Essay: Robin Hood's Entanglement with the Natural World - Part I

Emily Payton

As a break from my Anglo-Saxon Paganism investigation (…it gets weirder), I have written an essay on Robin Hood and what he portrays in comparison to not only Christianity, but also how paganism is very clearly surviving. Robin Hood has been a longstanding interest of mine. He fits (or doesn’t fit) into so many boxes; he is not a stereotypical macho-man of the time, he is a bad Christian who takes strength from the forest - he is twisted to fit into English Literature from French as a result of the Hundred Years War.

Robin Hood has been part of English and French folklore for over six hundred years. Robin Hood's idea is connected to being the hero and knight of the ordinary people, an avenger of the poor, rebel against hierarchy, and embracer of nature. He is loved for his rejection of the higher classes, for outwitting them and for embracing those deemed weaker. His presence is noted as early as the twelfth century, proceeding into the Tudor period, travelling through the nineteenth century and still today. During that time, depending on Robin's audience's political situation and social class, Robin Hood is represented as either a criminal or a hero. Unfortunately, mention of his female consort Maid Marion does not come into Robin Hood tales until the sixteenth century.1 Although this still marks her as one of several strong female characters in early English Literature, it is just outside the project's timeframe. However, she does appear in early French literature, namely Adam de la Halle’s (d. 1288) Le Jeu de Robin et Marion (1282-1283). In this essay, therefore, I aim to investigate the Robin Hood audience and potential authors. and then the heavy influence of nature and empowerment upon the tales under scrutiny. I will do this by focusing mainly on the earliest texts: Robin Hood and the Monk (1450), Robyn Hod and the Shryff of Notyngham (1475) and Robin Hood and the Guy of Gisborne (1475). I will then focus on Adam de la Halle’s Le Jeu de Robin et Marion, along with French traditions of how the natural world intersects with the idea of female empowerment.

The Early Robin Hood

The legend of Robin Hood has sparked much cultural imagination up until the present day. The late mediaeval chronicler, Andrew of Wyntoun (d.1423) had discussed Robin’s existence thus:

Litil Iohun and Robert Hude Waythmen war commendit gud; In Ingilwode and Bernnysdaile Thai oyssit al this tyme thar trawale. 2

Similarly, at the end of the fourteenth century, within William Langland’s Piers Plowman (1370)3, had presented Robin’s first appearance in a Middle English text:

I kan noght parfitly my Paternoster as þe preest it syngeþ, But I kan rymes of Robyn Hood and Randolf Erl of Chestre. 4

Here we have an additional suggestion that royalty and the higher classes appreciated the legend of Robin Hood and that the legend travelled further down the feudal system. In Piers Plowman, Sloth, the drunken priest, suggests orally produced Robin Hood songs are widely known Atte nale, [at the ale-house]5, implying he is a popular figure for an illiterate and semi-illiterate audience.6 It is suggested that Robin Hood is of no importance to the aristocracy. Sloth even suggests here that Robin Hood's legend is more popular than the Lord’s Prayer, which was quite a claim from a holy man. However, this is not surprising in terms of the focus on Celtic empowerment of nature within the Robin Hood texts and Christian authority's contrasting strength. John Chandler states that this comment from Sloth ‘also reflects the concern of the Church for the souls of people who likely attended mass grudgingly, but could readily recite popular songs.’7 Such fleeting reference may be how we first discover Robin Hood in England, but he does not remain so low in social ranking for long.

Nevertheless, how has Robin Hood become so popular for so long a time? I argue that the answer lies in the art of story-telling, so evidenced in the tales and in Robin’s link with nature. Story-telling is a tradition that can suit any class, whether the narrative is oral or written. Taking the Celtic traditions into consideration, as discussed in the first chapter of this project, Druids learnt their knowledge, such as history, mythology, laws and healing ‘verses by heart.’8 In turn, this inspired the ‘bards’, who are described as singers and poets who composed works to be sung or told to support or criticise their leaders or issues in society.9 From chapter two, we know that Marie de France’s Breton Lais from the 1170s were also sung or performed. Many different societies followed similar traditions: the classical tradition of Homer’s Odyssey and the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf, both designed for oral performance.10 As Albert Bates Lord has suggested, large parts of these stories consisted of oral text, which was improvised during the story-telling process. Lord also claims that most oral stories are constructed out of setting phrases that have been amassed from a collection of hearing and telling stories. The ‘formula is the offspring of the marriage of thought and sung verse.’11 This relates to the later Robin Hood traditions, where we see the same themes and set phrases, so much so that none of these stories is therefore reliable as the ‘true’ account.

