in 1225 when he appears in the assize records; during this time he was pursued by the Sheriff of York, who was actually the Sheriff of Nottingham; and he had died by 1247. His notoriety would then have been sufficient for his life story to acquire semi-legendary status by c.1262, when a man named William, who had also been outlawed, assumed the alias of William Robehod.

The discovery of this 1225 man has meant that all the other candidates put forward by scholars since the nineteenth century have become a bit redundant. One of those whom we can now discount was the so-called Robin Hood of Wakefield, identified by a Victorian antiquary named Joseph Hunter (1783-1861). Hunter was appointed as the Assistant Keeper of the Public Record Office, or National Archives as we know it today. In a tract entitled The Great Hero of the Ancient Minstrelsy of England, Robin Hood, published in 1852, he argued that Robin Hood was from Wakefield. Hunter’s Robert Hood, along with his wife Matilda, appears in the rourt rolls of the manor of Wakefield in 1316 and 1317. Without any evidence, he argued that this Robert Hood became an outlaw 1316 and 1324, when Hunter discovered that there was a valet de chambre to Edward II named Robyn Hode. This seemed to confirm that that this man was the same Robin who enters into the King’s service at the end of the fifteenth-century poem A Gest of Robyn Hode, when the King travels into the forest and meets Robin, and asks him to join his service.

Early printed edition of A Gest of Robyn Hode

Other potential candidates include a Robert Hood from Cirencester who, sometime between 1215 and 1216 murdered a man named Ralph in the local Abbott’s garden. Some people think that this 1215 man renders the 1225 Robin Hood redundant, and that the Cirencester candidate’s existence somehow proves that Robin Hood was just an alias all along. I think this is the wrong approach. First, this 1215 Robert Hood was not an outlaw or fugitive but a murderer, and murderers, then or now, rarely get public acclaim. What the existence of this man tells us is not that Robin Hood was an alias as early as 1215; it simply says that there were other people with a similar name in existence. In fact, I think we hold evidence for a real Robin Hood to a higher standard than we would for other historical criminals. For example, one of the other bandits I’ve studied in the past was Jack Sheppard, a notorious boy criminal who died in 1724. There was only one Jack Sheppard whose life story was told over and over again by ballad writers and novelists, but there are in fact a lot of Jack Sheppards living in early Georgian London (many of whom even appeared as criminals in the Old Bailey). No one would discount the existence of a ‘real’ Jack Sheppard just because other people so named were found to be living at the time. And in 1354 there was a Robin Hood who was incarcerated in Rockingham gaol for forest offences but this man is much too late to be taken seriously as a candidate for a real Robin Hood.

So the 1225 man provides the genesis for the outlaw’s origins. By the mid-1200s, people were appropriating the name of this outlaw or the name of Robin Hood was being applied to them. And yet—there is no evidence to suggest that the 1225 outlaw was in any way a forest outlaw. A statement by R.B. Dobson and J. Taylor, and which David Crook has recently confirmed, is that

By a now familiar paradox the genesis of the most famous forest outlaw in English literature seems to lie in the exploits of a “strong thefe” of Barnsdale who may not even have been an outlaw and who apparently had little connection with a forest in any sense of that ambiguous word … on the central question of how, and above all, when the highwayman of Barnsdale was transformed into an untransmutable forest outlaw the available evidence continues to remain obstinately imprecise.

Indeed, even the first reference to Robin Hood in a cultural source does not state explicitly that Robin Hood was a forest outlaw. For this we turn to William Langland’s Piers Plowman written in the 1370s. In that text a lazy priest, the personification of the sin of sloth, states that ‘I can noughte perfitly my pater-noster as the prest it syngeth but I can rymes of Robyn Hode and Randalf earle of Chestre’. As you can see, there is no mention of a forest here. It seems obvious that he was an outlaw as he’s connected with Randalf of Chester, but not all outlaws lived in the forest and it’s not indicated here.

Detail from Jeu de Robin et Marion

However, the ‘rural’ connections of Robin Hood probably began, as Lesley Coote argues, in the genre of French pastourelles, a major text of this genre being Adam le Halle’s Jeu de Robin et Marion, written c.1282. There was of course much intercultural exchange between England and France during the 1200s and 1300s and le Halle’s play, and several plays in this pastourelle genre, are the first to connect two figures named Robin and Marian. In these plays Robin is also of relatively low social status and can be seen leading peasants in country dances along the edge of the forest. Performed in England and France, these plays likely formed the basis of the Robin Hood May Games that we have evidence of in the fifteenth century.

