Crime in a Communist Utopia

“Up at the League, says a friend, there had been one night a brisk conversational discussion, as to what would happen on the Morrow of the Revolution, finally shading off into a vigorous statement by various friends of their views on the future of the fully-developed new society … [William Guest] found himself musing on the subject-matter of discussion, but still discontentedly and unhappily. “If I could but see it!” … “If I could but see it! If I could but see it!”

William Morris, News from Nowhere; or, An Epoch of Rest (1890)[i]

William Morris–‘artist, designer, and visionary socialist’ (ODNB)

By Stephen Basdeo

On 11 January 1890, the first instalment of a curious new sci-fi novella appeared in the Commonweal magazine. The tale, a follow up to an earlier novel called A Dream of John Ball (1886), was called News from Nowhere; or, An Epoch of Rest and its author was William Morris, an artist, designer, and ‘visionary socialist’ according to The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Morris’s novel presented readers with a vision of a future society—sometime after the year 2003—when ‘mastership’ had changed into ‘fellowship’; the capitalist world system had ended, and Britain had been transformed into a socialist utopia.

The serialization of News from Nowhere in the Commonweal

The novel offers little in terms of action but instead aims to give a picture of how life would be after the revolution, the details of which come from his many conversations with the inhabitants of twenty-first century Britain. One of the things that Guest is startled to learn is that the only means of exchange is an exchange of labour–men work for subsistence and pleasure–while cash and coins, those physical symbols of capitalism, have disappeared, as he finds out in his exchange with a waterman:

“You think that I have done you a service; so you feel yourself bound to give me something which I am not to give to a neighbour, unless he has done something special for me. I have heard of this kind of thing; but pardon me for saying, that it seems to us a troublesome and roundabout custom; and we don’t know how to manage it. And you see this ferrying and giving people casts about the water is my business, which I would do for anybody; so to take gifts in connection with it would look very queer. Besides, if one person gave me something, then another might, and another, and so on; and I hope you won’t think me rude if I say that I shouldn’t know where to stow away so many mementos of friendship.”

Unlike many utopian novels, past and present, Morris does not shy away from addressing the question of crime, and how this would be dealt with in a seemingly idyllic world (dystopias, in contrast, usually show a lawless and brutal world) . A famous phrase, said to be uttered by Robert F. Kennedy, although its sentiments have been echoed by earlier writers such as G. W. M. Reynolds (1814–79), is that ‘society gets the criminals it deserves’. Late-Victorian society, in which Morris lived, was a capitalist society; Gladstonian Liberalism—favouring free trade, low external tariffs, the protection of private property rights, and a laissez-faire approach to managing social problems—reigned supreme.

In late-Victorian England, when Morris was writing, most of the crimes which people found themselves accused of in the dock were crimes relating to the theft of property. The historian Drew Gray points out, for example, that

‘Most crime is related to property and nearly all of those imprisoned, transported, or hanged from the 1700s onwards had been convicted of stealing something’.[ii]

Gray’s quantitative analysis of convictions at the Old Bailey between 1674 and 1913 support this: of the 211,112 trials listed in the annals of The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 85 per cent of these were concerned with some form of property offending.[iii] Murder and manslaughter, in spite of their prominence in the press, accounted for only 2.33 per cent of all offences tried at the Old Bailey during this time, which suggests that Georgian and Victorian society’s obsession with violent crime was really misplaced.

The famous Kelmscott edition of News from Nowhere (1892)

Surely in this new world there were still criminals? So Guest decides to ask his traveller what happened to the judiciary and police organisations:

“I thought that I understood from something that fell from you a little while ago that you had abolished civil law. Is that so, literally?”

“It abolished itself, my friend,” said he. “As I said before, the civil law-courts were upheld for the defence of private property; for nobody ever pretended that it was possible to make people act fairly to each other by means of brute force. Well, private property being abolished, all the laws and all the legal ‘crimes’ which it had manufactured of course came to an end. Thou shalt not steal, had to be translated into, Thou shalt work in order to live happily. Is there any need to enforce that commandment by violence?”

What the future resident of Britain is telling our Victorian is, essentially, that the law, being constituted to protect one thing—private property—made people criminal (see also earlier radical, G W M Reynolds, and his thoughts on the causes of crime). This is not simply the whimsical thoughts of a socialist dreamer, however, for modern criminologists would agree with the assessment above:

‘Via the criminal justice process—police, prosecutors, and courts—we construct criminals. That is to say, we take people through a process of arresting, charging, and prosecuting, and, where there is a finding of guilt, we label them as criminal’.[iv]

As most of the laws relate to the protection of private property—which is as true in our own day as it was in Morris’s era—so when a person transgressed the laws of property they were labelled as criminal. These judicial structures, according to Karl Marx, were the means through which the ruling classes in all ages were able to keep those beneath them oppressed.

Murder and other violence crimes occupy most of the coverage in the press, but it actually accounts for very little of all crimes prosecuted.

The idea that societies construct criminals, at least when it comes to property crime, is fairly uncontroversial. Yet what about violent crime—how was that dealt with in the socialist new world of the twentieth century? The waterman tells Guest that,

“By far the greater part of these in past days were the result of the laws of private property, which forbade the satisfaction of their natural desires to all but a privileged few, and of the general visible coercion which came of those laws. All that cause of violent crime is gone. Again, many violent acts came from the artificial perversion of the sexual passions, which caused over-weening jealousy and the like miseries. Now, when you look carefully into these, you will find that what lay at the bottom of them was mostly the idea (a law-made idea) of the woman being the property of the man, whether he were husband , father, brother, or what not. That idea has of course vanished with private property, as well as certain follies about the ‘ruin’ of women for following their natural desires in an illegal way, which of course was a convention caused by the laws of private property. Another cognate cause of crimes of violence was the family tyranny, which was the subject of so many novels and stories of the past and which once more was the result of private property. Of course that is all ended, since families are held together by no bond of coercion, legal or social, but by mutual liking and affection, and everybody is free to come or go as he or she pleases. Furthermore, our standards of honour and public estimation are very different from the old ones; success in beating our neighbours is a road to renown now closed, let us hope for ever. Each man is free to exercise his special faculty to the utmost and every one encourages him in so doing. So that we have got rid of the scowling envy, coupled by the poets with hatred, and surely with good reason; heaps of unhappiness and ill-blood were caused by it, which with irritable and passionate men – i.e., energetic and active men – often led to violence.”

Let us take this apart and discuss it in further detail, particularly the point about violent crime arising out of ‘the artificial perversion of the sexual passions’. Residents of the future world are no longer in relationships as a means to survive in a capitalist world; women are not the property of men, and each person is free to love whom they will. In an 1889 lecture entitled ‘How Shall We Live Then?’, Morris expanded upon

We shall not be happy unless we live like good animals, unless we enjoy the exercise of the ordinary functions of life: eating sleeping loving walking running swimming riding sailing [sic] we must be free to enjoy all these exercises of the body without any sense of shame; without any suspicion that our mental powers are so remarkable and godlike that we are rather above such common things.[v]

According to Ady Mineo, ‘these propositions … polemically challenge the cornerstones of Victorian morality, are translated into imaginative and narrative terms in his utopian romance’; what Guest sees are healthy, happy, and self-confident people whose lives and sexual identities are no longer confined to the role designated to them through the ‘callous cash nexus’. No one in any relationship was another person’s ‘property’; so most crimes of passion, which often stemmed from adultery, would simply fade away in the utopia of the twenty-first century.

William Guest still takes some convincing, however, and turns to the subject of violent crimes which are unrelated to property:

“Hot blood will err sometimes. A man may strike another, and the stricken strike back again, and the result be a homicide, to put it at the worst. But what then? Shall the neighbours make it worse still? Shall we think so poorly of each other as to suppose that the slain man calls on us to revenge him, when we know that if he had been maimed, he would, when in cold blood and able to weigh all the circumstances, have forgiven his maimer? Or will the death of the slayer bring the slain man to life again and cure the unhappiness his death has caused?”

“Yes,” I said, “but consider, must not the safety of society be safeguarded by some punishment?”

“There, neighbour!” said the old man, with some exultation. “You have hit the mark. That punishment of which men used to talk so wisely and act so foolishly, what was it but the expression of their fear? And they had no need to fear, since they—i.e., the rulers of society—were dwelling like an armed band in a hostile country. But we who live amongst our friends need neither fear nor punish. Surely if we, in dread of an occasional rare homicide, an occasional rough blow, were solemnly and legally to commit homicide and violence, we could only be a society of ferocious cowards. Don’t you think so neighbour?”

Essentially, in a society of equals, no one should desire to strike another. Sometimes a homicide committed in ‘hot blood’ has happened in the utopia, of course, but it there is no need to punish the perpetrator with incarceration or even the death penalty (still very much used against criminals in Morris’s day); that would not do society any good and besides the humiliation and shunning he would receive from his ‘fellows’ would be a deterrent enough to effectively stop it from happening.

Morris’s romance has been accused of being a bit whimsical and his point about the deterrent of murder many modern readers might read as naïve. Yet in the first instance he was certainly correct in surmising that the idea of crime and who is labelled as a criminal has much to do with how the law—formulated by the ruling class—is designed to keep another class oppressed. For Morris, there was no place for the law in a future socialist society.

[i] William Morris, News from Nowhere; or, An Epoch of Rest (London: Kelmscott, 1892), online edn <> [Accessed 18 April 2019].

[ii] Drew Gray, Crime, Policing, and Punishment in England, 1660–1914 (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), p. 328.

[iii] Ibid., p. 90.

[iv] Tim Newburn, Criminology: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), p. 14.

[v] Ady Mineo, ‘Eros Unbound: Sexual Identities in News from Nowhere’, Journal of William Morris Studies, 9: 4 (1992), 8–14 (p. 9).


“La Eme”—The Mexican Mafia

Robert Ramirez delves into the history of the infamous La Eme, better known as the Mexican Mafia.

One of the most brutal gangs in existence is the Mexican Mafia, or, ‘La Eme’ (Spanish for ‘The M’). According to most accounts, the gang was founded in 1957 by Luis ‘Huero buff’ Flores. At the time Flores was incarcerated in a Californian jail; in order to survive the brutal conditions, and protect himself from other prison gangs which were organised along racial lines—such as the Black Guerillas and the Aryan Brotherhood—Flores decided to form a gang to provide protection for him and his Hispanic peers from other prison gangs.

Soon Flores’s gang offered a variety of ‘services’ for other gangs members and paying customers in the prison community at large: drugs, gambling, and contracts killings were just some of the many ‘products’ which people could pay Flores’s gang to carry out. The idea behind the gang’s diverse portfolio of activities had one aim: to establish supremacy over other prison gangs.

La Eme
La Eme in the Early Years

As La Eme continued to grow in size and status inside the prison during the 1960s and 1970s, its more senior members created a structure for the gang in order to spread their activities into other Federal prisons and even local communities. A pyramidal structure evolved as the gang recruited more Hispanics into its ranks. Those at the top would commission lower-ranking members to carry out jobs, for which those at the top received a ‘cut’; La Eme’s operations were now no longer about simply protecting Hispanics in prison but about extending their power and business interests.

