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

Emily Payton

Robin Hood, the Pastons and the May Games

Composed twenty-five years after the composition of Robin Hood and the Monk, a number of the Paston Letters provide us with more evidence of a play of Robin Hood in East Anglia. Known as Robyn Hod and the Shryff off Notyngham, this play was arguably composed by John Paston (d.1466), an English nobleman most famous today for his family’s collection of extant correspondences.

Orange book cover reading 'The Paston Letters - Edited with an Introduction by James Gairdner'. The image depicts two white people standing, wearing mediaeval garb. The one on the left is pointing towards the sky. In the background there are trees and a house with a thatched roof.
The Paston Letters

Published as The Paston Letters, this collection contains rich historical information describing the lives of the English gentry of the period, and as stated in a letter from John Paston himself he discusses the departure of one of his servants from his household.

As he writes: ‘I have kept him this three years to play Saint George, and Robin Hood, and the Sheriff of Nottingham.’ This comment gives the impression that the play must have been performed several times over the previous years and that the servant had a particular penchant for representing Robin and other characters in the play. This play focuses almost entirely upon a sequence of tournament games. Robin meets a knight with whom he engages in archery, stone-throwing, wrestling, and finally in sword combat. The play concludes with the decapitation of the knight by Robin himself:

Robin: Now I have the maystry here.

Off I smyte this sory swyre;

This knyghts clothis wolle I were,

And in my hode his hede woll here.

This was, then, clearly, a popular play within contemporary entertainment contexts as evidenced in Piers Plowman and the Paston Letters, which I discuss further below.

By the time of John Paston’s allusion to this play during the fifteenth century, the figure of Robin Hood as a shepherd and as outlaw had been merged into the May-games. The May-games, first recorded by Welsh poet Gryffydd ap Adda ap Dafydd (d. 1370) in the fourteenth century, was a pagan celebration enacted across Europe on the first of May annually, a date also known as Beltane, as we saw in Chapter One. During the event, men would often impersonate archers and other nature-based May-game ceremonies occurred, such as mummings, morris dancing, and ritual. The May-Games and maypoles became communal symbols that brought the local community together. In some cases, poorer parishes would join up with neighbouring ones to obtain and erect one. The Robin Hood ballads, which were an essential part of these games, were performed there, and according to J.M. Steadman and Chambers, the plays were inspired by the ballads rather than the ballads being indebted to the plays. What is clear is that the characters of the plays were similar to the characters within the ballads: they provided a form of escapism through the imagination into a world of rustic enjoyment and heroic greenwood bravery. Both Robin and Marian were associated with May Day festivities in England, but these may have been initially two distinct types of performance. Alexander Barclay (d. 1552) in his The Ship of Follies (1508) seems to contrast them but not link them: 'Yet would I gladly hear some merry fytte of Maid Marion or else of Robin Hood.’

Black and white drawing of people dancing around a May pole
May Pole Dance, 1887 - Adelia Belle Beard

These plays were performed in front of a crowd, something that assists with this chapter’s inquiry into what was the knowledge and/or who was the listener? Why combine art and sport in this way and for whom? John Marshall provides an answer to these questions by suggesting that the author of Robin Hod and the Shryff off Notyngham, was none other than John Paston himself. This theory would also support J.C Holt’s claim that the Robin Hood tales were ‘originally, the literature, not of a discontented peasantry, but of the gentry.’ However, if, indeed, the author of this text were John Paston, this means that the tale of Robin Hood would have reached an array of social classes due to his status and education, as well as his influence. As Marshall argues the types of competition depicted within Robyn Hod and the Shryff off Notyngham are relatively similar to those of a medieval tournament and ‘the medieval practice of employing an allegorical fiction to explain the presence of knights in the pas d'armes would, no doubt, have been familiar to Sir John Paston as seen in his Grete Boke. The Grete Boke, written and composed by John Paston is an instruction manual regarding the chivalric customs and appropriate behaviours for knights during events such as tournaments and royal coronations:

Memorandum, my Boke of Knyghthod and the man[er] off making off Knyghts, off Justs, off Torr[neaments], ffyghtyng in lystys, paces holden by so[ldiers]…and challenges, statuts off weer and de Regim...

