History

‘The Outlaws’ Code’. Robin Hood: Research Update, Number 7, December 24th, 2014

Robin, Little John, Will Scarlet, and Much the Miller's Son. Scanned image from Ritson, J. Robin Hood (1795).

Robin, Little John, Will Scarlet, and Much the Miller’s Son.
Scanned image from Ritson, J. Robin Hood (1795).

All organised crime gangs have certain codes of conduct which, to be counted as part of their respective gangs, they must adhere to. For the Italian Mafia there is Omerta, a code of silence which forbids them to talk about the gang to non-members. Members of the mafia are also forbidden from committing certain crimes such as kidnapping, theft (burglary, mugging, etc.), and in the past even to stay away from drug and human trafficking. The Italian Mafia was supposedly above these types of crimes, and forbade their respective members from carrying them out.

In the one of the oldest Robin Hood ballads, ‘A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode’ (c.1470), Robin Hood similarly laid down a code of conduct for his men to follow. Little John asks Robin how they should conduct themselves:

Mayster, than sayd Lytell Johan / And we our borde shall sprede / Tell us whether we shall gone / And what lyfe we shall lede.

Where we shall take, where we shall leve /  Where we shall abide behynde / Where we shall robbe, where we shall reve / Where we shall bete and bynde.

To which Robin Hood replies, firstly, that the outlaws should never harm any company where there were women present and also:

Ther of no fors, sayd Robyn / We shall do well ynough / But loke ye do no housbonde harm / That tylleth with his plough.

No more ye shall no good yeman / That walketh by grene wode shawe / Ne no knyght ne no squyer / That wolde be a good felawe.

The outlaws, therefore, are to protect women, husbandmen, and those that work the land, as well as yeoman, knights, and squires. But as for members of the Catholic Church and the Sheriff of Nottingham, Robin is less kind:

These byshoppes and thyse archebyshoppes / Ye shall them bete and bynde / The hye sheryfe of Notynghame / Hym holde in your mynde.

Robin Hood had two main enemies: the Catholic Church and the Sheriff of Nottingham, and gave his outlaws free rein to beat and bind them.

Organised crime historically emerges and flourishes in times where the state and its ability to enforce the law is weak (as the English State was in the late medieval period) and the local populace at the mercy of tyrant landlords. In these situations, groups that would normally be classed as criminal emerge as friends of the poor, they become, in the words of the historian Eric Hobsbawm, ‘social bandits’. Hobsbawm named Robin Hood ‘the international paradigm of social banditry’. Social Bandits, according to Hobsbawm:

Are peasant outlaws whom the Lord and State regard as criminals, but who remain within peasant society, and are considered by their people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice…men to be admired, helped, and supported.

The ‘Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode’ makes no mention of Robin Hood stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, it merely says at the end that he ‘did pore men moch god’. This detail was added to the legend between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. By the time that Joseph Ritson produced his pioneering work Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw (1795), Robin Hood had become the ultimate social bandit:

That our hero and his companions, while they lived in the woods, had recourse to robbery for their better support, is neither to be concealed nor to be denied…[But] in these exertions of power, he took away the goods of rich men only, never killing any person, unless  he was attacked or resisted; that he would not suffer a woman to be maltreated; nor ever took anything from the poor, but charitably fed them with the wealth he drew from the abbots…he was the most humane, and the prince of all robbers.

Perhaps these medieval ballads of Robin Hood and his men are recounting and glorifying the actions of medieval mobsters in the same way that movies like Goodfellas today do for us? Outlaw gangs were loosely organised, had customs, and codes of conduct, and were social bandits in the sense that they were supported by local people. Dr. Kelly Hignett of Leeds Beckett University has written a study of what is a comparable case of late-medieval organised crime gangs in Southern Russia, Dalmatia, and Bohemia, and the role which they assumed in the absence of effective state law enforcement. It was these outlaws’ codes of conduct, in which they did not (supposedly) hurt poor people, which earned them the support of local communities.


Further Reading:

Hignett, K. ‘Co-Option or Criminalisation? The State, Border Communities and Crime in Early Modern Europe’. In Galeotti, M. ed. Organised Crime in History (London: Routledge, 2008).

Hobsbawm, E. Bandits (London: Penguin, 1969).

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