During the 1980s, La Eme joined forces with gangs on Los Angeles’ East Side, which gave them a stake in the city’s drug trafficking and contract killings trades—this was when the Mexican mafia really started to thrive. The Mexicans’ dominance over California then allowed them to branch off the contract killings and maximize their profits by focusing on trafficking drugs to and from Mexico.

La Eme soon formed links with cartels in Mexico, who in turn cultivated relationships with other organized crime groups in South America. The Guadalajara cartel—one of Mexico’s biggest—was founded by ‘the Godfather’, Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo. Miguel formed a partnership with the infamous Colombian, Pablo Escobar, to expand his empire of the business of cocaine. It was a relationship which offered mutual benefits: the need for the relationship was due to the lack of transportation that fortunately Gallardo could provide for Escobar. Gallardo was in charge of the transports of the cocaine products, he moved them to and from the western side of Mexico such as Tijuana and Sinaloa, adjacent to California, which made it easy for them to illegally transfer their products across the border. Sinaloa was the region of Mexico that Pablo Escobar assigned to the notorious “El Chapo,” also known as Joaquin Guzman Loera.

El Chapo arrest
The Arrest of El Chapo

When Escobar was killed in 1993 by the Colombian authorities, El Chapo took this chance to become the master of the operation and remained in his post for almost an entire decade without being snitched on by his communities and the inside workers from the cartel. The reason that local communities did not report El Chapo to the authorities was simple: they were too scared to do so. And certainly no one in his own gang would dare to betray him; criminal organizations such as the Mexican cartels do not take “rats” lightly; members treat each other as if they are family, and if they turn on family it usually ends in death or severe injuries. Besides, the ‘pyramid’ structure of El Chapo’s gang meant that the soldiers at the very bottom of it know very little of what those at the top of the organization do. Such arrangements protect the boss from getting busted if one of the lower level members gets caught.

The modus operandi and structure common described above, common to many organized crime groups, has been carefully adapted in mafia movies in popular culture. Tony Montana from the 1983 film Scarface, is a character who was inspired by several South American drug lords including El Chaop. Montana is a young Cuban refugee who dreams of a better life and will do anything it takes to achieve it; he starts out as a soldier, carrying out menial duties for those above him in the gang, but eventually climbs his way to the top of the cocaine scheme. During the film, the operation starts by just moving a few kilograms of cocaine but turns into a massive drug selling business connects him to many powerful people. A man from the DEA is out to get Tony and his bosses convicted and warn people about the scandalous amounts of drugs they are bringing into the country, so he decided that he had to take him out by planting a bomb in his car. Montana does not, however, assassinate the man due to his morals—organized crime members are always shown to have some kind of moral compass—as the man from the DEA is traveling in the car with his daughter and wife. By not finishing the job it allowed for the compromise of their operation, leading to the death of his drug business and himself.

The famous “Scarface” based in part on El Chapo and several other drug lords

Scarface of course was a fictional portrayal of a man whose career was similar to El Chapo and many other organized crime bosses. Although unlike Montana, El Chapo was captured, not killed. On three separate occasions, the cartel was able to bribe the security guards of the Federal Maximum Security prison in Mexico and break him out twice. In 2016, the photograph above was taken of El Chapo as he was arrested for the third time in twenty years. The trial for this arrest is still going on today, according to MSN News:

“The 12 jurors began deliberating in federal court in Brooklyn last Monday, and were dismissed for the week on Thursday afternoon. The lack of a verdict in the first week seemed to please Guzman, who grinned and hugged one of his lawyers before he was led out of the courtroom.”

Perhaps the cartels have managed to influence the jury; its members recently alleged that there is no actual evidence to convict him and that El Chapo was being set up as a “fall boy” for another high-ranking member named El Mayo.

In spite of El Chapo’s arrest and trial, the drug trafficking continues under new leaders of who find new ways to smuggle drugs into the United States. According to Insight Crime:

“Sinaloa Cartel hid a haul of 180 kilograms of methamphetamine inside the spare tires of new cars sent from Mexico to Canada, showcasing the innovative tactics drug traffickers are using to successfully skirt border checks.”

The cartel has no intention of stopping business flow, even if its most iconic leaders have perished into the prison system or killed. To keep this drug empire operating at this level is quite an astonishing accomplishment and the cartels are one of the most efficient organized crime units in existence. After decades have passed of the constant successful movement of illegal drugs across different border lines you have to ask yourself: is it that the cartel is just that good or is that the Government of the country the drugs are running through cannot afford to enforce the law? It may be a little bit of both as the cartel knows how to take advantage of countries that live in poverty and are unable to properly manage their own citizens. Mexico is always stereotyped as a country full of gangsters and cartel movement but it is really just a reflection of the Government that allowed its people to live in poverty and ultimately be forced to sell drugs to provide for their families. Organized crime will continue to affect communities locally and globally as they know their way around the government system. The repeated use of bribery, innovative tactics, intimidation and overall crime from the political and social standpoint is what will allow the empire of the Mexican cartel to continue to grow the enterprise.

Further Reading:

Mark Galeotti (2009), Organized crime in History. Abingdon: Routledge.

Brendan Pierson (2019), WWW MSN News, Jury in “El chapos” U.S trial begin second week of deliberations , , sited on 11-02-2019, (Searched 09-03-2019)

Chris Dalby (2019), WWW Insight Crime, Sinaloa cartel places unwanted surprise inside new Ford cars, , sited on 01-03-2019, (Searched on 10-03-2019)

Scarface (1983), Produced by Brian De Palma, United States.

Carlos Rodriguez (2016), Mexican Cartels, (10-03-2019)

Suzanne Pekow (n.a), Gangsters Confidential,  Brutal Control: A brief history of the Mexican Mafia, , sited in (2018) , searched on (11-03-2019)


No point in legalizing weed for recreational use

By Adam Ramos

Adam Ramos delves into the recent past to see if the promised benefits from legalizing marijuana for recreational use in some parts of the United States have been realized.

Marijuana has never been a controversy in the United States until the past 20 years.  The campaign to legalize recreational marijuana is based upon the arguments that U.S states will earn more money and get rid of criminal activity like gangs, black-markets, and cartels.  When looking at the states where recreational marijuana has been legalized, however, all the great things that were said to come with legalization, never came.  Recreational marijuana should be kept illegal because it does not bring in the money it was promised; it does not take control of the production and sale of marijuana out of the hands of criminals and it comes with health risks.

At a federal level, cannabis is illegal yet many states have and are attempting to make this drug legal at the state level.  So far there have already been nine states, as well as Washington D.C., to legalize marijuana for recreational use and there are 32 states that have legalized the substance for medical use.  The process in which these states went through to legalize marijuana for recreational use, was by passing a ballot like Colorado and Oregon did.  Oregon held a ballot upon so-called Measure 91 which allowed for

Adult possession of less than one ounce of marijuana [which] was decriminalized on the first of July 2015, [then] sales of retail marijuana through existing dispensaries began in October 2015, and licensing of retail stores started in October 2016.[1]

Now, readers were not born yesterday: when someone approaches a black-market cannabis dealer, they ask for a certain amount of the substance, they pay for it, and the transaction is completed with only two parties involved.  When people purchase from a dispensary, however, there are three parties involved in the transaction: the consumer asks the dispensary for the same amount of the substance, and they pay for that in addition to the state tax that they have on marijuana.  This way dispensaries make money from selling marijuana, while the state makes their money from this by adding a tax on it.

One of recreational marijuana biggest claims for legalization, is the fact that marijuana has such a high demand and when the state has it to supply, large amounts of money will be produced, benefiting the state as a whole. Yet when we look at the states that have already legalized marijuana for recreation use, this is not the case.  J. Sullum reveals that

In Feburary 2014, a month after legal recreation pot sales began in Colorado, Gov. John Hickenlooper projected that marijuana taxes would raise $118 million for the following fiscal year.[2]

But when the fiscal year ended, only $66 million had been earned.  That number is just scrapping by $59 million, which is only half of what the Governor predicted would be raised and only represented 0.3 percent of the state’s $23.1 million budget.

After one year, not even one percent of the state’s budget had been affected by marijuana legalization, adding little to state coffers. 

To give the benefit of the doubt, that figure was only one year of marijuana being legalized, so after a few years of operation, this should have surely changed.  The Colorado Legislative Council say otherwise, projecting 83 million in 2017-2018 which, yet again, is nowhere close to the $118 million predicted by Governor John Hickenlooper.  This minute sum of money accumulated from recreational marijuana sales was collected with heavy taxes on marijuana sales.

guzman arrest
Mexican cartel leader, Guzman, arrested – has legalizing marijuana for recreational use really taken control of the drug’s sale out of criminals’ hands?

In Colorado. when they passed the Amendment 64 to legalize marijuana, policy-makers decided that marijuana should be “taxed in a manner similar to alcohol”—that is, that taxes should be kept fairly low. But in practice Colorado is taxing marijuana much more heavily than they do alcohol, and just like Colorado, Washington also places high taxes on recreational marijuana sales with a 37 percent marijuana-specific tax, in addition to standard state and local sales taxes which makes marijuana purchased from state dispensaries almost fifty percent more expensive than it would be normally.

These high taxes do not help recreational marijuana’s campaign at all for a few reasons, and far from taking control away from criminal gangs, criminals’ control of the marijuana trade have actually increased. High taxes are causing a reverse effect by causing consumers to look elsewhere to purchase marijuana, resulting in the increase in black market and the state losing money. In Washington, the Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) established quotas for marijuana production based on the assumption that state-licensed stores would initially capture 25 percent of the market,[3] but after a year of legal sales the LCB Deputy Director Randy Simmons put the stores’ share of total cannabis consumption at 10 percent, meaning that the other 90 percent was still being distributed by the untaxed black market.  With such high taxes on marijuana, consumers will not want to purchase from state dispensaries, causing the black market to always exist. This of course may make some readers think that the states where marijuana is legal should not tax the substance so highly, but any significant reduction in taxes would decrease the already modest gains from taxable sales of marijuana.

High taxes are not the only reason that the black market is still thriving.  There are other laws that have been made that, again, cause a reverse effect on legalizing recreational marijuana’s campaign.  Vermont allows for home growing of marijuana but there are certain factors that come from this resulting in small scale marijuana distribution.  An adult is permitted to have one plant growing in their house at one time and according to Colorado’s Marijuana Enforcement Division and evidence suggests that one mature plant produces 335 grams a year but can be even more if plants are grown outside.  Even the heaviest of smokers would only need one plant to fulfill their needs as well as exceed the 28-gram limit allowed for recreational use.  In states like Alaska, Colorado and Washington D.C, adults can have up to six plants, but only three can be flowering at one time.  If all three of those plants are mature and in the correct conditions, 1005 grams of weed can be produced.[4]

If one plant can produce more than enough for one person, why can three be grown at one time and produce such an extreme amount?  This is when the question arises: what do they do will all the extra marijuana? This is where the black market is fueled to continue to exist.

All this extra marijuana will not be thrown away but will be sold.  This presents people who would have never sold marijuana with the option of now selling it illegally.  This also presents the opportunity for those people already involved in the black market to grow marijuana legally and then sell it.  This was the case in Colorado where

Local officials said that Mexican cartels were growing marijuana under the cover of legal operations.[5]

If the states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use wanted to maximize their income, why allow for individuals to grow their own to the point where they will not ever spend a penny at one of the state dispensaries? They lose customers who would be initially spending money on the state tax. By allowing for individuals to grow their own, it does nothing but fuel the black market and cause the state to lose money.