Simon de Montfort

With Robin’s ascension to the status of English cultural icon complete by the thirteenth century, medieval chroniclers soon began paying attention to the ‘historical’ man. The Scots chronicler Andrew of Wyntoun c.1420 remarked on the existence of

‘Litil Jon and Robert Hude Waythmen war comendit gud in Ingilwood and Bernnysdale thai ossit al this tyme thar travail’.

Wyntoun therefore places the outlaws along the Cheshire-Lancashire border and in Barnsdale in Yorkshire. Robin is still, however, not quite in the forest yet. We know he is a highwayman (‘waythman’) of popular culture, but he is not yet a forest outlaw.

It is not until 1440 that a chronicler places Robin and his men specifically in a woodland area. The chronicler was Walter Bower who stated that during the rebellion of Simon de Montfort in 1263–65

There arose from among the disinherited and outlaws … that most famous armed robber Robert Hood, along with Little John and their accomplices … Robert Hood was an outlaw amongst the woodland briars and thorns.

Finally—Robin Hood is now in the forest! But why has Bower placed these criminals in the woodland briars and thorns? Well, he tells us that this information comes from the ‘comedies and tragedies’ sung by ‘jesters and bards’ and that these silly tales were particularly well-liked by the ‘common folk’.

The Yeoman’s Tale: The Early Robin Hood Poems and Plays

The earliest references to tales of Robin Hood in popular culture appears in the aforementioned B-Text of William Langland’s Piers the Plowman, written c.1376. Maurice Keen states that the rymes of Robyn Hode to which Langland refers would originally have been short, simple refrains of no more than a few lines long, perhaps something relatively unremarkable like ‘Robin Hood in Greenwood stood’. Over time, these short choruses would have been added to by different people until they became fully-fledged narratives.

An early illustration of Robin Hood

There are four, what we would call, ‘early’ narrative texts which tell a more or less ‘full’ story of Robin Hood (which have all been dated with some precision by Thomas Ohlgren) and these are Robin Hood and the Monk, the manuscript of which dates to 1465; Robin Hood and the Potter, dating to c.1468; A Gest of Robyn Hode, the earliest surviving copy of which dates to 1495. The Gest in particular seems to be a compilation of several different Robin Hood tales which someone has (albeit rather clumsily) given unity to at some point. There is also another text which I personally would include in the corpus of early texts, but which other scholars are reluctant, sometimes, to include. This is Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, the story of which dates to the late 1400s, but which was first written down in the late seventeenth century.

To these four bona fide Robin Hood texts we might add two more: Robyn and Gandelyn and The Tale of Gamelyn. However, these are sometimes not included by scholars in the corpus of Robin Hood texts because they’re not explicitly about Robin Hood. They do feature an outlaw, and in one of them the outlaw is named Robyn, but the jury is still out as to whether they are Robin Hood texts. Look them up for yourselves; my own personal opinion, and that of many others, is that these are not part of the corpus of early Robin Hood poems, but this position has been critiqued (and we scholars do publish these arguments so that students like yourselves will respond to us, critique us, and even prove us wrong—be brave in your assignments!)

Now, I won’t regurgitate the stories of these texts as I want you to have fun and get to know them yourselves—they won’t take long to read, and I recommend reading them in the original Middle English. Persist with them, and if some of the Middle English doesn’t make sense, it will once you get into the swing of reading them. Besides, if I did, it would be a cop out of a talk as the texts and summaries of them are available online and in print. What I do want to do is to introduce you to some of the scholarly debates surrounding the texts. (Another thing I shall not do is discuss the supposed ‘Green Man’, folkloric, and pagan origins of Robin Hood, a position which is so ridiculous and ahistorical that it is unworthy of serious scholarly enquiry).

