15th Century

“A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode” (c.1450): Alleviating the Fear of Crime in Late Medieval & Early Modern England?

'A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode'

‘A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode’

A purely speculative post – part of a series I’m doing on the late medieval/early modern ballad A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode.

See my other one here.

Disclaimer: I’m not a medieval historian – I study the later Robin Hood texts from the 18th and 19th centuries; this post is rather just a few things that have sprung to mind when reading the earlier tales of Robin Hood.


The medieval ballad A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode was composed after c.1450, although it was not printed until the late fifteenth/early sixteenth century. It is the most well-known of all the early Robin Hood ballads, and one of the longest at 1,824 lines. It is also most likely a compilation of various Robin Hood tales that were in circulation prior to its composition.[1] In the poem, Robin is described as ‘a good yeman [yeoman]’.[2] His fellow outlaws Little John, Will Scarlet, and Much the Miller’s Son are similarly described as ‘good’.[3] In the tale Robin lends money to a poor knight, robs corrupt churchmen, kills the Sheriff, meets with the King, and is finally killed by the Prioress of Kirklees. The poem ends with a blessing upon Robin Hood who ‘dyd pore men moch god.’[4] Although the poem is as close to any early biography of Robin Hood (in its tone, at least) we will perhaps ever have, it is doubtful that it is actually a biography of the deeds which the legendary outlaw undertook during the 13th and 14th centuries.

The poem has been interpreted in various ways, beginning with the debates between Rodney Hilton and James C. Holt in the journal Past and Present in the 1950s & 1960s. Taking a Marxist approach, Hilton argued that Robin Hood was an expression of peasant discontent during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381.[5] As a more conservative historian, for Holt Robin Hood was representative of knightly or aristocratic interests.[6] Maurice Keen assessed the arguments of both historians in another article for Past and Present but concluded that the early Robin Hood tales were written for the socially oppressed – not limited to a particular class of people but to all who felt that, for whatever reason, they could not obtain justice in the medieval world.[7] To this day the debates still rage as to who the audience was for Robin Hood ballads in the late medieval period, with authors such as Stephen Knight rejecting a historicist interpretation altogether and arguing that the Geste cannot, indeed should not, be related to any real life event.[8]

One purpose of popular crime literature is to allay society's fears regarding violent crime - could the Geste have been the same?

One purpose of popular crime literature is to allay society’s fears regarding violent crime – could the Geste have been the same?

Perhaps we are missing one dimension here. For all of the debates I have read and come across, relatively few seem to consider the ballads in the context of being a reaction to crime in the fifteenth century. My background is in 18th-century criminal biography, and, having been influenced by Lincoln B. Faller’s work Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (1987), I wondered if we might apply one of his theories to our readings of the Geste, which is that people consume stories about crime to palliate their fears and anxieties towards crime, in particular violent crime.

Whilst we should be aware of the pitfalls of applying theories relating to the 18th century to medieval England, I believe that in the case of the Geste it can be done. After all, both periods had their ‘crime waves’ to use an anachronistic expression. The research of Henry Summerson points to the existence of highly organised and mobile bands of thieves who infested the forests, along with high rates of urban crime, and child exploitation.[9] Similarly in the 18th century writers such as Henry Fielding in his An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers (1751) prophesied that unless something were done about the problem of violent crime, the streets of London would soon be impassable without the utmost hazard.[10] And both time periods seem to have shared a – sometimes ambiguous – admiration for highway robbers; James Hind, Jack Sheppard, Dick Turpin, and James Maclaine were all at one point just as popular during the 18th century as Robin Hood was in medieval ‘popular’ culture. So perhaps you will agree that it is not altogether injudicious to make an analogy between two periods.

So what does Faller say regarding the ways in which the popular culture of crime was interpreted by readers in past ages? Why did such popular culture seemingly glamorise and idealise robbers in particular? Faller says that:

The fictions that so lightly informed their lives – fictions nowhere so completely present as in the utterly fictional, utterly idealised MacHeath [the gallant highwayman of The Beggar’s Opera (1728)] were entertaining largely because the actualities these fictions displaced were hardly to be entertained.[11]