Aside from the negative effects Recreational marijuana has on the legalized states, there are also the many negative effects that marijuana has on health.  Marijuana is a substance that impairs you; your vision, way of thinking, actions, and reaction time are all things that occur when a person has taken marijuana. As a result

After retail stores opened in Colorado, emergency room visits related to marijuana shot up nearly 30% and hospitalizations related to marijuana rose 200%.[6]

These health-related incidents are all due to people having attempted to carry out dangerous or hazardous activities such as driving having taken the substance.

Also—in spite of some recreational marijuana activists’ attempts to downplay the health effects of the drug itself—marijuana does affect the brain in many different ways such as increasing the risk of developing schizophrenia, depression and other psychiatric disorders, so researchers at Harvard University and Northwestern University found when their studies revealed that some recreational marijuana smokers had abnormalities in the shape, volume, and density of certain areas of the brain”.[7]

The brain is not the only way health is affected; most people smoke marijuana along with tobacco which damages the lungs and causes respiratory problems—a perhaps unsurprising side effect of the drug’s use. While it is obvious that cigarettes affect your lungs and body in terrible ways, there is evidence to suggest that smoking one marijuana joint is as damaging to the lungs as five tobacco cigarettes.[8]

Critics might say that alcohol has health risks, that it is legal, and adults should make up their own mind about what they want to put in their bodies. To raise such an objection is merely a bit of “whataboutery”. The debate here is about marijuana; many U. S. states are attempting to make it legal without analyzing the effects on other states that have it already legalized it.


Recreational marijuana activists promised less black-market activity—the opposite has happened.  The high state taxes on marijuana caused people to turn back to the black market and allowing home growing resulted in more illegal activity, thereby reducing the amount of money the states can make.  While high promises were made about the amount the amount of revenue a state could earn from legalizing the substance for enjoyment, the amount of money actually coming in is nowhere close to what was promised. And none of the supposed benefits of legalizing cannabis for enjoyment come negate the negative health effects of its use. Medicinal marijuana is fine—but let’s at least be honest about the fact that very few benefits will come from making the substance legal for recreational purposes.

[1] S. Fiala, et al, ‘Exposure to Marijuana Marketing After Legalization of Retail Sales: Oregonians’ Experiences, 2015-2016′, American Journal Of Public Health, 108: 1 (2018), 120-127.

[2] J. Sullum, ‘Americans Love Pot Taxes’, Reason, 47: 9 (2016), 42-46.

[3] Sullum, op cit.

[4] Jonathan P. Caulkins, ‘Considering marijuana legalization carefully: insights for other jurisdictions from analysis for Vermont’, Addiction, 111: 12 (2016), 2082–89.

[5] Anon, 2018. ‘Recreational Marijuana’. [online]. Available at: [Accessed                  23 September 2018].

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

Mexican Cartels

By Carlos Rodriguez

One of the first drug cartels in Mexico, the Guadalajara Cartel, was established by the notorious Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, also known as ‘the Godfather’. During the 1980s, he became the partner of the famous Pablo Escobar of Colombia. Escobar’s drug empire ambitions were to spread globally. Due to Mexico’s soil reputation to grow the plants for “cooking” cocaine, and because of the country’s geographical location, Escobar needed a contact in Mexico to help him transport drugs into the United States. He hired Gallardo to run the transport and operations of Escobar’s products. Gallardo then hired his associates, the Arellanos and El ‘Chapo’ Guzman. Briefly, the Arellanos controlled the territory of Tijuana, which was right below the state of California, hitting the first transfer spot into the west coast of the United States. El Chapo, controlled the territory of Sinaloa which was right by sea, convenient to transport Colombian cocaine into Mexico. However, in 1993, Pablo Escobar was killed by the DEA which El Chapo then saw the opportunity to be the head player in the cartel business. However, there was new players entering the drug trafficking business, one of them being the Jalisco Nueva Generation. This new cartel organization was a threat to El Chapo’s ambition to control ultimate power of the drug trafficking business. At first there was an attempt to form a federation to unite all cartels to respect territory boundaries, however, due to El Chapo’s greedy ambitions, the drug war started in Mexico. As of a result, Mexican citizens suffered during the ensuing bloodshed between the Sinaloa Cartel and its allies against anyone who them. During the drug war in Mexico, El Chapo was captured in 1993 at Guatemala but escaped in 2001.

el Chapo
Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman is escorted to a helicopter in handcuffs by Mexican Navy marines at a navy hanger in Mexico City on Feb. 22, 2014. (c) Associated Press.

Cartel bosses such as El Chapo often see themselves purely as businessmen, providing customers with a service but whose activities are curtailed by an oppressive government. Indeed, the cartels’ operations grew in scope during the 1980s and 1990s because, with the crackdown on Columbian cartels, they saw an opportunity for major business expansion, which of course led the Mexican cartels to fight for control over the production of drugs and their traffic from South America into the United States.

So how did crime bosses such as El Chapo run their cartels? Most drug cartels functioned as if they had a pyramidal structure with defined vertical authority, a structure which can be seen in groups such as the Sicilian Mafia. However, the structure that Guzman used to run his cartel was a “horizontal structure”. As the term suggests, a horizontal structure is similar to that of a subsidiary-based company with semiautonomous components. One of the main factors of their organization was their function of communication (for an overview of the theory behind organised crime see Boone Alway’s post). In terms of communication, drug trafficking networks operate like terrorist cells; every group and every member of the respective cartels know their function and carry it out with low levels of communication; this in turn results in increased security for the organization; and the passing of information and directives through personal contact rather than written communication.

One factor that was important for the cartels’ operations to be successful was the eyes on the inside of the government. Security forces in relatively authoritarian regimes such as Mexico often play a key role in the development of criminal markets. In simple terms, drug cartels bought out police officers or local government officials to be their eyes and ears of information to then plan accordingly.

Sinalao Cartel
The Structure of the Sinaloa Cartel

Although El Chapo is considered the main leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, he gives same authority power to his trusted associates: Juan Jose Esparragoza Morena or commonly known as “El Azul” and Ismael Zambada Garcia or commonly known as “El Mayo”. In logical terms, once El Chapo was captured in 2014 and 2016, it’s expected that one of the two took his place to continue its operations.

Ultimately, organized crime can only every flourish in places where governments are unable or unwilling to enforce the law, and their rise to dominance is also helped if there is a lot of poverty in a country. Escobar and El Chapo came from poor areas of their respective countries and they wanted to help their families reach higher economic status due to the limited availability of decent paying jobs; their only escape route was drug trafficking. In other words, drug cartels in Mexico shows the reflection of how Mexican governments failed to care for their citizens. As one Mexican gang member is quoted as saying:

“Your failed government caused us to grow more. You tried to control use but you lost control…”

Yet the main reasons why the drug cartels were successful and achieved dominance in many regions of Mexico is because of their political influence. Mexican government and public institutions operate from bribing police, bureaucrats, or purchasing a form of injunction from judges, to the pocketing of millions by high-ranking government officials. Corruption scandals involving Mexican policymakers, government officials, and other bureaucrats are common. A recent corruption case involved a former executive of Wal-Mart as he described how Wal-Mart de México had orchestrated a campaign of bribery to win market dominance. Specifically the Sinaloa Cartel, they advance their operations, in part, by

“… corrupting or intimidating law enforcement officials. The Sinaloans’ apparent triumph gave rise to ample speculation that this organization was better protected than its rivals by corrupt government authorities.”

Some agents of Mexico’s Federal Investigative Agency (AFI) are believed to be in league with the cartels. There were some attempts to end the cartels’ influence over the Mexican government. One example was the Juan Camilo Mourino, the Secretary of Interior. He was getting too close with the cartels and pressuring them to settle turf negotiations and other affairs to prevent violence in the Mexican streets. Since Mourino was trying to dictate these cartels, El Chapo, killed him by planting a bomb inside a plane he was on board.

govt institutions
Government institutions with agents involved in informal networks of protection for drug cartels in Mexico between 1985 and 2006

During the term of Presidente Calderon, he conducted operations to catch the main cartel leaders to reduce gang violence in Mexico. However, according to The International Narcotics Control Board, although México has made concerted efforts to reduce corruption in recent years, it remains a serious problem, not least because, as stated above, some agents of México’s Federal Investigative Agency (AFI) are believed to work as enforcers for the Sinaloa Cartel and the Attorney General reported in 2005 that nearly 1500 agents were under investigation for criminal activity.

As of 2018, the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, El Chapo, has been arrested and extradited to the United States. However even with his absence, operations must continue as his successor Damaso Lopez Nunez ‘El Licenciado’ tries to take control (which confirms Mark Galeotti’s theory of organised crime being “a continuing enterprise”). The other ‘players’ in the game as of right now are Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion with the influence of La Nueva Familia Michoacana, Los Viagras, and the Beltran Leya Organization. In the southern part of Mexico, the players are the Gulf Cartel with influences of Los Escorpiones and their rivals Los Zetas to get control of the Yucatan Peninsula turf.

Cartel Influence
(c) BBC News

Because there are now smaller cartel groups who don’t have enough organizational structure to traffic an excessive number of drugs, they seek to other affairs such as relying on more localized crimes, such as kidnapping, extortion, cargo theft, carjacking and fuel theft, to raise operational funds. These non-trafficking crimes can pose a significant risk to companies and their employees if heavily armed criminal gangs turn their guns upon civilians to extort, rob or kidnap them. Furthermore, since the state of California has legalized marijuana, drug cartels started to push harder drugs like methamphetamine, heroin, and fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid. Even though the level of violence dropped after the election of President Enrique Peña Nieto in 2012, it has shot up dramatically in the last two years, with 2017 on course to be the worst year on record. Activists and journalists are routinely murdered, while corruption and impunity remain rampant. Mexico registered more than 200,000 murders from January 2007 to December 2016, according to government records. More than 30,000 people are classified as having disappeared in that same time-frame.

Cartel Justice
Cartel “Justicia”

The idealization of organized crime in Mexican popular culture, furthermore, does little to help the government solve its crime problems, because it increases the cartels’ “soft power” and makes them seem as heroes to local communities. Mexican citizens and Hispanic communities in the USA have adopted “Narco culture”; fans of Narco culture will refer to weed as “mota”, and listen to Narco music; they buy material things that symbolize narcotic figures like guns or flashy jewelry; film companies such as Netflix take gangsters’ stories and make television series about them. Some Mexican citizens look up to crime bosses so much that they take it too far to claim their apart of such organization but according to Lara, that can be very dangerous.

The emergence of a popular culture surrounding Mexican organised crime: Netflix’s “Narcos”.

While El Chapo has now been arrested, according to Mexican officials, there is still the need the capture of Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada from the Sinaloa Cartel and Ruben Oseguera or also known as “El Mencho”. The US State Department offers rewards of up to $20m for information on Caro Quintero, and up to $5m each for Zambada or Oseguera. Because of the Mexican Drug Cartels, it not only causes a disruption in the Mexican government but it has also cause suffering to the Mexican people and concern to the American people. The government has made multiple attempts to stop the drug violence but probably more extreme measures should be considering to eliminate these drug cartels and bring peace into the country of Mexico.