Maurice Keen

It was a scholarly debate surrounding the nature and, importantly, audience of these texts which effectively kick-started the modern academic study of the Robin Hood legend. The debate began when the neo-Marxist historian Rodney Hilton published an article in Past and Present in the 1950s. The important thing to note is that, until Thomas Ohlgren’s more precise dating of the early texts to the late fifteenth century in the early 2000s, historians since the Victorian era had assumed that Robin Hood and the Monk, Robin Hood and the Potter, and A Gest of Robyn Hode all dated from the very early 1400s ‘if not before’. It had been assumed by Rodney Hilton that the early poems of Robin Hood were an expression of peasant discontent during the later fourteenth century, the era of the so-called Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.

Rodney Hilton

Hilton’s argument seemed a bit far-fetched for James C. Holt, who hit back at Hilton’s argument in the academic journal, Past and Present, and countered that there is nothing in the early texts of Robin Hood which suggests that he was at all interested in the problems of the peasants. As Holt further argued, there is little in any of these early texts that indicates that Robin Hood is concerned with the problems of the people at large; Robin certainly did not steal from the rich and redistribute their wealth to the destitute, and the texts are not expressions of peasant discontent.

Sir James C. Holt

A.J. Pollard has already provided further critique of Hilton’s argument. Pollard stated that the idea that early Robin Hood texts were a critique of feudalism and expression of peasant discontent is an wrong because, even by 1300, England was not a ‘feudal’ or peasant society in any meaningful sense (even when we consider the various debates attached to the meaning of that term). Let me allow to Pollard to speak for himself (and this is probably a useful quote for you to note if you want to consider the social contexts in which these early Robin Hood texts were produced):

The rural economy was commercialised. Countrymen … had moved away from simple self-sufficiency by 1200 and by the end of the thirteenth century were producing for sale on a considerable scale … rural society had ceased to be a peasant society only when market production dominated over subsistence production … By 1300 England had undoubtedly reached a high degree of commercial development. It was already a highly urbanised society … Might it not, therefore, be more appropriate to describe England as already a capitalist economy? Characterised by the operation of market forces, the dominance of consumer demand, new investment, specialisation and concentration of industry … It may not have been a fully-fledged capitalist economy, but the transition was well underway.

This is not to say that there absolutely no peasants in fifteenth-century England. That would be the wrong message to take away. We know that there were in fact, even into the eighteenth century, families who rented land from a local magnate and farmed primarily for subsistence, and who paid rent either in kind or in money, which they might have gained from selling their small amount of surplus produce in the market. What is in question is the extent to which England in the fifteenth century was a peasant society.

A J Pollard’s Imagining Robin Hood

If we view the ‘world’ of the Gest and other Robin Hood texts, not as a product of feudal society but as a product of early capitalist society, then Holt’s arguments become even more compelling. We find that Robin Hood’s social status is that of a yeoman, a small landowner and essentially a capitalist—for a yeoman, as A.J. Pollard pointed out, was a member of the medieval ‘middling sorts’, and the people who read or heard the early Robin Hood texts would’ve recognised that. The people whom Robin does help in the texts are not from the lower classes at all but of a higher rank: in the Gest, he lends money to a poor knight; in Robin Hood and the Potter, he compensates the potter, a tradesman, for money that he has lost; in Robin Hood and the Monk, the outlaw does not help anyone financially at all but has to be rescued by Little John from the Sheriff. In these stories Robin is kind to the poor if he meets with them, but they are not his main concern. Instead of being tales specifically about, and for, the poorer classes, these stories entertained a socially diverse audience. Perhaps the fact that Robin Hood emerged at a moment when capitalism was in the ascendant accounts for the fact that he has always fitted well into post-medieval anti-capitalist discourse.

Part of the problem with Hilton’s approach is the fact that he assumed all of the medieval texts formed a single corpus, with a homogenous audience of listeners. Others such as Thomas Ohlgren think that the clue to identifying audience of the Robin Hood tales, and therefore of understanding them more fully, lies in recovering the social station of the people who recorded the texts for posterity.

