The Folk-Lore Journal/Volume 3/The Origin of the Robin Hood Epos


THOUGH history has ignored the disagreeable fact, there is no real difficulty in showing that communism was publicly advocated in this country in the reign of that too glorious monarch Edward III. The disastrous outbreak of the English Jacquerie under the weak rule of his unfortunate successor has doubtless attracted all attention to itself to the oblivion of the older fact.

It took also, as we shall see, the milder form, much as the Wickliffe agitation did, of inculcating its principles by oral and literary means only; declining, at least until a more favourable season, the ultimate and inevitable voie de fait, which was probably intentionally reserved until the disbanded soldiery of Edward should be thrown broadcast into the land.

The original agitation to which I shall call attention was distinguished from the later and actual insurrection in a most important and vital point. It was, as we shall see, a communistic claim made in the name of the yeomen or farmers, and ignored utterly the serfs or agricultural labourers, who do not appear upon the stage in the new rôle of agitators until the next reign.

Though the later movement from its large volume and its well defined atrocities has exclusively engaged the attention of students, there is much in the earlier agitation that deserves careful consideration as well for its philosophical as its social bearings, notwithstanding that its inception never crossed the threshold of mere poetry.

But it is just this limitation of fact which brings the subject more strictly within the province of folk-lore, and forms the justification for its treatment in our pages.

My remarks have special reference to the Robin Hood ballads.

These interesting poems, though they may seem to us now merely harmless outbursts of enthusiastic and rude poetasters, were in their origin intended for anything rather than innocent and superfluous diversion. They were really intended to exasperate the rude mind of the yeomen into a ruthless crusade against the clergy and landed gentry; the proposed result of that crusade, if it should be successful, being their entire disappropriation for the behoof of a new order of proprietors, the yeomen.

To England, as we shall see, belongs the equivocal credit of having originated an epic of communism.

We have reason to believe that the Robin Hood ballads were a long series in their first composition. But, if that were so, most of them (I mean the genuine ones) have long since perished; two only, such as we can accept with full faith in their authenticity, remaining to our days. There is, however, sufficient in these two to furnish us with the true scope and intention of the agitators without any possibility of mistake or serious misconception. The necessary data are supplied to us by the "Litel Geste of Robin Hood" and "Robin Hood and the Potter." These two poems (of which the first is infinitely the best) will be found to lay bare the object and philosophy of the then new social science.

We are singularly fortunate in a literary question like this to be able to approximate closely to the era when the general epos was first composed and started by the unknown originators of the movement.

Langland, the author of The Vision of Piers Ploughman, writing in A.D. 1362, lets us know in unequivocal terms that the ballads of Robin Hood ("Rimes of Robin Hood" he calls them) were then in full circulation. This does not of course determine how long before this year the ballads were actually composed, but it certainly does a great deal to settle even that date; for if we allow five or six years for their inception and dissemination—and we cannot allow less and need not allow more—we are landed in the epoch of the great French Jacquerie, an actual revolution on the continent of France, planned and carried into execution for the very same purposes which the romance of Robin Hood was theoretically to establish in the adjacent country of England if it could.

This French plague, as others since have done, crossed the Channel, and was greeted as a friend by the discontented yeomanry of England, to whom it supplied the programme which they perhaps lacked the intelligence to originate. More than this was not practicable in the time of the great king, and nothing was then open to the yeomen but to indulge their venom in a medium which all ages have employed in a like propaganda. Poetry was therefore resolved upon, and poetasters now unknown stirred up the class animosities of the sullen farmer.

This is the origin of the "Rimes of Robin Hood," a true epic if there ever was one, and to this epic the master-mind of the old poet or poets found a most appropriate hero to conduct its action and enforce its moral. He was to be an English forester, the representative of the most adventurous and self-asserting section of the English yeomanry, and the name he was to be dubbed with was consonant to his calling. It was to be Robin a Wood, which English phonetics, according to their wont, soon afterwards softened into Robin Hood, a name which promises to be immortal.

This imaginary form of name was familiar to English speech and to English ears. Jack Upland figures in a poem of the Piers Ploughman series. Jack Straw is known to all men. Allan a Dale (a nearer resemblance still) was afterwards one of the personæ dramatis of the epos itself, similarly with John a Green. The same reference to forestry, as in the name of his master, is found in the pseudonym given to Little John in the Lytel Geste—Reynold Greenleaf.

In the name of the hero, therefore, there was nothing mysterious or even romantic, as in the names of the knights and giants who figured in the ballads of chivalry. It was intended to be plain and popular, and its universal acceptance shows that the choice was excellently made.[1] Here I must also remark that the French word Robin, used as the hero's name, completely disposes of the shadowy claim set up by some writers on his behalf, that he was a patriotic Anglo-Saxon of the early ages, burning with unquenchable hatred of the Norman oppressor. Still less can he have been the blind Scandinavian deity Hodr, who killed Balder the beautiful. He belongs not to history or mythology, but to English fiction.