To cite this article:


Rodriguez, Carlos, ‘Mexican Cartels’, Here Begynneth a Lytell Geste of Robin Hood (2018), [Date Accessed]


Rodriguez, Carlos, 2003. ‘Mexican Cartels’, Here Begynneth a Lytell Geste of Robin Hood. [online] Available at: <> [Date Accessed].


Mexican Culture Life, 2012. Available at: <; [Accessed 23 April 2018].

Bargent, J., 2014. ‘US Treasury Keeps Pressure On Sinaloa Cartel After ‘El Chapo’ Arrest’. InSight Crime. Available at: <; [Accessed 23 April 2018].

Berenson, T., 2016. ‘Timeline Of El Chapo’s Major Escapes And Captures’. [online] Time. Available at: <; [Accessed 23 April 2018].

Davis, K., 2016. A Short History Of Mexican Drug Cartels. [online] Available at: <; [Accessed 23 April 2018].

Lara, L., 2016. ‘Narco-Cultura’: Mexico’S Drug Slang Enters Dictionary’. Malay Mail. Available at: <; [Accessed 23 April 2018].

Lee, B. and Renwick, D., 2017. ‘Mexico’s Drug War’. Council on Foreign Relations. Available at: <; [Accessed 23 April 2018].

Murataya, R., Chacon, S. and Gonzalez, Z., 2013. ‘The relationship between Mexican drug trafficking organizations and corruption in the Mexican criminal justice and political systems: a review essay’. International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice, 37(4), pp. 341-358.

Stewart, S., 2018. ‘Tracking Mexico’s Cartels in 2018.’ [online] Stratfor. Available at: <; [Accessed 23 April 2018].

Shirk, D. and Wallman, J., 2015. ‘Understanding Mexico’s Drug Violence’. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 59(8), pp.1348-1376.

Trejo, G. and Ley, S., 2017. ‘Why Did Drug Cartels Go to War in Mexico? Subnational Party Alternation, the Breakdown of Criminal Protection, and the Onset of Large-Scale Violence’. Comparative Political Studies 51(7), pp. 930-937

Tucker, D., 2018. ‘Mexico’s Most-Wanted: A Guide to The Drug Cartels’. BBC News. Available at: <; [Accessed 23 April 2018].

Organized Crime

The following essay is adapted from a paper, written by Tyler Welch, on the theory behind the concept of organised crime. Tyler is a first year undergraduate student at Richmond American International University (Leeds RIASA). Originally from Maine, USA, he is also a talented soccer player and is a striker for his university’s team. Tyler also has another forthcoming article which he will be contributing to this website on terrorist subcultures.

Let us imagine that there is a robber who wants to steal from a convenience store. This robber is fairly intelligent and a few days before plans ahead by first walking into the store to find out where all of the security cameras are placed. He may also take note of the hours that are the most popular for customers to go in. After all of his research and planning, he finally carries out the robbery. This crime was certainly organised and executed in a methodical way, yet most people would not consider this robber’s crime as constituting an example of organised crime, for that term, for most people, often brings up images of the Sicilian Mafia, the Russian Mafiya, or the Yakuza, to name but a few. This post discusses how we should define organised crime and how such criminal networks operate. We will then take a more in depth look at the origins of the Sicilian mafia and discuss their ways and customs.

The cast of Goodfellas – this is the image that most people have of organised crime.

The criminologist, James Finckenauer, highlights some of the problems inherent in defining organised crime, saying that,

“the problem […comes] not from the word crime, but from the word organized’.[i]

Crimes such as murder, robbery, and theft are mala in se (wrong in and of itself). Prostitution, drug dealing, bribery, and in some regions, gambling, are mala prohibita (wrong because they are prohibited by law).[ii] All of the above offences would require a degree of method in their execution, therefore, “any definition must address and account for the elusive modifying term organised”.[iii] Thus, a satisfactory definition which distinguishes the actions of mafia groups from the two-bit robber is the fact that organised crime is non-ideological; there is a hierarchy and structure under which its members operate; the hierarchy must facilitate continuity, enabling the group to exist even if its leading members are arrested and imprisoned; the highly secretive yet powerful hierarchy is often reinforced by restricting its membership to a chosen few who are highly vetted; and finally traditional organised crime groups must penetrate the “upperworld” of local and sometimes national governments, as well as businesses, through bribery and extortion.[iv]

Not all organised crime groups are organised in the same way, however, for different groups organise themselves differently, as we can see through the illustrations of the “traditional” hierarchy of organised crime groups and the “loose network”. In the first, the “soldiers” would have to go through the underbosses to get to the boss. Likewise, if the authorities were trying to take down the group, they would have to track down some of the members in the lower parts of the chain so that they can get more information on where the head man is and take the organisation down. This is how the mafia in nineteenth-century Sicily and twentieth-century New York typically operated.

Mafia Structure 1
The “Standard” Criminal Network Hierarchy (C) Larrisia Hall

However, organised crime groups require a particular set of conditions under which they can grow and flourish. To understand the origins of a group such as the Sicilian Mafia, we must turn to the political and social history of nineteenth-century Italy. Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, is well-known as the homeland of the mafia. This island became a part of the nation state of Italy when it was unified under the Royal House of Piedmont-Sardinia in the 1860s. However, Italy at this time and lacked sufficient resources to enforce the law in what had already been an unruly region prior to its unification with Italy, and many of whose inhabitants resented the new regime. Banditry became endemic throughout the southern regions of Italy, and the landowning classes didn’t want their stuff to be taken and vandalized. Since there was no effective police system at the time, the landowning classes turned to private armies, known by the name of mafie, to watch over and protect their estates for a fee. Over time these groups became known as the mafia because they gradually exerted their influence, not only over businesses and farms, but also over local government. The mafia gained a lot of attention at this time, although the people in the mafia rarely call themselves mafia. They rather call it cosa nostra which means “our thing”. These clans are called families or cosche. These families or cosche come together to form a mafia. They all have a strong bond with each other and kinship is applicable as well because everyone is like a brother to one another. Also every mafia has a territory and in the territory they have a monopoly or violence policy. Which means that every business is owned by one of the family members in the mafia and if there is a business that is in operation in the mafias territory and they aren’t willing to pay the mafia they will take matters into their own hands to see that they start paying. Being arranged in such a close knit community comes at a price: no one can leave the mafia because they have to go through an initiation ritual that includes an interrogation, a blood oath to never betray the family, and holding a burning piece of paper. Anyone of the members can move up in the chain of command if they work hard enough because it was a democratic system with an election based on the other family members. To keep track of all these criminals there has to be something to keep them in check. That one thing is honor. A member of the mafia has honor if he always puts the family first and abides by the mafia rules. If a member has no honor they are nothing. There is one sacred term that every member of the mafia must follow and that term is Omerta. That word signifies a code of silence which forbids mafia speaking about the group to non-members, which in practice is a prohibition upon speaking to the police. No two members of the mafia, furthermore, can introduce themselves to one another and only a third member can introduce the two if he knows they are both members of the mafia. Thus, organised crime groups such as the Sicilian mafia are subcultures because their moral values, and the activities they engage in, set them apart from mainstream society with its legal and cultural apparatus.

mafia Structure 2
The Modern “Loose Network” Structure. Source: Source: Klaus von Lampe, “Understanding Organised Crime in Germany” (1995)

While the traditional hierarchy worked well for organised crime groups in the twentieth century, their activities could be significantly disrupted by the authorities if the boss was imprisoned, and the group’s activities could even cease. From the mid-twentieth century, therefore, organised crime groups evolved into a more unorthodox structure called a “loose structure”, facilitated in part by globalisation from the 1980s onwards. In the second image, we can see there are many operational sub-units in the organisation. There is no single place to find the head boss because they are all equally important which makes it very difficult for the authorities to track them down and eliminate because there is no clearly identifiable center of power; the latter structure also facilitates continuity more effectively than the traditional hierarchy does; as no single unit depends upon another, if the leader of one unit is tracked down and sent to prison, the organisation simply carries on.

Although Finckenaur says that that organised crime groups are non-ideological, they are essentially capitalist, and aim to provide people with some type of service.[v] Thus,

making a profit, through whatever means are considered necessary, is in fact the primary goal of organised criminal groups.[vi]

Nowadays many Americans, for example, want sex, drugs, opportunities to gamble, and to obtain outlawed arms, and so organised crime groups are only too ready to make money by providing consumers with such things through illegal means such as drug and people trafficking, and loan-sharking. Often, as in the case of the Sicilian mafia, they even provide protection from robbery, and so they charge law-abiding businesses owners a fee (what we could call extortion). On occasion, organised crime groups invest in restaurants and bars gains to get respectable social status, and present themselves as some type of Robin Hood figures by giving back to the local community. Their legitimate businesses are, of course, also an effective way to launder money.[vii]

Although there is not a universal agreement on the definition of organised crime, the definitions provided by Finckenaur and Galeotti provide a good basis from which researchers and policy makers can move forward in combatting organised crime. This can only be done when the history of these groups is considered; when their hierarchies are analyzed; and by asking questions of mainstream governments such as whether it is productive to prohibit things which people want, when organised crime groups are only too willing to supply them. Finally, it should be remembered that it will always be difficult for anybody to fully investigate the workings of these groups because they form highly secretive subcultures.


[i] James Finckenaur, ‘‘Problems of Definition: What Is Organised Crime?’, Trends in Organised Crime, 8: 3 (2005), 63-83 (p. 64). Crime itself can be straightforwardly defined more simply as an action which is an offence and punishable by law.

[ii] Ibid., p. 65. A simpler form of this is there are actions that can be committed and by the general public it is looked down upon but other actions can be up for debate in what is right and wrong based on preference and the area where the rules are made. Much of the Middle East operates under Islamic laws, which forbid gambling, with one possible penalty for this being beheading. In the United Kingdom, on the other hand, gambling is very lenient. In almost every city center there is a casino or place to make bets on football matches and no one gets punished for it.

[iii] Ibid., p. 64.

[iv] Ibid., p. 65. Finckenaur recognizes something very important in defining organised crime. Some people may believe that groups such as ISIS or Al Qaeda are classified as organized crime but they are not. The criminal organizations actually collaborate with terrorist organizations and the terrorist help in crimes to help finance their own organisation. The difference between the two groups are the ideological and non-ideological sides to them. This means that the organised crime groups go about their business to receive a profit while the terrorist organisations go about their business to advance a political and/or religious agenda.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid., p. 67. Mark Galeotti, Organised Crime in History (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009), p. 1; Mark Galeotti, whose own definition of organised crime is broadly in agreement with Finckenaur’s, sheds further light on our understanding of organised crime networks as a subculture which mirrors the structures of mainstream society, saying that “When societies get organised, so too their criminals; and in this way, organised crime has evolved as the shadowy underside of modernisation and order.” Further information on organised crime and the Siclian mafia can be found in the following works: John Dickie, Cosa Nostra: A History of the Sicilian Mafia (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2004); Petter Gottschalk, ‘How Criminal Organisations Work: Some Theoretical Perspectives’. The Police Journal, 81 (2008), 46-61.