The owner of the manuscript containing the text of Robin Hood and the Monk was one Gilbert Pilkington, who was a clergyman from Lichfield. The manuscript of Robin Hood and the Potter was owned by a man named Richard Call, who was, like Robin Hood, a yeoman. These texts may have been owned by clergymen and yeomen, but Ohlgren had further thoughts on who they were really written for. Just like Holt argued, Ohlgren stated that the poems were for an urban audience. But Ohglren went further and, picking up on a passage in the Gest where the measuring and selling of cloth is parodied, concluded that the poem was commissioned by the Merchant Tailors association. Thus the Robin Hood early texts should, according to Ohlgren, also be seen in the context of a transition from feudalism to capitalism, when the guilds were appropriating the customs of the upper classes. Personally, although Ohlgren’s discussion of the owners of the original manuscripts is second-to-none, I find the Merchant Tailors argument, based on a single passage of text, largely unconvincing. Although Ohlgren is broadly correct, in my opinion, to state that the texts should be viewed in the context of the transition to capitalism.

There are some scholars who refuse to identify a specific social context. Instead they argue that the texts represent a very generalised (and vaguely-defined) ‘dream of resistance’ to unjust authority. Such is the position of Stephen Knight, which is not ‘wrong’, for the texts of course do celebrate outlaws who are hardly the state’s best friends. But for Pollard—whose work really is understated—a key debate is: ‘Are the texts subversive or do they affirm the social order?’ There is nothing in any of the texts to suggest that Robin Hood wants to change the social order. The fact that Robin helps a poor knight, and pledges loyalty to the king, in the Gest, suggests that he’s just fine with the prevailing hierarchy.

Ohlgren’s Robin Hood: The Early Poems

Even if Ohlgren is correct and the texts were commissioned by and for a limited audience of merchants originally, this does not preclude the possibility that commoners could have heard such tales in other social settings. As we see soon, one manner in which the poorer classes could have encountered the stories of the ballads, if not the ballads and poems themselves, was in Robin Hood village plays and May Day games. Clearly no single audience can be attributed to the early ‘rymes of Robyn Hode’, and the fact that Robin Hood and the Monk was owned by a clergyman is surprising when the clergy as a whole receive a negative reputation in the Monk. Robin Hood, even at this early stage, was, it seems, “all things to all men.” Everyone could enjoy his story, whether the listener was rich or poor, noble or serf.

Another major debate, however, is the extent to which the poems—which some like Maurice Keen preferred to call “ballads”—were actually popular (regardless of whether one thinks they affirm or challenge the existing social order). The manuscript tales like Robin Hood and the Monk and Robin Hood and the Potter may have been based on previous oral tales which circulated prior to them being written down, but whether these were ever seen in their written form by anyone else than the manuscript owners is hard to determine. The Gest, which survives only in printed form, was first published in 1495 and was likely the preserve of specialist (and literate) collectors. However, we don’t really know the extent of these poems’ reach. For sure, Piers Plowman makes reference to certain rymes of Robyn Hode, although as we have seen from Maurice Keen’s remarks about the origins of the poems or ballads, these likely began as simple refrains and the ‘rymes’ does make them appear quite simplistic rather than full-length narratives.

How, then, might the people at large have encountered tales of Robin Hood? Well, Stephen Knight suggests that this came in the form of village plays which were likely more widespread and well-known than the poems themselves. There are three extant plays: Robyn Hod and the Shryff of Notygnham, can be dated to c.1473 and is referenced in a letter from John Paston in 1473, who complains that his servant, who was to play Robin Hood in one such game, has left him without a replacement. William Copland’s edition of the Gest, published in 1550, contains an appendix entitled The Playe of Robyn Hode verye proper to be played in Maye Games. The Copland edition that has survived, however, is incomplete and contains an almost complete version of the text of a play titled Robin Hood and the Friar, as well as a fragment of another play obviously based upon the story of Robin Hood and the Potter. Robin Hood plays were still popular among village audiences during Henry VIII’s time when in 1549, Bishop Hugh Latimer related how he once visited a village to preach a sermon only to find the church doors locked. A villager informed him that,

“Sir, this is a busy day with us, we cannot hear you; it is Robin Hood’s day. The parish are gone abroad to gather for Robin Hood; I pray you let them not.” I was fain there to give place to Robin Hood … It is no laughing matter … to prefer Robin Hood before the ministration of God’s word … This realm hath been ill-provided for, that it hath such corrupt judgments in it, to prefer Robin Hood to God’s word.

Even Henry VIII himself was fond of dressing up as Robin Hood on occasion, further confirming Pollard’s ‘all things to all men’ approach (and which potentially complicates our understanding of the ‘subversiveness’ of Robin Hood stories).

