Robin Hood: Myth, History & Culture

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In the oldest versions surviving, Robin Hood is a yeoman, but in some later versions he is described as a nobleman, Earl of Huntingdon or Lord of the Manor of Loxley or Locksley , usually designated Robin of Loxley, who was unjustly deprived of his lands. The early ballads link Robin Hood to identifiable real places and many are convinced that he was a real person, more or less accurately portrayed.

A number of theories as to the identity of "the real Robin Hood" have their supporters. Some of these theories posit that "Robin Hood" or "Robert Hood" or the like was his actual name; others suggest that this may have been merely a nick-name disguising a medieval bandit perhaps known to history under another name. The oldest references to Robin Hood are not historical records, or even ballads recounting his exploits, but hints and allusions found in various works. From onwards the names 'Robinhood', 'Robehod' or 'Hobbehod' occur in the rolls of several English Justices.

The majority of these references date from the late thirteenth century. Between and there are at least eight references to 'Rabunhod' in various regions across England, from Berkshire in the south to York in the north. The term seems to be applied as a form of shorthand to any fugitive or outlaw. Even at this early stage, the name Robin Hood is used as that of an archetypal criminal. This usage continues throughout the medieval period. In a petition presented to Parliament in , the name is again used to describe an itinerant felon.

The petition cites one Piers Venables of Aston, Derbyshire, "who having no liflode, ne sufficeante of goodes, gadered and assembled unto him many misdoers, beynge of his clothynge, and, in manere of insurrection, wente into the wodes in that countrie, like as it hadde be Robyn Hude and his meyne. The first mention of a quasi-historical Robin Hood is given in Andrew of Wyntoun's Orygynale Chronicle, written about The following lines occur with little contextualization under the year The next notice is a statement in the Scotichronicon, composed by John Fordun between and , and revised by Walter Bower in about Among Bower's many interpolations is a passage which directly refers to Robin.

It is inserted after Fordun's account of the defeat of Simon de Montfort and the punishment of his adherents. Robin is represented as a fighter for de Montford's cause. Despite Bower's reference to Robin as a 'murderer', his account is followed by a brief tale in which Robin becomes a symbol of piety, gaining a decisive victory after hearing the Mass. Another reference is provided by Thomas Gale, Dean of York c.

This inscription also appears on a grave in the grounds of Kirklees Priory near Kirklees Hall see below. Despite appearances, and the author's assurance of 'high antiquity', there is little reason to give the stone any credence. It certainly cannot date from the thirteenth century; notwithstanding the implausibility of a thirteenth century funeral monument being composed in English, the language of the inscription is highly suspect. Its orthography does not correspond to the written forms of Middle English at all: there are no inflected '—e's, the plural accusative pronoun 'hi' is used as a singular nominative, and the singular present indicative verb 'lais' is formed without the Middle English '—th' ending.

Overall, the epitaph more closely resembles modern English written in a deliberately 'archaic' style. Furthermore, the reference to Huntingdon is anachronistic: the first recorded mention of the title in the context of Robin Hood occurs in the play The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntington by Anthony Munday. The monument can only be a seventeenth century forgery. Therefore Robert is largely fictional by this time.

The Gale note is inaccurate.

Historic origins of the real Robin Hood

The medieval texts do not refer to him directly, but mediate their allusions through a body of accounts and reports: for Langland Robin exists principally in "rimes," for Bower "comedies and tragedies," while for Wyntoun he is "commendyd gude. Consequently, in the medieval period itself, Robin Hood already belongs more to literature than to history. In fact, in an anonymous carol of c. The tales of Robin do not appear to have stemmed from mythology or folklore. While there are occasional efforts to trace the figure to fairies such as Puck under the alias Robin Goodfellow or other mythological origins, good evidence for this has not been found, and when Robin Hood has been connected to such folklore, it is a later development.

There are many Robin Hood tales, "The prince of thieves" is one of his many, featuring both historical and fictitious outlaws. Hereward appears in a ballad much like Robin Hood and the Potter, and as the Hereward ballad is older, it appears to be the source.


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The ballad Adam Bell, Clym of the Cloughe and Wyllyam of Cloudeslee runs parallel to Robin Hood and the Monk, but it is not clear whether either one is the source for the other, or whether they merely show that such tales were told of outlaws. The first printed version is A Gest of Robyn Hode c.

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The difference between the two texts recalls Bower's claim that Robin-tales may be both 'comedies and tragedies'. Other early texts are dramatic pieces such as the fragmentary Robyn Hod and the Shryff off Notyngham [31] c.