The Legend of Robin Hood

A Forthcoming Public Talk to be delivered at Pontefract Castle, Sunday 8 May 2016


The Renaissance poet Michael Drayton authored a monumental work entitled Poly-Olbion which was published in 1612. It is often described as a ‘topographical poem’ and deals with the history of England and Wales. In one part of this poem he wrote the following lines:

In this our spacious isle I think there is not one,
But he of ROBIN HOOD hath heard, and Little John;
And to the end of time the tales shall ne’er be done
Of Scarlock, George-a-Green, and Much the Miller’s son,
Of Tuck, the merry friar, which many a sermon made
In praise of ROBIN HOOD, his out-laws, and their trade.[1]

I would like to echo Drayton’s words and say that surely everybody here ‘in this our spacious isle’ no doubt has heard of Robin Hood. He is the quintessential noble robber who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. His true love is a woman named Marian. His fellow outlaws include Little John, Will Scarlet, Allen-a-Dale, and Friar Tuck. Their stories have been immortalised in books, films, and television series, and with three movies forthcoming, it seems that Drayton’s prophecy that ‘until the end of time the tales shall ne’er be done’ will continue to ring true. I want to talk to you today about the legend of Robin Hood as a whole. I will briefly discuss some of the historical outlaws whom researchers have identified as being possible candidates for the ‘real’ Robin Hood. I then want to move on to discussing how the legend has been continually reshaped over time, and how Robin Hood has been appropriated by different authors for various purposes. My talk, therefore, will take you on a journey through social, cultural, and literary history from the middle ages until the twentieth century.

FullSizeRender (2)
First page of A Gest of Robyn Hode (c.1450)

A Real Robin Hood?

When I have given public talks before on the legend of Robin Hood, the one question that continually arises is: was Robin Hood a real person, and if so, who was he? It is a question to which there will never be a definitive answer simply due to the paucity of evidence surrounding his life.[2] That being said, this has not stopped people attempting to identify an historic outlaw. I am going to pre-empt your questions by dwelling upon the most likely candidates we have who may be the real Robin Hood.

The late Professor James C. Holt in his work Robin Hood (1982), believed that a man listed in the Yorkshire Assize Rolls between 1225 and 1226 as ‘Robert Hod, fugitive’ was the most likely candidate for the real Robin Hood. And in the image above you can see the entry for this man in the court rolls. The same outlaw turns up years later under the sobriquet of ‘Hobbehod’.[3] Allen Wright, an independent Robin Hood scholar based in Canada, lists in one of his articles several of the other candidates that have at one time or another been identified as the real Robin Hood. Among them is one Robert of Wetherby who is listed in the Court Rolls as ‘outlaw and evildoer of our land’.[4] Other potential candidates include a Robert Hood from Cirencester who, sometime between 1215 and 1216 murdered a man named Ralph in the local Abbott’s garden.[5] And in 1354 there was a Robin Hood who was incarcerated in Rockingham gaol for forest offences.[6]

Most pertinently for audiences here today, perhaps, there is also the case of the supposed Robin Hood of Wakefield. The Robin Hood of Wakefield was identified by a nineteenth-century antiquary named Joseph Hunter (1783-1861). Hunter was appointed as the Assistant Keeper of the Public Record Office, or National Archives as we know it today. In a tract entitled The Great Hero of the Ancient Minstrelsy of England, Robin Hood, published in 1852, he argued that Robin Hood was from Wakefield. Hunter aimed to fit known facts to the early tales of Robin Hood. Hunter first identified a Robert Hood who with his wife Matilda appears in the Court Rolls of the manor of Wakefield in 1316 and 1317. Without any evidence, he argued that this Robert Hood became an outlaw between this time and 1324, when Hunter discovered that there was a valet de chambre to Edward II named Robyn Hode.[7] For Hunter, this seemed to confirm that that this man was the same Robin who enters into the King’s service at the end of the fifteenth-century poem A Gest of Robyn Hode, when the King travels into the forest and meets Robin, and asks him to join his service. The problem with this approach is:

1) There is no indication that this Robyn Hode from 1324 was ever an outlaw.
2) The idea of a monarch going into the woods, as the king does at the end of the Gest, was a common trope in medieval ballads, and it is highly unlikely that the King ever went incognito among the populace.[8]

This has not stopped local historians from sticking to Hunter’s assertions that Robin Hood was a man from Wakefield. To say that the real Robin Hood was from Wakefield, however, is to mix shaky historical methodology with wishful thinking. The fact of the matter is this: yes there was a man named Robin Hood who lived in Wakefield, but we do not know if he was an outlaw.

Indeed, what if Robin Hood was simply an alias? The name ‘Robin Hood’ was often used as an alias by criminals in the medieval period: ‘In 1498, Roger Marshall had to defend himself in court for leading an uprising of 100 people. He had used the alias Robin Hood, and defended himself by claiming his actions were typical Robin Hood practice.’[9] Furthermore, ‘in 1441 a disgruntled mob in Norfolk blocked the road threatening to murder someone. They sang “We are Robynhodesmen — war, war, war”.’[10] And finally ‘in 1469, two people led separate uprisings against the Yorkist government. They used the aliases Robin of Holderness and Robin of Redesdale. Clearly Robin was a name associated with rebellion’.[11] The nineteenth-century antiquary John Timbs in his work Abbeys, Castles, and Ancient Halls of England and Wales (1870) said that there was a term in use from the time of Edward III, ‘Roberdsmen’ which denoted any type of thief or robber.[12]

Thus I hope I have shown you how difficult it is for anybody to identify an historical outlaw whose life and deeds match those of the legendary Robin Hood. We really are dealing with scraps of information: little notes in court rolls; men who used the name of Robin Hood as an alias. But I think it is the very paucity of evidence regarding a real Robin Hood which has allowed the legend to grow over time, and be adapted continually by different people in different ages. Thankfully academic scholarship has now moved beyond trying to identify a historic outlaw who could have been the ‘real’ Robin Hood. And I think this is a move in the right direction: the tale of Robin Hood has been appropriated and adapted many times, and we will never identify a historic outlaw simply due to the lack of evidence. In the words of Professor Alexander Kaufman, ‘the origins of Robin Hood the person and his original context are perhaps best left to those individuals who wish to search for that which is forever to be a quest’.[13]

A Popular Hero: The Medieval Period

While there is little evidence that enables us to definitively identify a single outlaw whose life and deeds gave rise to the legend of Robin Hood, stories about Robin Hood circulated at an early period of English history. In a thirteenth-century poem by William Langland entitled The Vision of Piers the Plowman (c.1370), we meet a lazy Priest named Sloth. Poor Sloth is not a very good cleric. He cannot read or write, and he does not even know his Paternoster by heart. However, the one thing he can recite from memory is ‘rymes of Robyn Hode’. He tells us in the poem that:

I can noughte parfitly my Paternoster as the prest it syngeth,
But I can rymes of Robyn Hode, and Randalf Erle of Chestre.[14]

These words from c.1370 are the first literary reference to Robin Hood. They make clear that during this period ‘rymes of Robyn Hode’, or ballads were circulating orally. Transmission of these tales was often by word of mouth, for England was not a predominantly literate society in the fourteenth century. In fact, the skill of reading and writing was mainly confined to members of the Church and the upper classes.

In time, however, the ‘rymes of Robyn Hode’ were written down. We have five surviving examples of these early rhymes, or ballads, of Robin Hood, and these are: Robin Hood and the Monk which survives in manuscript form and is dated c.1450; [15] Robin Hood and the Potter, which survives in a single manuscript of popular and moral poems that can be dated to c.1500; [16] Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne which is dated to the mid-fifteenth century; [17] and A Gest of Robyn Hode, the content of which is dated to c.1450, but only survives in printed copies from the sixteenth century.[18]

The Robin Hood of these early ballads is very different to the outlaw that we would recognise today. While modern audiences are used to seeing Robin Hood portrayed as the dispossessed Earl of Huntingdon, Robin is not a nobleman in these early texts but is described as a ‘yeoman’. Broadly speaking, a yeoman was a member of the medieval middle classes, for want of a better term, occupying a social position between the aristocracy and the peasantry.[19] This is clear from the outset of the Gest which opens with the following lines:

Lythe and listin, gentilmen,
That be of frebore blode;
I shall you tel of a gode yeman,
His name was Robyn Hode. [20]

All of Robin’s fellow outlaws such as Little John and Much the Miller’s son hail from the same social class of yeomanry. And Robin and his men are quite violent characters. In Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne he cuts off Guy’s head, mutilates his face with a knife, and sticks his head upon the end of his bow:

Robin thought on Our Ladye deere,
And soone leapt up againe,
And thus he came with an awkwarde stroke,
Good Sir Guy hee has slayne.

He tooke Sir Guy’s head by the hayre,
And stickt itt upon his bowes end:
“Thou has beene a traytor all thy liffe,
Which thing must have an ende.”

Robin pulled forth an Irish kniffe,
And nicked Sir Guy in the face,
That hee was never on a woman borne,
Could tell who Sir Guye was.[21]

In Robin Hood and the Monk, one of Robin’s men, Much the Miller’s son and Little John kill a travelling monk and his young page:

John smote of the munkis hed,
No longer wolde he dwell;
So did Moch the litull page,
For ferd lest he wolde tell.[22]

There are also characters whom we would count as staples of the Robin Hood legend today that actually appear nowhere in these early texts. Maid Marian is notable absent from these texts. In fact, Robin has no love interest at all. Marian entered the legend via a different route to the ballads. The first time that two people named Robin and Marian were associated together was in a French pastoral play entitled Jeu de Robin et Marion, dating from c.1282. It is unclear, however, whether the Robin and Marian of this play were understood to be outlaws. There is certainly no proven link between the play and the Robin Hood tradition. We do know, however, that Marian appears alongside the ‘proper’ Robin Hood in sixteenth-century Tudor May Day celebrations. It seems from thence she made her way into Anthony Munday’s two plays The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington and The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon written between 1597 and 1598. Despite these two plays, however, Maid Marian would not get her “big break” until the nineteenth century with a short novella by Thomas Love Peacock entitled Maid Marian published in 1822, although of this novel I shall speak later.

The poem A Gest of Robyn Hode (c.1450) is the most significant of all the medieval texts. While Robin was an outlaw in Robin Hood and the Monk and Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, he did not really have a social mission as such. It is with the Gest that this changes. It is a long poem, 1.824 lines in total, and appears to have been constructed from a variety of existing tales which somebody, at some point, endeavoured to give unity to. It is a type of the ‘good outlaw’ tale. Robin will help poor, honest people whom he meets: the first ‘fytte’ of the poem sees him lending money to an impoverished knight named Sir Richard of the Lee, whose lands have been mortgaged to pay a debt to the Abbot of St. Mary’s in York. And in this poem many familiar scenes occur, such as the archery contest, or his meeting with the King and subsequent pardon. At the end of the poem, Robin falls ill and goes to Kirklees Priory to be bled. The prioress, in league with Sir Roger of Doncaster, bleeds him to death. The poem then ends with a benediction:

Cryst have mercy on his soule
That dyed upon the rod.
For was a good outlawe,
And dyde pore men moch gode.