Hugh Latimer

The village plays were often charity events where money was raised for a good cause, and it may have been here that the trope of Robin Hood stealing from the rich and giving to the poor first emerged, for this idea does not appear in any of the early texts. The idea that Robin Hood stole from the rich to give to the poor, of course, is the one that has remained with us in almost every modern portrayal. In fact, let us examine the post-medieval tradition briefly and acquaint ourselves with one of the key themes in criticism.

The Earl’s Tale: Robin Hood’s Post-Medieval Tradition

Robin Hood and the Monk and Robin Hood and the Potter were quickly forgotten and not ‘rediscovered’ until Joseph Ritson conducted research for both his Robin Hood book and his Bibliographia Poetica (many scholars have been under the mistaken impression that Ritson did not know of the existence of Robin Hood and the Monk but they’re wrong, for a reference to it appears in Bibliographia Poetica).

The Gest of Robyn Hode was first printed in 1495 and reprinted several times throughout the sixteenth century: one edition was printed by Jan Von Doesbroch in Antwerp around 1510; another by Wynken de Worde between 1492 and 1534; Richard Pynson also printed an edition of the Gest, with his death in 1530 obviously making his edition some time before that date; and William Copland printed an edition c.1560. It is the Gest, and not the earlier Robin Hood and the Monk and Robin Hood and the Potter, which represent Robin as the quintessential good outlaw. But the century in which the Gest was reprinted also witnessed the birth of the ‘underworld’ and of a new type of criminal in popular culture: the rogue. These felons did not live apart from society, as the greenwood outlaws of the past did. Instead they were a part of society, and indistinguishable from the law-abiding. They were indiscriminate with regard to whom they targeted, and they felt no compunction in targeting men or women. Perhaps nostalgia and a fear of the new ‘urban’ criminal, then, accounts for the idealization of the good outlaw in sixteenth-century print culture, and we see not only several reprints of the Gest in this era but also a the first printing of the other good outlaw poem Adam Bell, Clim of the Clough, and William of Cloudeslie.

Anthony Munday’s The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon (1598)

Our brief foray into sixteenth-century crime literature provides a nice lead into our discussion of one of the central themes in the development of the post-medieval Robin Hood tradition, according to Stephen Knight, is that of ‘gentrification’, which allegedly occurred from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. Knight does not clearly define the meaning of ‘gentrification’ in relation to the Robin Hood tradition. As Knight does not define it, I best say what I mean when I speak of gentrification. Existing scholarship appears to require that Robin be portrayed as an earl for him to be considered gentrified. According to The Oxford English Dictionary, one meaning of gentrification is:

‘the process of making a person or activity more refined or polite’.

This is the definition that suits what the term is taken to mean in this thesis, although I would also add another moral dimension to this definition when applying it to Robin Hood, as when Munday supposedly gentrified Robin Hood in the sixteenth century, he was depicted as noble in character and birth. This is not just about rank, but is also about character.

Knight argues that, as Robin Hood was appropriated by elite writers and elevated to the peerage—Robin appearing as he does, in Anthony Munday’s two plays, The Downfall and The Death of Robert Earl of Huntingdon, as an Earl—so Robin Hood became a figure that was acceptable to the upper classes. In these plays Robin Hood was no longer a violent yeoman who killed defenseless young page boys. Instead he was genteel; the sentence of outlawry upon him was passed, not because he had ever done anything truly bad, but because, like many an aristocrat, he had fallen into debt. Those of you who have studied literature from subsequent periods, in particular the eighteenth and nineteenth-century, will know that the motif of an aristocrat in genteel poverty, is a recurring one. 

The play, as a typical Elizabethan tragedy is static, unmoving. Virtually all the action has been taken out of the Robin Hood story (having action and fighting scenes in the play would have been judged to vulgar). Robin in fact hardly does anything and he dies in Act 1 of the second play. It is unclear whether Munday’s plays were ever performed to a wide audience, and evidence suggests that it was not. But the depiction of Robin Hood as an aristocrat has lasted into the twentieth century.  