The plan of the epic being decided, and the hero and his name thus satisfactorily settled, the remaining point—its didactics—presented no difficulty whatever to the syndicate who had the movement in their hands. The didactics were to be Communism and Anarchism—high flights for men of the Middle Ages. We find these two great systems, which seem to us so modern, explicitly unfolded in the two oldest of the poems. Communism was pithily summed up in the well-known description of the robber chieftain's rule and practice of life come down to us with the Robin Hood tradition itself. He was said to have "robbed the rich to feed the poor," a sort of liberal paraphrase of the operation of the subsequent Elizabethan poor law; and under the new philosophy of the Robin Hood school the poor were not to be content to have their needs supplied through the voluntary charity of the rich, but were to take it from the latter by the right of communistic compulsion.

This may be easily illustrated out of the ballads. In one of them quoted by Ritson (which, however, I cannot trace) Robin Hood is made to say:

"If he be a pore man,
Of my goods he shall have some."

The Lytel Geste says of our hero:—

"For he was a good outlawe,
And dyde pore men much god."

The meaning of these two excerpts is that the goods thus liberally imparted to the poor without any other consideration than their real or apparent poverty were derived from the possessions of others, viz. the rich, for the outlaw had no other resources save what pillage would abundantly and constantly supply.

Besides these ancient authorities, the poet Drayton, who from his incontestable antiquarian learning may be safely accepted as showing the tradition on this subject, sums up the received reputation of Robin in the following words:—

"From wealthy abbots' chests and churls' abundant store,
What often times he took he shared among the poor."

It is curious to find that strange writer Ritson approving of this principle; but the subject of our romantic outlaw, visionary as it ought to have appeared, seems ever to have had a disturbing effect upon staid English brains. Even the placid Wordsworth lost all sense of moderation in his eulogium of Rob Roy, a hero ejusdem farinae.

After this preface I will turn more particularly to the ballads themselves. As I have already intimated there are no ancient manuscripts remaining of them. The oldest copy is De Worde's print of A Litell Geste of Rohin Hode. Though the date of its publication is somewhat late, the diction of the poem itself is tolerably old, indeed very much older than the printers' age.

This is an encouraging circumstance, for it gives us reason to believe that in this poem at least we have really one of the "rimes" referred to by Langland, and we may rely upon it accordingly, and the context supports this view. Its simple and unexaggerated language, not without a rough tincture of real poetry, puts to flight all the late hyperbole attached to the legend—Robin is no more than "a good yeoman," at the same time he is "a proud outlawe," and also "a curteyse outlawe." He is assisted in his nefarious trade by "Lytell John," who is equally "a good yeman"; and by Scathlock (Scarlet) and "Much the Miller's Son," both also designated with equal justice as "good."

This poem contains an open avowal of absolute brigandage, the only persons to be exempted from this trying operation being "housbondes," that is, tenant-farmers, and any knight or squire who was willing to be "a good felaw," or accomplice. But all bishops and archbishops were to "be beaten and bound," as was also the Sheriff of Nottingham, who here stands for all high sheriffs whomsoever.

In the fourth fytte, Robin Hood is called "the poor man's friend," and says the hero himself—

What man that helpeth a good yeman,
His frende then will I be."

The poem is remarkable for its extreme rancour against monks, abbots and priors, making against them the stock charge of habitual avarice, but supporting it only by the not very heinous fact of an abbot finding it necessary to foreclose a mortgage against a friend of Robin Hood for an overdue loan. The only other ballad (before alluded to by me) having any stamp of antiquity is "Robin Hood and the Potter," and this is chiefly interesting as betraying illiteracy as well as archaism, and therefore showing clearly the sort of people to whom the Epos was addressed.

This ballad also terms Robin Hood "a god yeman." The moral, too, is a true Robin Hood one. The Sheriff of Nottingham is coolly robbed of much money, and a handsome present out of it is made to the potter for no conclusive reason than his apparent poverty.

It will have been seen that of the "Rimes of Robin Hood," as Langland calls them, the surviving stock is but small. It is much to be wished that we had still many of them instead of the poor trash of the Robin Hood Garlands, Elizabethan in date, of which we have a great deal more than is at all needed. Fortunately, however, we have a poem, for such it is, of later date, but still not younger than the close of the Edwardian period, written with great vigour in pari materia, and breathing all the lawless spirit and animus of the old Rimes—I mean the now forgotten "Tale of Gamelin." This has been written (for it is a literary production) so closely upon the lines of the form of the older poems, like the Lytel Geste, and probably others now lost, that it is impossible to doubt that the writer's model was the Epos itself, to which he had an access, now closed to us. There should be accordingly no difficulty on our part in allowing this poem to supplement any deficiency of Robin Hood knowledge which the ravages of time have occasioned us in the present age.