Although the idea that Robin steals from the rich and gives to the poor is not fully articulated in the poem (it was not until John Stowe’s Annales of England in 1592 that this idea would become current),[24] it is in the Gest that we first get the idea that Robin is kind to the poor and ‘dyde pore men moch gode’.

The Seventeenth Century

Robin moved up in the world during the seventeenth century. In the afore-mentioned plays by Anthony Munday, The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington and The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon, Robin was cast for the first time as an Earl. There was no precedent in the ballad tradition for Robin being an Earl. Munday did this because he was catering to a primarily aristocratic audience. Although largely forgotten about today outside of academic circles, these plays established a new narrative in the Robin Hood legend: Robin is depicted as an aristocrat; he is outlawed because of a plot against him by rival courtiers; and instead of a bold yeoman outlaw/rebel, the reason that Robin is outlawed is because he has stayed loyal to King Richard. Hence any subversive political traits are extracted from his character. Thus instead of challenging the establishment, in these plays Robin becomes an upholder of the established order.

The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntington (1598) by Anthony Munday.

In fact, in the area of high culture, Robin becomes a very non-threatening and gentle figure. This is the case in a play written by Ben Jonson entitled The Sad Shepherd, or, A Tale of Robin Hood (1641). Firstly, it’s unclear whether Robin is actually an outlaw at all: he is described as ‘Chief Woodsman, and Master of the Feast’.[25] His men refer to him as ‘gentle master’.[26] Furthermore, in the play, Robin never actually steals from anybody. Instead the story is what we call a ‘pastoral’, which is defined as:

A literary work (as a poem or play) dealing with shepherds or rural life in a usually artificial manner, and typically drawing a contrast between the innocence and serenity of the simple life and the misery and corruption of city and especially court life.[27]

In the play, Robin Hood has invited all the shepherds and shepherdesses of the Vale of Bevoir to a feast in the forest of Sherwood, and then he learns that the shepherd, Aeglamour, fears his true love has drowned in the river – hence The Sad Shepherd. In the meantime, Marian appears to have been possessed by an evil witch, named Maudlin, whom, it is speculated, is also responsible for the disappearance of the Shepherd’s beloved. Jonson never finished the play – that was a task left to subsequent writers. However, as among the cast is one ‘Reuben, the Reconciler’, one academic named Ann Barton suggests that Jonson would probably have had the witch and her children forgiven and present at the final delayed banquet of venison.[28] However Jonson might have ended, as you can see, it’s a very different tale of Robin Hood than the one that we are used to seeing.


At the same time as Jonson was writing, more exciting tales of Robin Hood were appearing in broadside ballads. Broadsides were large folio size sheets of paper with the lyrics of a song printed on one side. They were sold usually for a penny by itinerant hawkers. The ballads which appear in the seventeenth century are not the long type of medieval narrative poem, but rather are shorter stories, supposed to be sung, and they depict Robin as something of a buffoon. Ballads such as Robin Hood and the Tanner, which dates from the seventeenth century, for instance, see Robin meeting a stranger in the forest. Robin bids him to stand, and the traveller takes offence. The traveller challenges Robin to a battle with quarterstaffs. The stranger wins the fight, and afterwards the two fellows make friends, and the stranger usually joins Robin’s band. Now although this is not quite the ‘heroic’ Robin Hood we expect, you may already realise that even these relatively unimportant later texts have left their mark upon modern-day portrayals: anybody who has seen a Robin Hood film or television show will no doubt recall that, in most instance, when Robin meets Little John for the first time, the two men fight and then become friends.

The Eighteenth Century

The eighteenth century is a very interesting century for the Robin Hood legend. On the one hand, he’s depicted as a cold-blooded killer. On the other hand he is celebrated. But let us begin at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Between 1714 and 1737, Robin Hood’s reputation took a beating. In criminal biography, the most popular genre of literature, Robin was portrayed as a cold-hearted killer. It is best to briefly digress, however, to explain why criminal biography emerged when it did.

Johnson title page
Johnson’s Lives of the Highwaymen (1734)

In the 18th century crime was the subject on everybody’s lips, and people believed that they were in the midst of a crime wave. The situation apparently became so bad by mid-century that Henry Fielding gloomily prophesied ‘I make no doubt, but that the streets of [London], and the roads leading to it, will shortly be impassable without the utmost hazard’.[30] The legal response to this crime wave was the introduction of a bloody law code, when 200 offences became capital felonies. This resulted in the proliferation of cheap criminal biographies. Major novelists of the period also capitalised on this market for criminal biographies, and Daniel Defoe’s novel Moll Flanders (1722) is often seen as a more sophisticated example of the genre. The first appearance of Robin Hood in criminal biography comes in Captain Smith’s A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1719), where he is listed as ‘Robin Hood: A Highwayman and Murderer.’ Robin also makes an appearance in Captain Johnson’s Lives and Actions of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734), as well as the anonymous The Whole Life and Merry Exploits of Bold Robin Hood (1737). The content of Smith’s Highwaymen was heavily plagiarised for subsequent accounts of Robin’s life, and it is Smith’s text which is focused upon here.

Today Robin Hood is usually portrayed as the noble Earl of Huntingdon, which is a legacy of Munday’s plays, but Smith was not convinced:

This bold robber, Robin Hood, was, some write, descended of the noble family of the earls of Huntingdon; but that is only fiction, for his birth was but very obscure, his pedigree ab origine being no higher than poor shepherds, who for some time lived in Nottinghamshire, in which county, at a little village adjacent to the Forest of Sherwood, he was born in the reign of King Henry the Second.[31]

Robin Hood’s social status, however, is fairly immaterial to the reader of criminal biography in the 18th century: all men were capable of committing a crime because all men were sinners – there was no concept of a ‘criminal class’.[32] You became a criminal if, like Robin, you allowed yourself to succumb to your own sinful inclinations.

Smith tells how Robin Hood was ‘bred up a butcher, but being of a very licentious, wicked inclination, he followed not his trade, but in the reign of King Henry the Second, associated himself with several robbers and outlaws’. We are told that Robin Hood steals from the rich and gives to the poor, but in the 18th century people often rolled their eyes when they heard of thieves doing this. When one highwayman in 1763, Paul Lewis, told an official that he stole from the rich and gave to the poor, the sarcastic response was that this was ‘a common excuse for all thieves and robbers’. Even Robin’s meeting with the king is played out differently to how it is portrayed in movies today, for in Smith’s work, instead of the meeting ending amicably, Robin simply robs him:

The King, seeing it was in vain to resist Robin Hood’s power, he [sic] gave him a purse in which was about 100 pieces of gold; but swore when he was got out of his clutches that he would certainly hang him whenever he was taken.[33]

Evidently, the 18th-century Robin Hood is loyal to no man, not even the King. Finally, Smith portrays Robin Hood as a man who is wicked until the day he dies, for he records that:

Robin Hood had continued in his licentious course of life for 20 years, when being very sick, and then struck with some remorse of conscience, he privately withdrew himself to a monastery in Yorkshire, where being let blood by a nun, he bled to death, aged 43 years, and was buried in Kinslay.[34]

Criminal biographies were intended to serve as pieces of moralist literature. Readers were supposed to heed the warnings of the life of the criminal to avoid making the same sinful mistakes that had led felons to the gallows. Eighteenth-century authors had a more nuanced and, dare it be said, ‘realistic’ impression of the type of man that Robin may have been like, if he existed at all. If you lived in the eighteenth century, it was this version of Robin’s life which you were most likely familiar with: criminal biographies such as Smith’s Highwaymen and The Newgate Calendar were the third most common book to be found in the middle-class home, after the Bible and The Pilgrims Progress.

It was only in the latter part of the century when Robin became reimagined as a hero in the conventional sense of the word, with the publication of Joseph Ritson’s two-volume work Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795).[35] Joseph Ritson was born in Stockton-on-Tees and was a conveyancer by trade. In his spare time, however, he was an antiquary. He was interested, not in the ‘high’ culture of people in times past, but in the culture of the common man. He published many collections of ancient ballads and songs such as A Select Collection of English Songs (1783) and Pieces of Ancient Popular Poetry (1791). Ritson quickly established himself as an authority on many historical subjects owing to his willingness to seek out obscure primary sources from archives and libraries across the country. He was also cantankerous, and fiercely critical of his rivals such as Thomas Percy who took it upon himself to edit and ‘refine’ Old and Middle English texts.

Title Page to the 1823 Edition of Ritson's Anthology
Ritson, J. ed. Robin Hood (1795 – 1823 Edition).

Ritson’s work is significant in the overall construction of the legend because, as his title suggests, he collected together and made accessible in printed form every Robin Hood text he could find ranging from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century. The Middle English ballad A Gest of Robyn Hode, for instance, was first printed for a mass market readership in Ritson’s publication. Some of the other ballads which he included in his collection had been printed before, of course, by antiquaries such as Percy in his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), and Thomas Evans’ Old Ballads, Historical & Narrative (1784), and in the often reprinted Robin Hood’s Garland chapbooks (‘garlands’ were cheaply printed collections of popular songs). But Ritson’s Robin Hood was the first book to include all of these ancient and modern Robin Hood texts in one place.

The most important part of Ritson’s work, however, was the section entitled ‘The Life of Robin Hood’ which he prefixed to the collection of ballads. In this Ritson laid down the “facts” of the legend, saying:

Robin Hood was born at Locksley, in the County of Nottingham, in the reign of king Henry the Second, and about the year of Christ 1160. His extraction was noble. […] he is frequently styled, and commonly reputed to have been Earl of Huntingdon.[36]

Ritson, furthermore, decides to lay down the ‘facts’ about his character:

With respect to [Robin Hood’s] personal character: it is sufficiently evident that he was active, brave, prudent; possessed of uncommon bodyly [sic] strength, and considerable military skill; just, generous, benevolent, faithful, and beloved or revered by his followers and adherents for his excellent and amiable qualities.[37]

Another thing about Ritson is that he is a bit of an armchair republican/revolutionary. His letters from the 1790s are full of praise for the French Revolution. And so Ritson fashions Robin Hood into an almost quasi-revolutionary leader:

In these forests, and with [his] company, he for many years reigned like an independent sovereign; at perpetual war, indeed, with the king of England, and all his subjects, with an exception, however, of the poor and needy, and such as were ‘desolate and oppressed,’ or stood in need of his protection.[38]

And finally, Ritson tells us that Robin steals from the rich and gives to the poor:

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 denyed. Testimonies to this purpose, indeed, would be equally endless and unnecessary […] But it is to be remembered […] that, in these exertions, he took away the goods of rich men only; never killing any person, unless he was attacked or resisted: that he would never 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.[39]

As you can see, the story of Robin Hood, due in large part to Joseph Ritson, is beginning to look familiar to the story which we see depicted on film and television today. Ritson died shortly after the publication of Robin Hood, but we know from his letters that he was in contact with a young Scotsman, Walter Scott. It is Scott, as we shall see in a few moments, who carried Ritson’s portrayal of Robin Hood even further in his novel Ivanhoe (1819).

