How do we look at both the ‘real’ history and the myths and legends as they were portrayed and used in the early modern period? For the last week I’ve spent the afternoon train ride away from work to read up on the Robin Hood legends.  My sudden interest isn’t really all that sudden at all.  Myths and legends are of interest to me, especially within the context of how these depict knowledge and history in any given era.   However, in this case my decision to read up on the subject has been drawn on through my television habits.

I’ve recently been watching the 1980s Robin of Sherwood series created by Richard Carpenter.  Although the show was cancelled after only 3 seasons, it hooked a generation through a gritty but also at times light-hearted retelling of the myths.  The music, provided by Irish folk group Clannad added to the feel that you were entering a world of legend, rather than real history, but the show managed to mingle both very well.

This got me to thinking about what was behind all these legends?  How accurate was the portrayal on screen and how had the legend developed?  There is some evidence to suggest that Robin Hood was a real man, but not much, and most is circumstantial.  It’s not really important anyway.  The legend of Robin Hood and his merry men is what matters.  It has become an integral part of British culture continuing today in films, television, even comic book adaptations.  It is also, still, an oral tradition, told and retold by each generation – a collective and personal tale that becomes a part of us, an influence on the things we think, and the way we act.

What surprises me is relatively how recent many aspects of these legends are.  In reading J.C. Holt’s Robin Hood (published by Thames & Hudson in 1982 and then as a second edition in 1989) I have learnt that the earliest surviving manuscripts to contain tales of Robin Hood date, at best, to the fifteenth century.  A brief reference to a man knowing of the ‘rhymes of Robin Hood’ in William Langland’s Piers Ploughman (1377) is our earliest written evidence.  Holt tells us that the tales were most likely started in the latter half of the fourteenth century, written down in the fifteenth, and reformed and solidified in the sixteenth.  Originally there was no Maid Marian, no stealing from the rich to give to the poor and no Friar Tuck.  Even the claim that Robin was active during the reign of Richard the Lionheart was not necessarily true in the earliest tales.  Like any legendary tale, the stories of Robin Hood have changed for each generation, evolving and producing variations according to need, location, and context.  Most recently, and as an example of how the legends can adapt, between the two editions of Holt’s book, the aforementioned Robin of Sherwood television series introduced a Saracen character into the ‘merry men’ which was then reused in Hollywood’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves in 1991.  He was not part of the legend before, but he is now; a new addition for late twentieth-century television and movie addicts.

Robin Hood Prince of Thieves (1991)

If the addition of a Saracen is a twentieth-century addition to the legend, then Maid Marian is a sixteenth-century addition.  She only came into the tales via Robin Hood’s involvement in the May Games.  The early tales are also unconcerned about the idea of stealing from the rich, to give to the poor.  This comes in very late – the nineteenth century to be precise. Initially Robin Hood is an outlaw with a conscious; he ‘invites’ travellers to dinner then demands payment.  If they tell the truth about what their purse contains (this inevitably only happens when the man is poor) then they are allowed to go on their way unmolested and usually helped in defeating some trouble that they are about to encounter.  If they lie (usually a sign that they are rich) then that money is taken.  If anything, the tales include an element of anti-clerical posturing.  Robin Hood steals happily from the monks at York.  He is not so bothered about secular landlords.  Robin does enter conflict with the Sherriff of Nottingham but this is not primarily a morality tale about Norman overseers or unfair taxes.

In the early stories Robin is assuredly a yeoman.  There is no question of his status.  That changed in the sixteenth-century.  John Leland – the famed antiquary who travelled England’s monasteries during the time of their dissolution – described Robin as nobilis (i.e. a nobleman).  He had likely seen a prose life of Robin Hood (in reality a hotchpotch of the various tales and legend s rewritten from poem and ballad to prose) that claimed the hooded man as a nobleman.  In 1598 Anthony Munday wrote two plays in which Robin featured as Robert, early of Huntingdon.  Therefore, within a century Robin Hood had managed to do what few people could do in life – he had traversed the social hierarchy from lowly yeoman to the son of a nobleman, turned outlaw and thief.

It seems to me that the rise of a print culture solidified and impacted on many legends and myths in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries.  The tales of Arthur and Merlin were also repositioned and reworked because of the printing press. This is just one part of a wider trajectory for legendary stories – oral transmission continued and still continues an important part of this.  What all of it makes me wonder is how a study of mythology at this time might impact on our understanding of Protestant attempts to retell their history.  The reformation required a revised past; the question is, how much of this was real history and how much mythology?  I think that is still an open question, which has never fully been answered (if a definitive answer is at all possible).

Further Reading

J.C. Holt, Robin Hood (Thames & Hudson: 1982).

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