That is to say that people warmed to highwaymen in popular culture because their real brutality was masked under an air of gallantry and politeness, which made them appear to many people as someone on ‘the right side of danger’ so to speak. My question is: could/would we find the same thing happening in the medieval period? The violence of certain medieval outlaws is well documented even in ballads. Even Robin Hood in the ballad Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne (15th century, probably before 1475) brutally cuts off Guy’s head, mutilates his face with a knife, and sticks Guy’s head upon his bow’s end.[12] In Robin Hood and the Monk (c.1450), one of the merry men, Much, brutally kills a young boy.[13] Whilst in the ballads Robin is often said not to do any harm to any company that a woman was in, a study of 13th-century homicide showed that 37 per cent of the victims of outlaw robberies were woman, and Barbara Hanawalt concludes by saying ‘bandits had no social conscience than the ordinary thieves who stole primarily from fellow villagers.’[14] The Geste is much less violent in tone in than The Monk and Guy of Gisborne. And Robin Hood is on numerous occasions in the Geste said to full of ‘courtyse’.[15] To me, and I may be wrong, this sounds suspiciously like the ‘politeness’ that 18th-century highwaymen were said to affect when robbing their victims, and of course any politeness, or in Robin Hood’s case, ‘courtesye,’ whilst committing robbery was most likely pure fiction.

Merry Men or Callous Killers?

Merry Men or Callous Killers?

That the Geste may have palliated readers’ fears of violent crime in the same way that 18th-century criminal biography did is not a concept that is outside the bounds of possibility, although, as I have stated above, I am not a medieval historian, and this idea is free to be developed/trashed accordingly by anyone who reads it. Neither is it an idea that is supposed to be profound and overturn everything that has gone before it. Indeed, Robin Hood, if the Geste did assuage contemporary listeners’/readers’ fears of violent crime, it can still be representative of the ‘aspirational’ classes or the need for justice in an unjust world. As Lucy Moore says of 18th-century criminal narratives, crime holds about it an air, however illusory, of glamour and liberty.[16] And Gillian Spraggs says how in the 18th-century ‘many a lad’ idolised highwaymen because it seemed as if they rose, almost instantaneously, into a life of riches, glamour, and gaming.[17] Indeed, why in this day and age do we glamorise the lives of mobsters in movies and TV shows? They show us a life of glamour and easy money, though the reality of organised crime is probably a long way away from how it is represented on TV, and I expect that any ‘courtesye’ of Robin’s is similarly pure fiction. In short, what I want to say here is that people needed good outlaws like Robin and his men because the reality was that the real outlaws who preyed upon people in the woods were brutal, callous killers.


References

[1] R. B. Dobson & J. Taylor (eds.) Rymes of Robyn Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw 3rd Edn. (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 1976), p.xxix.
[2] Anon. Here begynneth a lytell geste of Robyn hode, and his meyne and of the proude Sheryfe of Notyngham (London: Wynken de Worde, c.1510?) Cambridge, University Library Sel.5.18 S.T.C. No. 13689.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Rodney Hilton ‘The Origins of Robin Hood’ Past & Present No. 14 (1958), pp.30-44.
[6] James C. Holt ‘The Origins and Audience of the Ballads of Robin Hood’ Past & Present No. 18 (1960), pp.89-110.
[7] Maurice Keen ‘Robin Hood – Peasant or Gentleman?’ Past & Present No. 19 (1961), pp.7-15.
[8] Stephen Knight Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994).
[9] Henry Summerson ‘The Criminal Underworld of Medieval England’ The Journal of Legal History 17: 3 (1996), pp.197-224.
[10] Henry Fielding An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers (Dublin: G. Faulkner, 1751), p.1.
[11] Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account (Cambridge: CUP, 1987) p.124.
[12] Anon. ‘Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne’ ed. by Joseph Ritson Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw, Vol. 1 (London: T. Egerton, 1795), p.123.
[13] Anon. ‘Robin Hood and the Monk’ ed. by R. B. Dobson & J. Taylor Rymes of Robyn Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw 3rd End. (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 1976), pp.113-122.
[14] Barbara Hanawalt ‘Ballads and Bandits: Fourteenth-Century Outlaws and Robin Hood Poems’ ed. by Stephen Knight Robin Hood: Anthology of Scholarship and Criticism (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1999), p.277.
[15] Anon. Here begynneth a Lytell geste of Robyn hode…
[16] Lucy Moore Conmen and Cutpurses: Scenes from the Hogarthian Underworld (London: Penguin, 2001), p.iii.
[17] Gillian Spraggs Outlaws and Highwaymen: The Cult of the Robber in England from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century (London: Pimlico, 2001).

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2 replies »

  1. I wondered if the concept of ‘social banditry’ created by Hobsbawm might be useful here. And, of course, the idea of the ‘moral economy’- and that there might be someone (even a mythic figure) out there who punishes those who transgress it – also played some role, I would think, in the ‘Robin hood’ tales…

    Liked by 1 person

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