The Nineteenth Century

It is indeed during the nineteenth century when the Robin Hood legend assumes the form that we are familiar with today. This was primarily due to three literary works: Scott’s Ivanhoe, Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822), and Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood and Little John (1840). Scott is perhaps the most famous of all Scottish novelists. Born in Edinburgh in 1771, after completing his studies he was articled to the legal profession through a friend of his father’s. Throughout his life, however, in his leisure time he devoted himself to antiquarian pursuits, avidly reading scholarly works such as Percy’s Reliques.[40] Inspired by Percy, whose three volume work was a collection of Old and Middle English poetry, Scott went on to produce the three volume work, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-1803). Scott did not merely produce scholarly editions of old texts, however; he was also a poet, authoring several lengthy narrative poems: The Lay of the Last Minstrel, Marmion, The Lady of the Lake, Rokeby, and Lord of the Isles, to name but a few. His poetry nowadays has been all but forgotten except by scholars, and it is his novels for which he is chiefly remembered. He authored over 25 novels, most of which are now known as the Waverley Novels. Among these novels, it is Waverley (1814) and Ivanhoe which are regarded by scholars as his two ‘key texts’.

chapter 1st
Ivanhoe Frontispiece (1871 Edition)

Most of Scott’s novels dealt with the fairly recent Scottish eighteenth-century history. Waverley – regarded as the first historical novel in Western fiction – dealt with the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. His second novel Guy Mannering (1815) is a tale set in Scotland during the 1760s, while his third novel The Antiquary (1816) is set in Scotland during the 1790s. With Ivanhoe, Scott made a departure from Scottish history by writing a novel set in England during the medieval period, and it is with Ivanhoe that Scott is said to have, in the words of John Henry Newman, initiated the Medieval Revival of the early nineteenth century.[41]

Although we class Scott primarily as Romantic novelist today, he would have seen himself as one of the gentlemen antiquaries of the eighteenth century, such as Percy or Ritson. Reflecting his love of antiquarian pursuits, the preface purports to be a letter sent from one (fictional) antiquary, Laurence Templeton, to the (also fictional) Rev. Dr. Dryasdust. The story of Ivanhoe, we are told, is taken from an ancient manuscript in the possession of Sir Arthur Wardour. Readers of Scott novels will quickly realise that this is another fictional character, taken from The Antiquary. The purpose of the novel, Templeton writes, is to celebrate English national history, especially when no one until that date had attempted to:

I cannot but think it strange that no attempt has been made to excite an interest for the traditions and manners of Old England, similar to that which has been obtained in behalf of those of our poorer and less celebrated neighbours [he is referring here to his own Scottish novels].[42]

England is in need of national heroes to celebrate, just as Scotland, through Scott’s novels, had them. Scott says that:

The name of Robin Hood, if duly conjured with, should raise a spirit as soon as that of Rob Roy; and the patriots of England deserve no less their renown in our modern circles, than the Bruces and Wallaces of Caledonia.[43]

The actual novel is set during the 1190s, and England is in a parlous state, divided between the Normans and the Anglo-Saxons:

A circumstance which tended greatly to enhance the tyranny of the nobility, and the sufferings of the inferior classes, arose from the consequences of the Conquest by William Duke of Normandy. Four generations had not sufficed to blend the hostile blood of the Normans and Anglo-Saxons, or to unite, by common language and mutual interests, two hostile races, one of which still felt the elation of triumph, while the other groaned under all the consequences of defeat.[44]

The divisions between the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans come to a head while Richard I is captured by Leopold of Austria, and his brother John rules as Regent. John taxes the people heavily to pay King Richard’s ransom. In reality, John is hoarding the money for himself, hoping to raise an army to overthrow the few remaining barons who support Richard, while buying the others off.

Unbeknownst to John and his Templar henchmen, Richard has also returned to England in disguise. Richard finds his his land in chaos: outlaws roam in the forest; the Normans oppress the good Saxons; and Ivanhoe’s father, Cedric, plans on using his brother Athelstane as a rallying point through whom the oppressed Saxons can rise up and overthrow their Norman conquerors. Recognising the parlous state of the country, the outlaw known as Robin of Locksley teams up with both Ivanhoe and King Richard and so that Richard can regain control of his kingdom and thereby unite the nation. Added into this plot are vividly exciting scenes; jousting tournaments, archery tournaments, damsels in distress, and epic sieges and battles. It is a piece of pure medieval spectacle.

Scott completely invented the idea that the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans were at odds with each other in the 1190s. He did this because he had a message for nineteenth-century readers: society does not have to be divided the way that it was in the 1190s. Scott argues that if all classes of society work together, they can overcome their differences. This is symbolised in the alliance between the yeoman Robin of Locksley (the working classes), Ivanhoe (the middle class), and Richard (royalty/aristocracy). Each class has responsibilities towards and should show loyalty to one another: ‘the serf [should be] willing to die for his master, the master willing to die for the man he considered his sovereign’.[45] Medieval feudalism, where each class owed loyalty to the other, could, Scott argued, be adapted for the nineteenth century. England in 1819 was in fact a very divided society. The end of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars brought in its wake a trade and financial depression along with mass unemployment. In addition, the working classes and the middle classes were agitating for political reform. Issues came to a head in 1819, while Scott was working on Ivanhoe, in Manchester. Peaceful protesters had gathered in Peter’s Fields calling for political enfranchisement. However, the local magistrate ordered the militia to charge at the protesters. Fifteen people died and over 700 people were injured. Scott himself was horrified by this event, and the general state of the nation. Hence the reason that he wrote Ivanhoe was to create a shared sense of history around which all people could rally. This is why we see all classes of people working together. Through Robin Hood, for example, Scott intended to show that:

From the beginning of national history, ordinary men had an important role to play in the shaping of the nation […] his novel dramatizes the idea of history in which the lowest in the social order are as important as the highest.[46]

Robin Hood is the saviour of the nation in Ivanhoe – the upper classes need the working classes as much as the working classes rely on their ‘betters’.

Walter Simeone, an early twentieth-century academic, argued that the modern idea of Robin Hood was practically ‘invented’ by Scott.[47] Robin of Locksley in Ivanhoe is a freedom fighter first, and an outlaw second. And when you think of it, almost every modern portrayal sees Robin as a political fighter first, and a thief second. In fact, as in Ivanhoe, in film and television portrayals we rarely see Robin Hood robbing anybody. Indeed, Robin is only an outlaw in Scott’s novel because he and his fellow Anglo-Saxon outlaws have been deprived of their rights. Out of all the heroes in Scott’s novel, it is only Robin Hood who people remember.

Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866)

The early nineteenth century was a good time for Robin Hood literature. The year 1818 saw John Keats and John Hamilton Reynolds write two Robin Hood poems each. In 1819 two novels featuring the outlaw hero came out: the anonymously authored Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time (1819) and Ivanhoe. Neither of those novels, however, featured Robin’s love interest, Maid Marian. Marian’s ‘big break’ came in 1822 with the publication of Thomas Love Peacock’s novella Maid Marian. Peacock was a friend of Romantic writers such as Lord Byron and Mary Shelley. Indeed, it has been theorised by Stephen Knight that Robin and Marian in this novel are based upon Byron and Shelley.[48] Although the publication date of the novella is 1822, all first editions carry a note to the effect that the majority of the work was written in 1818. This is perhaps Peacock trying to distance himself and his work from Scott’s Ivanhoe, and to claim originality for it. As the Robin Hood critic Stephen Knight notes, however, the siege of Arlingford in Peacock’s novel seems to be a little too similar to Scott’s siege of Torquilstone in Ivanhoe, and thus it is unlikely that Peacock was not at least partially influenced by Scott.[49]

The novel was originally intended as a satire on continental conservatism and its enthusiasm for all things feudal and medieval.[50] After the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815), many of the pre-Napoleonic governments were restored to power on the continent. But these governments’ power rested on flimsy bases, and some governments, such as that of Spain, attempted to re-impose a new type of feudalism.[51] While the press in some continental countries was hailing the return of established monarchies and ‘the old order’, Peacock was more critical. In particular, he targeted what he called the ‘mystique’ of monarchy and the cult of legitimacy that had grown up around monarchies in the aftermath of Napoleon’s conquests. Through his novella he showed how man’s feudal overlords have always been the same: greedy, violent, cynical, and self-interested,[53] which is the reason why the aristocracy have such a bad reputation in his novel.

Peacock’s novel begins with the nuptials of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon and his lady Matilda. The wedding is interrupted by the Sheriff’s men who seek to arrest him for ‘forest treason’. Robin fights of the Sheriff’s men and then takes to the woods, despoiling the Sheriff and his men of all their goods whenever they can. After resisting the advances of Prince John, Matilda joins Robin in Sherwood Forest and assumes the name of Maid Marian. Together, Robin and Marian effectively rule as King and Queen in the forest:

Administering natural justice according to Robin’s ideas of rectifying the inequalities of the human condition: raising genial dews from the bags of the rich and idle, and returning them in fertilising showers on the poor and industrious; an operation which more enlightened statesmen have happily reversed. [54]

As Peacock’s title suggests, Robin is the secondary character in the novel, with Marian being the main protagonist. However, she is no delicate little lady. Instead she takes an active role in defending Sherwood – Robin’s forest kingdom – from the depredations of the Sheriff. She takes an active role in defending her home from Prince John’s soldiers, and even fights Richard I in disguise. Marian is unsuited to the domestic sphere of life, and longs to be out in the world, as she says herself:

Thick walls, dreary galleries, and tapestried chambers, were indifferent to me while I could leave them at pleasure, but have ever been hateful to me since they held me by force’.[55]

In effect, Peacock, in crafting an image of Marian that was active, strong, and brave, he was rejecting nineteenth-century gender conventions, in which the woman of a relationship was supposed to confine herself to the domestic sphere. Marian in Peacock’s novel is essentially a proto-feminist.[56]

The novel is also significant because it is the first time that the legend of Robin Hood is coherently articulated in the novel form.[57] Early ballads such as the Gest were compiled from a number of different tales, and are not classed as ‘sophisticated’ Middle English literature such as that of Chaucer’s poetry or Langland’s Piers Plowman. Other prose accounts of Robin Hood marginalise the hero to an extent: in Scott’s Ivanhoe, for instance, Robin only appears in ten out of forty-four chapters, and he is just one among many medieval heroes to appear in the novel. And neither does Robin have a backstory before Peacock’s novel.

Peacock set the tone for future interpretations of Maid Marian as an active, brave, and charming heroine. In Joaquim Stocqueler’s Maid Marian, the Forest Queen; A Companion to Robin Hood (1849), Marian is presented again as a fighting woman. The paradox is that, despite this ‘muscular’ portrayal of active femininity, Marian as a character has never been adapted by female writers. Nevertheless, the representation of Marian as an action woman is an interpretation that has lasted until the age of Hollywood; Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), the BBC Robin Hood series (2006), and the Russell Crowe Robin Hood (2010) all show Marian as an active and independent woman.