In the ‘gentrified’ tradition, according to Stephen Knight, falls every text in which Robin is an aristocrat. This is certainly a broad range of texts and I think we can critique—with the greatest respect to him—Knight’s argument. In my opinion, the concept of gentrification works well if you are a literary critic studying the text, and the text only. For the case of the Munday and Jonson plays that were never performed, this is perhaps appropriate. Yet while Knight has carried out extensive research into post-medieval Robin Hood texts, he is a literary critic, and perhaps there has been too ‘literary’ an emphasis in Robin Hood studies to date. Knight often pays less attention to the wider contexts in which they were produced, a fact evident in his statement about earlier Robin Hood texts encompassing a generalised ‘dream of resistance’. The gentrification case becomes more complicated when we consider two things: mode of transmission and social and political context. There can often be a tension between the representation of Robin Hood in the text, and its mode of transmission, and each of these, when viewed in their social and cultural context, can seriously undermine Knight’s gentrification thesis.

Illustration from Ivanhoe

Discussions of gentrification, in fact, sometimes have a tendency to verge on the ‘Whiggish’: Robin starts out in the early texts as a bold, often violent and murderous outlaw, before he is appropriated in the late sixteenth century by Anthony Munday as a moral and upright lord; these types of depictions continue through the nineteenth century, as Robin supposedly becomes the epitome of the English gentleman. But the depiction of Robin Hood as an Earl does not always mean that it is a conservative, ‘safe’, or non-violent version of the legend.

I shall discuss a post-medieval case study here. If we examine Walter Scott’s brilliant novel Ivanhoe (1819), the case becomes much more complicated when we examine the three factors I mentioned above: mode of transmission, social and cultural context, and text. Scott’s novel was originally published as a three volume novel by Ballantyne and Co. publishers. It was expensive. It would have set a purchaser back 31s 6d on its first release. To put that in context, it should be noted that the average wage of a working-class labourer was but 9s per week. The working classes did not read this on its first release (though they may have seen some of the cheaper theatrical adaptations). But we have, in a 31s 6d three volume novel, if not a ‘gentrified’ mode of transmission, at least a very bourgeois one. Yet Robin himself in the novel is not a lord but a yeoman. So this then does not ‘fit’ our idea of gentrification.

The John Dicks edition of Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood and Little John

Let us take another example: Pierce Egan’s novel Robin Hood and Little John; or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest, which was serialized between 1838 and 1840. This truly is one of my favourites, and it was one of the biggest-selling, if not the biggest-selling, Robin Hood novel of the nineteenth century. Now, this was one of the controversial penny dreadfuls—novels that were serialized weekly and sold to the working classes for a penny (hardly a gentrified literary format) and which were the bane of Victorian moralists who worried that working-class morals were being ‘corrupted’ by salacious material. In fact, if we look at closely at the text itself, it’s quite violent (the illustrations which Egan himself drew for the novel show arrows in people’s eyes), and there’s a number of attempted rapes. Robin Hood in this text is a lord, yet he is a radical—produced to coincide with the beginning of the Chartist movement, we find Robin Hood fighting for the rights of the people. The Victorian establishment took a dim view of the Chartist movement and even sought to suppress it.

These are of course just two case studies out of a number of possible ones I could choose from the post-medieval tradition. Should you have the option of devising your own essay/research questions for your assignments, one possible avenue you might take is to choose a Robin Hood text, perhaps from the corpus of seventeenth-century ballads, and see if it matches Knight’s thesis of gentrification.

Certainly the rules we have just applied to Egan also might apply to Joseph Ritson’s text—yes, we’re back to Ritson, and we’re coming to the end of the talk. But let’s try to quickly apply the concept of gentrification to Ritson’s two volume work, which retailed at 12s, printed by Thomas Egerton, and sold in beautiful leather boards. It was beautifully illustrated by the famous Bewick firm of engravers, whose illustrations made Robin Hood appear more like a rustic Mr Darcy than the bold outlaw of the Gest. Its limited print run of just over 100 copies ensured that it was found only in the stockrooms of upper middle class and aristocratic subscription libraries, or in the private libraries of wealthy gentlemen like Walter Scott (whose copy of Ritson’s Robin Hood is still on display, where he left it, in the Abbotsford library). Yet the actual portrayal of Robin Hood in Ritson’s text, as a medieval Thomas Paine and freedom fighter who ‘set kings, judges, and magistrates at defiance’ is surely at odds with the small ‘c’ ‘conservative’ notion of gentrification.


