Joseph Ritson’s Discovery of “Robin Hood and the Monk” (1465)

By Stephen Basdeo

While researching my book, Discovering Robin Hood: The Life of Joseph Ritson: Gentleman, Scholar, and Revolutionary, I came across some fascinating information. I give below a snippet from my forthcoming book:

In 1795 Joseph Ritson, the radical scholar, published Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw. A truly ground-breaking publication, it collected together almost every fragment relating to the history of England’s greatest hero—every fragment, that is, apart a medieval poem which scholars have called “Robin Hood and the Monk”, included in a manuscript owned by the parson Gilbert Pylkynton and dating from c.1465.

Ritson Cover
Cover art for my forthcoming book — a biography of Joseph Ritson (1752-1803)

It is widely regarded by scholars as the earliest Robin Hood story in existence.

Historians have previously lamented the fact that Ritson never included “Robin Hood and the Monk” in his collection and seemingly never knew about.

Later scholars were wrong—Ritson discovered the poem but only after he had published his 1795 book.

BibPoet
Title page to Ritson’s Bibliographia Poetica

In late 1801, Ritson submitted to the press the manuscript for a small book entitled Bibliographia Poetica, which was published early the following year. George Steevens, whose work Ritson had published several criticisms upon in the 1770s, had evidently forgiven him at some point, for the book, as Ritson says in the preface

Was originally suggested in the course of a conversation with the late George Steevens, of whose familiar acquaintance the editour is proud to boast; and whose rich and wel-selected library, supply’d the title of many a rare and curious volume.[1]

Steevens was not the only old ‘foe’ that Ritson cited as an inspiration, for he also stated that the work could not have been completed without the pioneering work of

Warton’s ingenious, though too frequently inaccurate, History of English Poetry.[2]

harding151
19th-century illustration to Robin Hood and the Monk

The whole work was a series of short biographical entries on poets from the twelfth to sixteenth centuries with a brief list of what they had written. Notable among these short extracts is one which Ritson writes about a minor fifteenth-century parson named Gilbert Pylkynton:

Parson, as some have thought, of the parish of Tottenham, in Middlesex, is supposed, by his successor, Wilhelm Bedwell, to be the author of an excellent song, intitled “The turnament of Tottenham, or the wooing, wenning, and wedding of Tibbe, the reeves daughter there.”[3]

The next part of the ‘Pylkynton’ entry is most curious for contained within the manuscript was

A story of Robin Hood, and little Iohn.[4]

The Robin Hood tale to which Ritson refers was the poem which we now know as ‘Robin Hood and the Monk’ which, as we have seen, was included in a manuscript owned (and Ritson argues was probably written by) the same Gilbert Pylkynton (Thomas Ohlgren has written a detailed history of Pylkynton’s manuscript).

As the poem was never included in Ritson’s Robin Hood in 1795, Ritson’s discovery of ‘Robin Hood and the Monk’ must have been after that year.

Yet it is evident that Ritson was the first Robin Hood scholar to have noticed the poem—previously, Robin Hood scholars have credited the discovery of this tale to Robert Jamieson who published it in his Popular Ballads and Songs (1806) as ‘Robyn Hode and the Munke’.[5] Jamieson despised Ritson, so even if he had read his Bibliographia Poetica and got the relevant information from here, he likely would not have cited him out of spite.

It is heartening, however—indeed, it is an honour for this website—that we can now credit Ritson with another achievement relating to Robin Hood.

Jamieson
Robert Jamieson, whom historians and literary critics have wrongly credited as having “discovered” the poem of “Robin Hood and the Monk”. We know now that it was Joseph Ritson.

[1] Joseph Ritson, Bibliographia Poetica: A Catalogue of Engleish Poets of the Twelfth, Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Sixteenth Centuries, with a Short Account of Their Works (London: C. Roworth, 1802), p. i.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ritson, Bibliogaphia Poetica, p. 93.

[4] Ibid.

[5] ‘Robyn Hode and the Munke’, in Popular Ballads and Songs: From Tradition, Manuscripts, and Scarce Editions, ed. by Robert Jamieson, 2 vols (Edinburgh: Archibald Constable, 1806), II, pp. 54–72. To take just one example of modern historians and literary critics crediting Jamieson and not Ritson for the poem’s discovery, see the following: Thomas Ohlgren, Robin Hood: The Early Poems, 1465-1560 — Texts, Contexts, and Ideology (Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 2010), pp. 28–29.

3 Comments

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s