Robin Hood and His Merry Men in Sherwood Forest - Edmund George Warren 1859

We now accept Robin as a literary invention.12 Whether the speakers told the stories for passion or profit, such story-telling became a performance piece to gather listeners. For example, Geoffrey Chaucer’s (d. 1400) Canterbury Tales (1387 and 1400) are tales to amuse and inform the pilgrims of the frame-narrative as they wind their way to Canterbury on pilgrimage. Katie Normington focuses on the development of small story-telling gatherings to what would now be described as theatre. She explains there is no clear distinction during the Middle Ages between the different types of narration or the development of entertainment,13 and I agree with her when she argues that, as long as there is an audience, the size of it does not (or should not) matter to the story-teller, nor the terminology used. Taking into account Lord Normington's arguments, who argued that the definition of theatre should be varied based on its audience and deliverance, I assert that story-telling, oral traditions, and theatre all encapsulate two things: to educate and/or to entertain, regardless of their definition. Let us consider, for example, the oldest surviving Robin Hood text within the tradition, Robin Hood and the Monk14 dated to 1450.15 It is regarded as a ‘ballad’16 by Francis James Child and therefore included in his English and Scottish Popular Ballads.17 The text itself, however, does not identify itself as a ballad, suggesting that it is, instead, a narration:

Thus endys the talkyng of the munke And Robyn Hode I wysse; God, that is ever a crowned kyng, Bryng us alle to His blisse! (355-358) 18

Here, the term ‘talkyng’ insinuates that this was not a ballad in the traditional sense, and although it was perhaps performed over music, it was spoken rather than sung. It should be noted that this chapter of the project is not arguing that the Robin Hood tradition should not be considered as a ballad, as Grace Castagnetta’s edited collection of the fourteenth and fifteenth-century songs, Song of Robin Hood, alone disproves this argument.19 This essay primarily considers the context and listener (and later, the reader) of the tradition in the hope of understanding its influence upon mediaeval culture and its later legacy.

Reference List

1 James Clarke Holt, Robin Hood, 2nd edn (London: Thames and Hudson, 1989), p. 37. 2 Andrew of Wyntoun, Andrew of Wyntoun’s Orygynale Chronicle, ed. by Stephen Knight and Thomas H. Ohlgren (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1997) <> [accessed 26 February 2019] 3 William Langland, Piers Plowman: The A Version, ed. by Míċeál F. Vaughan (Baltimore: JHU Press, 2011), p. 6. 4 William Langland, Piers Plowman: A Parallel Text Edition of the A, B, C, and Z Versions, ed. by A. V. C. Schmidt (London: Longman, 1995), p. 230, cited in Robert Melrose, Warriors and Wilderness in Medieval Britain: From Arthur and Beowulf to Sir Gawain and Robin Hood (Jefferson: McFarland, 2017), p. 192.

5 William Langland, Piers Plowman B Version, ed. by George Kane and Ethelbert Talbot Donaldson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), p. 355. 6 Anna Baldwin, A Guidebook to Piers Plowman (London: Macmillan, 2007), p. 98. 7 John H. Chandler, Robin Hood: Development of a Popular Hero (2006) <> [accessed 21 March 2019]. 8 S. A. Handford, Caesa: The Conquest of Gaul (London: Penguin, 1982). 9 Stanley Ireland, Roman Britain: A Sourcebook (London: Routledge, 1986), p. 181. 10 Albert Bates Lord, The Singer of Tales (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000). 11 Lord, p. 31. 12 P. Valentine Harris, Truth About Robin Hood (Mansfield: Linney's, 1973), p. 32. 13 Katie Normington, Medieval English Drama (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009). 14 ‘Robin Hood and the Monk’ in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, ed. by Stephen Knight and Thomas H. Ohlgren (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 1997). <> [accessed 21 March 2019]. 15 ‘Robin Hood and the Monk’, 355–358. 16 Holt, p. 37. 17 Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014). 18 ‘Robin Hood and the Monk’, 355–358. 19 Grace Castagnetta, Song of Robin Hood (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1947). Castagnetta presents a ccollection of eighteen ballads, lyrics, and scores about Robin Hood, most dating originally from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries with their accompanying sheet music.