Whilst re-organising my home work space, I came across my undergraduate dissertation. I focused upon representations of polite society in eighteenth-century print culture, with a particular focus upon the periodicals of two men: Joseph Addison (1672-1719) and Richard Steele (1672-1729).
Between them these two men created the most important periodicals of the eighteenth century, entitled The Tatler and The Spectator. Each issue was printed on one sheet of paper, and numbered approximately 2,000 words.
The content was mainly satirical – not ‘satirical’ in the way that a modern TV show like Mock the Week was satirical – rather, it was a more subtle satire, which aimed to represent to its readers aspects of eighteenth-century life through the eyes of fictional characters, or correspondents.
The main correspondent in The Tatler was the fictional Isaac Bickerstaffe. He wrote his articles out of the various coffeehouse locations of early eighteenth-century London. In the first issue he explained that readers would receive:
Poetry under that of Will’s coffee-house; learning, under the title of Grecian; foreign and domestick news…from Saint James’s Coffee-house – The Tatler, April 23rd, 1709
In fact, these periodicals were designed to be read and discussed in coffeehouses. The coffeehouse was, in the words of Brian Cowan, ‘a unique social space’ where, irrespective of rank, men (and it was primarily men who frequented coffeehouses) could gather together and discuss the news of the day, as illustrated by the image ‘Interior of a Coffeehouse held by the British Museum’. Look closely at the image, and you can see that whilst the men are enjoying their coffee, there are copies of a periodical freely available to them.
The correspondents in The Spectator were an interesting lot, and these fictional characters were supposed to represent an eighteenth-century gentleman’s coffeehouse club: there was Mr. Spectator who ‘lived in the world, rather as a Spectator of mankind than as one of the people’. Next there was Sir Roger De Coverley, who was the “nice old man” type – a Tory Lord whose political views no one really took very seriously. After the aristocracy members of the increasingly influential middling sorts were represented: Andrew Freeport, a merchant; a lawyer from the Inner Temple; a retired army officer named Captain Sentry; a rakish young gentleman named Will Honeycomb, and finally an unnamed clergyman (who visited the coffeehouse club but seldom).
What, if anything, does this have to do with Robin Hood? In issue 81 of The Tatler in 1709, the character Isaac Bickerstaff recounted a dream in which he met many ancient worthies such as Hercules, Jason, Achilles, Aenaeus, Socrates, Caesar, and Augustus. You will notice that the foregoing list of heroes is mainly comprised of figures from the classical period.
In fact, the eighteenth century is not a period usually associated with any significant interest in the medieval past. The Georgians were living in the age of the Enlightenment, and for cultural and intellectual inspiration looked to the continent and the Classical period, which explains why many Georgian and Regency buildings were built in the neo-Classical style. To the Georgians the medieval period was a “dark age” dominated by monks and tyrant kings.
Which is why it is surprising that, in Bickerstaffe’s dream, when they are searching for another hero to join them at the table, the ancient heroes of old tell Bickerstaffe that:
…If they must have a British worthy, they would have Robin Hood – The Tatler, Number 81, 1709.
Cultural and intellectual interest in medieval times and persons was not, it seems, restricted to the gothic revival of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and our hero, Robin Hood, can sit comfortably alongside the great heroes of the ancient world.
Brewer, J. The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century (London: Routledge, 2013).
Cowan, B. The Social Life of Coffee (Yale University Press, 2005).
Habermas, J. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (Polity, 1989).