Indeed, John Paston’s Grete Boke holds an account of the Bruges tournament and describes numerous jousts. It also discusses how he was challenged by Antoine Bastard of Burgundy during a tournament in Bruges, which highlights his experience of fighting against those of higher class, (but also will be involved in an exciting twist which will be discussed later below).

Robyn Hod and the Shryff off Notyngham was possibly written after the tournament at Bruges, as both this text and the Boke have a tree as a central scenic location and include a character blowing a horn: ‘I blowe myn horne. [Robin blows his horn to summon help.]’ and ‘Undre this lynde shote we .’ And, as Marshall explains ‘if the play culminates in an affray between Robin and his men and the Sheriff, both adhere to the format of single combats preceding a mêlée.’ Thus, I concur with Marshall when he claims the author of Robyn Hod and the Shryff off Notyngham must have been personally familiar with tournaments due to the degree of violence contained within the text and by the use of the word 'ottraunce' in line ten (‘lat vs fyght at ottraunce he that fleth god gyfe hym myschaunce’). The word does not appear in other medieval Robin Hood texts, such as Robin Hood’s Progress to Nottingham or Robin Hood and the Guy of Gisbourne. Marshall argues that the word is ‘spoken by the Knight as it is mainly to be found in the context of chivalry,’ and therefore is in the edition he provides. However, when considering Stephen Knight’s edition, the word is used by Robin, in a more war-like capacity as it is spoken when initiating a fight. Given Robin Hood’s reputation of rejecting the higher classes, his personal skills in combat and the ability to outwit them, Knight’s edition is fitting to the character in these earlier plays where Robin is more wild and quick to anger, something that will be delved into later on in the chapter. ‘Ottraunce’ is a word that Sir John Paston would have used to describe the escalation of armed combat himself. The fact that it is used at all shows a well-educated author with some chivalric experience.

A painting of a great tree in a forest. There are many people sitting in a circle formation around the tree, wearing green tunics and tights, and red hats, seemingly talking to one another.
Robin Hood - Edmund George Washington, 1859

Moving away from the games, there is other evidence to suggest John Paston’s composition of this play. The text employs some spellings used in his letters and others that are not. His letters reveal to us that he clearly enjoyed verse and liked 'litell Torke,' one of the performing dwarves. Originally made famous by performing for King Edward IV (d. 1483), John Paston comments on one of them in his letters; ‘And he is leggyd ryght j-now, and it is reportyd that hys pyntell is asse longe as hys legge' and therefore showed John’s love for theatre, performance, and showmanship. More convincingly, John understood what it was like to suffer at the hands of the upper class. Despite being a landowner, John was classed as a gentleman, the lowest rank of the English gentry, standing below an esquire but above a yeoman, hence his trade as a lawyer. As recounted in the Paston Letters, John inherited the Paston estate, but due to a power struggle with a rival family and the unreliability of the crown at the time, he lost his East Beckham estate in 1445, unable to gain it back until 1451. In 1457 he was fined for declining a knighthood, imprisoned three times regarding disagreements of his estate and upon the time of his death in 1466 he was fighting an inheritance claim against the Duke of Norfolk. John understood the violence, impoverishment, the class system, the contemporary injustice, and the frustration of fighting against those more powerful than himself, but more importantly, he understood the showmanship required of the times and would be able to predict the audience’s reactions to the viewing of such things, both lower and higher class. In the words of Marshall once again; ‘In a world in which corruption and the deficiencies of law prevented justice, it is no wonder that Sir John Paston turned, symbolically at least, to Robin Hood for restitution.’ After all, in the early texts, Robin Hood is depicted as risking his life to take mass, as we see in Robin Hood and the Monk, and he is a comfortable leader and confident in delivering orders. John would also have been a religious man who ‘herith [his] Masse devoutly,’ and he would have to have been skilled in the culture of his servants as well as his masters. John attempts to make Robin his alter-ego, and together they are ‘The king of free men…and rejoicing in the virgin freshness and gladness of unsubdued nature.’ Robin, as both devout and revelling in the natural world of the forest, brings together in one body and one tradition a symbiosis of Christianity and earlier pagan Celticism in a way that reconciles the one to the other. In doing this, however, it also shows up the hypocrisy of elements of the formal church that appropriates the tenets of Christianity for its own ends (hence the outlawed and ostricised Friar Tuck, who does more good as an outlaw than ever he did as an orthodox churchman).

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