Its form is a testimonial in its favour. Its author, though he must have known the courtly and harmonious verse which Chaucer had invented and made fashionable even as far as remote Scotland, neglected or rather disdained it for the rough old-fashioned metre of Robert of Gloucester, always a favourite with the less cultivated portion of the people of England. No Robin Hood writer would have deliberately chosen such a vehicle for his thoughts if it had not been radically English (in the vulgar sense of the word) and intensely popular both with the masses and those who approximated to them in feelings and prejudices. This poem, in its cold-blooded lawlessness, leaves even the Lytel Geste far behind. Its hatred of the monks and the higher clergy is extraordinary. Gamelin, the hero of the poem, is made to say with the fullest approval of his followers:—

"Cursed mot he worthe, both fleisch and blood,
That ever do priour or abbot any good."

After this speech he and his following assail (breaking legs and arms) all the clergy assembled in his brother's hall, and these are not mere parish priests but "abbot, piior, monk, and canon."

Dominated by the feeling of their leader, these men then take to the wood, where they find a company of seven score outlaws, and are conducted by them into the presence of the "master outlaw." The latter (also called "King of Outlaws") is not slow to propound to the new comers his own principle of action, and also interrogates Gamelin, who thus answers with appropriate readiness:—

"Sire, we walk not here noon harm for to do,
But if we meete with a deer to sheete therto,
As man that been hungry and mowe no mete finde,
And ben harde bysted under wood lynde."

Gamelin is made lieutenant of the gang, and shortly afterwards, tidings coming that the chief has been pardoned by the king, he is elected by the outlaws to take his place.

On Gamelin presenting himself at the next quarter sessions, his elder brother, who is high sheriff, commits him to prison as "wolf's head," but he is straightway bailed by a third brother, Sir Ote, who undertakes to produce him for trial at the next assizes.

Gamelin then revisits the wood and finds his "merry men" much as he had left them, and the poet takes the opportunity of making the following tirade of pure Robin Hoodism:—

"There was no man that for him ferde the wars,
But abbotes and priours, monk and chanoin,
On him left he nothing, when he might them none."

After a time Gamelin bethinks him of his brother Sir Ote's engagement to produce him, and he attends accordingly with his outlaws before the king's justice and the county. Sir Ote was already there "in fetters," having been sentenced to be hanged for Gamelin's default. Sir Ote being liberated, Gamelin announces his intention of hanging the judge and jury who had convicted him, as also the sheriff for his share of the transaction, and takes his seat on the bench, placing Sir Ote and his own old servant Adam (Shakespeare's Adam) by his side. The "justice" and the "false brother" are arraigned at the bar, and the sheriff and the twelve jurymen are fetched to bear them company. Gamelin next swears in the requisite number of his own men as jurors to try the new prisoners, and in the result all are found guilty and are summarily hanged.

Gamelin and Sir Ote are promoted by the king, who even finds places for all the outlaws. Gamelin then makes a good marriage, and the previous topsy-turfydom is thus set right.

After reading this précis the reader will, I think, agree with me that between this poem and the Lytel Geste there is a perfect concord of spirit and detail. The latter poem thus illustrates and supplements what is now lacking through the loss of the popular oral "Rimes." This view of the substantial agreement between the poem and the "Rimes" is strengthened by the fact that as time went on Gamelin was formally admitted amongst the personae of the Robin Hood legend as Young Ganwall.

There is one more circumstance connected with the legend which is not without interest. As we have seen, Robin Hood and his comrades are all simple yeomen, who have bettered their condition by turning thieves, though with a communistic pretence. But this was not to last for ever. When the English public had familiarised itself with the principle previously entirely unknown in Europe, that ratepayers should be taxed for the support of the poor, whether they liked it or not, the proceedings of the poetic robber chief began to be regarded through a prism of indulgence which gradually amounted to real favour. Of this new aspect the Pepysian collection is a good exponent. In these ballads Robin Hood is no longer a yeoman, he is Earl of Huntingdon (see A True Tale of Robin Hood). Before then grave historians like Grafton had already written seriously of his "nobility," though they admit it to have been under a cloud. The legend itself thus came to be regarded as the indigenous Arcadian romance of England. The reforming bishop Latimer has recorded how chagrined he felt on May Day on finding that the holiday-making rustics of an English village, whom he desired to edify by a homily of his own confection, much preferred breathing the sweet air of their meadows as "Robin Hood's men" to hearing the bishop's projected discourse, however redolent it might be of the Wartburg or Zurich.

In fact the poetic genius displayed in these ballads had made them overshoot their original mark; and the English public, high and low? had ended by ignoring their evil intention, and loving them for their rural allusions and scenery. So Henry VIII. and his courtiers masqueraded at Shooter's Hill as Robin Hood and his men, and Shakespeare in As You Like It affected to believe that the legend commemorated the golden age of Britain.[2]

  1. There was a familiarity also in the use of the name Robin, which made it eligible as the appellation of the communistic forester, and better adapted to fly per ora virûm. For this reason of familiarity "our hoste" of the Canterbury Tales, in addressing the Drunken Miller, says, "Robin, abyde, my leve brother."
  2. In this paper I have used as my authorities Ritson's edition of the Robin Hood Ballads and his Prolegomena thereto. The latter are chiefly remarkable for an entire absence of the critical faculty.