Of course, my own issues with the idea of gentrification might spur some fresh minds—much like you good students—to either agree or disagree with Knight, Ohlgren, or Holt as the case may be. As you can see, in Robin Hood studies especially, it is these ‘dialogues’ between scholars that have advanced our understanding. So I would like to leave you with some general guidelines for studying Robin Hood: Obviously you’d need to analyse the text, but please also consider audience of the text and mode of transmission. Combine your literary analysis with a sound knowledge of English history during the period in which the texts were produced and be aware of the text’s social context. Be brave and critique and/or challenge existing scholars. And when you’re done, submit your assignment to your tutor, and once it’s marked, be sure to submit for publication on my website or to the Bulletin of the International Association for Robin Hood Studies.

But whatever conclusions you reach in your own analyses of the early texts, and regardless of whether he was a real person or not, the fact you are even studying Robin Hood, here, in a country far removed from ‘old merrie England’, illustrates the legend’s longevity and what makes it special. So perhaps in conclusion we can agree with the poet, Michael Drayton, who in his Polyolbion once remarked

In this our spacious isle I think there is not one

But he of Robin Hood hath heard and of little John;

And to the end of time the tales shall ne’er be done,

Of Scarlock, George-a-Green, and Much the miller’s son,

Of Tuck the merry friar, which many a sermon made

In praise of Robin Hood, his outlaws and their trade.


Basdeo, Stephen, ‘The Changing Faces of Robin Hood, c.1700–c.1900: Rethinking Gentrification in the Post-Medieval Tradition’ (Unpublished PhD thesis, Leeds Trinity University, 2017)

———, Discovering Robin Hood: The Life of Joseph Ritson—Gentleman, Scholar, Revolutionary (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2021)

———, ‘Radical Medievalism: Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood, Wat Tyler, and Adam Bell’, in Imagining the Victorians, ed. by Stephen Basdeo and Lauren Padgett, Leeds Working Papers in Victorian Studies, 15 (Leeds: LCVS), 45-64

———, Robin Hood: The Life and Legend of an Outlaw (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2019)

Coote, Lesley, Storyworlds of Robin Hood: The Origins of a Medieval Outlaw (London: Reaktion, 2020)

Crook, David, Robin Hood: Legend and Reality (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2020)

Dobson, R.B. and J. Taylor, ‘Robin Hood and Barnsdale: A Fellow Though Hast Long Sought’, Northern History, 19 (1983), 213–14.

———, Rymes of Robyn Hode: An Introduction to the English Outlaw, 3rd ed. (Stroud: Sutton, 1997)

Ewing, Thor, The Original Robin Hood (Edinburgh: Welkin Books, 2020)

Hilton, Rodney, ‘The Origins of Robin Hood’, Past & Present, No. 14 (1958), 30-44.

Holt, James C., ‘The Origins and Audience of the Ballads of Robin Hood’, Past & Present, No. 18 (1960), 89-110

———, Robin Hood (London: Thames and Hudson, 1989)

Kaufman, Alexander, British Outlaws of Literature and History: Essays on Medieval and Early Modern Figures from Robin Hood to Twm Shon Catty (Jefferson, NC: MacFarland, 2011)

Keen, Maurice, The Outlaws of Medieval Legend, 4th edn (London: Routledge, 2000)

Knight, Stephen, ––––, Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in the Outlaw Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015)

———, Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw (Cambridge: Brewer, 1994)

———, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003)

Ohlgren, Thomas, and Lister M. Matheson, eds., Early Rymes of Robyn Hood: An Edition of the Texts, ca. 1425 to ca. 1600 (Tempe, AZ: ACMRS, 2013)

––––, Robin Hood: The Early Poems, 1465-1560: Texts, Contexts, and Ideology (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 2007)

––––, ed., Medieval Outlaws: Ten Tales in Modern English (Stroud: Sutton, 1998)

Pollard, A. J., Imagining Robin Hood: The Late Medieval Stories in Historical Context (London: Routledge, 2007)

Wright, Allen, Robin Hood: Bold Outlaw of Barnsdale and Sherwood (n.d.), www.boldoutlaw.com [accessed 31 October 2021]

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