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These are particularly noteworthy as they show Robin's integration into May Day rituals towards the end of the Middle Ages. The plots of neither "the Monk" nor "the Potter" are included in the Gest; neither is the plot of Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne which is probably at least as early as those two ballads although preserved in a more recent copy. Each of these three ballads survived in a single copy; this should serve as a warning that we do not know how much of the mediaeval legend has survived. The character of Robin in these first texts is rougher edged than in his later incarnations.

In Robin Hood and the Monk, for example, he is shown as quick tempered and violent, assaulting Little John for defeating him in an archery contest; in the same ballad Much the Miller's Son casually kills a "little page" in the course of rescuing Robin Hood from prison.


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Within Robin Hood's band medieval forms of courtesy rather than modern ideals of equality are generally in evidence. The only character to use a quarterstaff in the early ballads is the potter, and Robin Hood does not take to a staff until the eighteenth century Robin Hood and Little John. While he is sometimes described as a figure of peasant revolt, the details of his legends do not match this. He is not a peasant but an archer, and his tales make no mention of the complaints of the peasants, such as oppressive taxes.

His tales glorified violence, but did so in a violent era. Although the term "Merry Men" belongs to a later period, the ballads do name several of Robin's companions. Guy of Gisbourne also appeared in the legend at this point, as was another outlaw Richard the Divine who was hired by the sheriff to hunt Robin Hood, and who dies at Robin's hand. Printed versions of the Robin Hood ballads, generally based on the Gest, appear in the early sixteenth century, shortly after the introduction of printing in England.

In the early ballads, by contrast, he was a member of the yeoman classes, a common freeholder possessing a small landed estate. In the fifteenth century, Robin Hood became associated with May Day celebrations; people would dress as Robin or as other members of his band for the festivities. This was not practiced throughout England, but in regions where it was practiced, lasted until Elizabethean times, and during the reign of Henry VIII , was briefly popular at court. It is from this association that Robin's romantic attachment to Maid Marian or Marion stems. The naming of Marian may have come from the French pastoral play of c.

The first allusions to Robin Hood as stealing from the rich and giving to the poor appear in the 16th century. However, they still play a minor role in the legend; Robin still is prone to waylaying poor men, such as tinkers and beggars. In the sixteenth century, Robin Hood is given a specific historical setting. Up until this point there was little interest in exactly when Robin's adventures took place. However, during the sixteenth century the stories become fixed to the s, the period in which King Richard was absent from his throne, fighting in the crusades.

Giving Robin an aristocratic title and female love interest, and placing him in the historical context of the true king's absence, all represent moves to domesticate his legend and reconcile it to ruling powers. In this, his legend is similar to that of King Arthur , which morphed from a dangerous male-centered story to a more comfortable, chivalrous romance under the troubadours serving Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Pyle gathered the stories told in the ballads that came before him and reimagined them as a cohesive tale for Children, transforming the hardened outlaw of Robin Hood and The Monk into the heroic adventurer beloved by Richard the Lionheart - with his illustrations also giving us the fanciful bowman in tights that we still see today, even in Robot of Sherwood. Now we know how the legend that Clara loves so much was formed, what of the actual History behind it?

Is The Doctor right? Well, to put it succinctly, yes - the Robin Hood of the popular legend never actually existed. But there is precedent in historical records for an outlaw much in line with the more aggressive Robin of the earliest poems and tales that lived around a similar period of time.

Robin Hood and his Historical Context

Historian J. Holt, a foremost writer on Medieval England, traced back the earliest possible mention of a 'real' Robin Hood to Yorkshire judicial rolls dating from and - A outlaw named Robert Hode who escaped justice and fled into the forests of Yorkshire in the early 13th century. The man's name was shortened in documents to 'Robehod' and 'Rabunhud' or, as we would now say in modern English Robert Hood - or Robin Hood and when Holt searched for names similar, it revealed a surprising number of outlaws across the 's being referred to by those permutations - in the court trial of outlaw William LeFevre, son of Robert, for example, court records that have survived denote William not as William LeFevre but William Robenhod, Robin Hood transitioning from the name of a man to a moniker, an idea associated with Outlaws and thieves.

There are further examples across the 13th and 14th centuries of the term 'Robenhod' being given to outlaws across England, perhaps inspired by the original Robert Hode and his actions in Yorkshire and taking his name. So whilst it's practically impossible to confirm or deny the existence of a single figure in history as Robin Hood, what is perhaps interesting about him is that seemingly out of nowhere this legend sprang out, whether it was based on a real man or not.

Robin Hood: Then and Now

A name passed between different men, different faces, that came to mean something else - and after years of tales and stories, became part of Britain's cultural history forever. You're reading Toybox , io9's new blog for all things pop culture.

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