The man who really brings together the ideas of both Scott and Peacock is an author who is relatively unknown today: Pierce Egan the Younger (1814-1880). Egan was a prolific author who penned a number of medievalist novels, most of which were sold in weekly penny instalments. His quite radical work Robin Hood and Little John (1840) told the story of the hero from birth to death. Robin is portrayed as a freedom fighter, but also at the same time a chivalric, almost “Victorian” gentleman. And neither did Egan flinch from making his novels violent. Illustrating many of the scenes in his novel himself, the pages are full of arrows in people’s eyes, and in the text limbs are cut off and there’s a high body count. It is the perfect novel for a young male readership, even if Egan himself intended his novel to be read by adults as well. Egan’s novel was highly successful, went through six editions, and was even translated into French by the famous author Alexandre Dumas as Le Prince des Voleurs and Robin le Proscrit (1863) which was then retranslated back into English as two novels entitled Robin Hood the Outlawand The Prince of Thieves (1904).[58]

Pierce Egan the Younger pic
Pierce Egan the Younger (1814-1880)

After Egan, the quality of Robin Hood novels declines somewhat. And there are some terrible, highly moralistic novels. Some of them were written by Churchmen, and they are all overtly patriotic, stressing the duties of loyalty and service to the crown. Whereas the Robin Hood of earlier novels had always represented something of a challenge to the establishment, in this any subversive traits Robin has are totally neutered. He is now a thoroughly Victorian “drawing room hero” – a gentleman, a worthy subject, and in some novels it is unclear whether he is an outlaw or not. The one exception to these late nineteenth-century novels is perhaps Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (1883). Until Pyle, most Robin Hood novels had followed Scott in portraying him as an Anglo-Saxon freedom fighter. But Pyle returned to the earlier ballads, and from them constructed quite a lengthy narrative, telling the story of Robin’s life from birth to death. This was one of the more successful novels, and if you pick up a Penguin Classics edition of the story of Robin Hood today, it will most likely be Pyle’s novel.

The Twentieth Century

At the turn of the twentieth century, however, it is clear that the medium for telling tales of Robin Hood was shifting from the book to the screen. And no twentieth-century Robin Hood novel has ever really had the power to truly have a lasting impact upon the tradition as Scott, Peacock, and Egan did. Robin Hood movies were released in 1912 and 1913,[59] but the first major Robin Hood movie was released in 1922 and starred Douglas Fairbanks in the title role. The idea of Robin wearing tights was something which Victorian actresses adopted so that they could, with propriety, show their legs on stage, but in the 1922 movie the semi-acrobatic costume allowed Fairbanks to make darting leaps from castle edges, and Robin becomes a true swashbuckling hero.[60]

The next major Robin Hood movie was Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Flynn’s portrayal of Robin Hood is very much influenced by Fairbanks’ movie and Walter Scott’s novel. Robin Hood is an Anglo-Saxon freedom fighter, but he is more of an American hero than an English hero in this movie. And the movie endorses Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, which can be seen in the oath that Robin makes the outlaws swear to:

You the freemen of this forest swear to despoil the rich only to give to the poor, to shelter the old and the helpless, to protect all women rich and poor, Norman or Saxon, and swear to fight for a free England, to protect her loyally until the return of our king and sovereign Richard the Lionheart, and swear to fight to the death against all oppression.[61]

It is this American, populist vision of Robin Hood that has persisted in cinematic portrayals. Hollywood has always far outstripped the British Film industry in terms of quantity of output, if not in terms of quality. Robin Hood is perhaps the perfect hero to be “Americanised”: he is the man who stands up for the common man against the strong and powerful, much like an American superhero. There is the idea that Robin is a Lord, but on the whole cinematic portrayals of the outlaw myth are relatively classless, just as American society is supposed to be. Perhaps the most memorable American portrayal of the outlaw legend, for many here today at least, is the Kevin Costner movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991). So Americanised it was, that the filmmakers seemingly never even made the effort to have key members of the cast speak with an English accent. Costner’s Robin Hood is a relatively two-dimensional character, and the movie is full of big Hollywood action sequences – Robin catapulting into Nottingham castle to rescue Marian, for instance, is definitely an “American” addition to the legend.

A more “realist” Robin Hood? The 2010 movie starring Russell Crowe.

The Costner movie was a piece of pure Hollywood fancy, a product of a time when cinema audiences evidently required little historical realism when watching a period film. The most recent movie Robin Hood (2010) starring Russell Crowe, although criticised by some reviewers, was an attempt at least to ground the story of Robin Hood in historical “fact”, with the signing of Magna Carta in 1215. It is essentially what, if it was a superhero movie, might be termed an ‘origins’ story. It is not a tale of merry men in Lincoln-Green costumes r big Hollywood set pieces, but a thoughtful and well-executed portrayal of a man who leads his people in an attempt to secure political rights from the monarch.

This is not to say that the British have not produced some good adaptations of the legend, but the most successful British portrayals have tended to be television affairs. There was the weekly TV series The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring the gentlemanly, and quite bland, Richard Green, which was broadcast between 1955 and 1959. In this series, following Scott, Robin is a Saxon nobleman who has returned from the Crusades and becomes an outlaw. But although the TV series may appear to be a thoroughly English affair, the hidden hand of the Americans was not far away: many of the series’ writers were Americans who held communist sympathies and who had fled the States after being accused of ‘Un-American Activities’ by the McCarthy government.[62] So in effect we have America giving us a quintessentially English Robin Hood. The television series Robin of Sherwood which aired in the 1980s is certainly my personal favourite. For me this series represents a return to the bold outlaw of A Gest of Robyn Hode. Robin is no lord in this series, and he does not declare his loyalty to the King at the end of the series. To me, he appears to be closest to how the medieval ballad writers imagined Robin Hood: an outlaw who owed allegiance to nobody.


I just want to finish off by saying that hopefully what you’ve learned today is this: that the legend of Robin Hood has always been varied and adaptable. There may or may not have been a man whose life and deeds gave rise to the legend that was to become Robin Hood. We shall never know, mainly due to the lack of evidence surrounding his life. From early poems and rhymes, the legend rolled on, and acquired new features: in the fifteenth century Robin Hood was a bold yeoman forester; in the sixteenth century he became a member of the aristocracy; in the eighteenth century he was portrayed as both a wicked criminal and simultaneously praised as ‘the celebrated English outlaw’; in the nineteenth century in Ivanhoe, he became an Anglo-Saxon freedom fighter; and in the twentieth century he is now more or less an American hero. It is difficult to know what further turns the legend of the outlaw of Sherwood will take. One thing is certain, however, and that is that, as Drayton prophesied in 1612 that ‘to the end of time the tales shall ne’er be done’.[63]


[1] Michael Drayton, Poly-Olbion cited in Joseph Ritson, Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw 2 Vols. (London: T. Egerton, 1795), 1: i.
[2] James C. Holt, ‘Hood, Robin (sup. fl. late 12th-13th cent.), legendary outlaw hero’ in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) [Internet <; Accessed 11 April 2016].
[3] Allen Wright, ‘The Search for a Real Robin Hood’ Bold Outlaw [Internet <<>> Accessed 11 April 2016].
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] James C. Holt, Robin Hood 2nd Edn. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1989), p.45.
[8] See Mark Truesdale and Stephen Basdeo ‘Medieval Continuities: Nineteenth-Century King and Commoner Ballads’ in Leeds Working Papers in Victorian Studies, Volume 15: Imagining the Victorians Eds. Stephen Basdeo and Lauren Padgett (Leeds: LCVS, 2016) [Forthcoming].
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] John Timbs, Abbeys, Castles, and Ancient Halls of England and Wales (London: F. Warne & Co. 1870), 356.
[13] Alexander Kaufman, ‘Histories of Contexts: Form, Argument, and Ideology in A Gest of Robyn Hode’ in British Outlaws of Literature and History: Essays on Medieval and Early Modern Figures from Robin Hood to Twm Shon Catty Ed. Alexander Kaufman (Jefferson, NC: MacFarland, 2011), 146-164 (146).
[14] William Langland, The Vision of Piers the Plowman Eds. Elizabeth Robertson & Stephen H. A. Shepherd (New York: Norton, 2006), 82.
[15] Anon. ‘Robin Hood and the Monk’ in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales Eds. Thomas Ohlgren and Stephen Knight (Kalamazoo, MI: Middle English Text Series, 2000), 31-56.
[16] Anon. ‘Robin Hood and the Potter’ in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales Eds. Thomas Ohlgren and Stephen Knight (Kalamazoo, MI: Middle English Text Series, 2000), 57-79.
[17] Anon. ‘Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne’ in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales Eds. Thomas Ohlgren and Stephen Knight (Kalamazoo, MI: Middle English Text Series, 2000), 169-183.
[18] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’ in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales Eds. Thomas Ohlgren and Stephen Knight (Kalamazoo, MI: Middle English Text Series, 2000), 80-168.
[19] See R. Almond and A. J. Pollard, ‘The Yeomanry of Robin Hood and Social Terminology in Fifteenth-Century England’, Past & Present 170: 1 (2001), 52-77.
[20] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 90.
[21] Anon. ‘Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne’, 178.
[22] Anon. ‘Robin Hood and the Monk’, 43.
[23] Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2003), 58.
[24] Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, 43.
[25] Ben Jonson, The Sad Shepherd, or, A Tale of Robin Hood Ed. Frances Waldron (London: J. Nichols, 1784), 6.
[26] Jonson, The Sad Shepherd, 12.
[27]‘Pastoral’ in Merriam-Webster Dictionary [Internet <; Accessed 21 April 2014].
[28] Roy Booth, ‘Ben Jonson, The Sad Shepherd’ [Internet <<>&gt; Accessed 18 April 2016].
[29] A version of this section originally appeared in History Today, October 2015.
[30] Henry Fielding, An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers (Dublin: G. Faulkner, 1751), 1.
[31] Alexander Smith, A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen Ed. Arthur Heyward (London: Routledge, 1933), 408.
[32] Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge, 1987), 60.
[33] Smith, Highwaymen, 411.
[34] Smith, Highwaymen, 412.
[35] A version of this section originally appeared in History Vault, October 2015.
[36] Joseph Ritson (ed.), Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads 2 Vols. (London: T. Egerton, 1795), 1: iv.
[37] Ritson, Robin Hood, 1: xii.
[38] Ritson, Robin Hood, 1: v
[39] Ritson, Robin Hood, 1: ix.
[40] David Hewitt, ‘Scott, Sir Walter (1771–1832)’ in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
[41] John Henry Newman cited in Alice Chandler, ‘Sir Walter Scott and the Medieval Revival’ Nineteenth-Century Fiction 19: 4 (1965), 315-332.
[42] Walter Scott, Ivanhoe: A Romance Ed. Andrew Lang (London: MacMillan, 1910), xliii.
[43] Ibid.
[44] Scott, Ivanhoe, 3.
[45] Chandler, ‘Sir Walter Scott and the Medieval Revival’, 324.
[46] W. E. Simeone, ‘The Robin Hood of Ivanhoe’, The Journal of American Folklore 74: 293 (1961), 230-234 (231).
[47] Simeone, ‘The Robin Hood of Ivanhoe’, 230.
[48] Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in Outlaw Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), 127.
[49] Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood, 125.
[50] Marilyn Butler, ‘The Good Old Times: Maid Marian’ in Robin Hood: An Anthology of Scholarship and Criticism Ed. Stephen Knight (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1999), 141.
[51] Knight, Reading Robin Hood, 127.
[52] Butler, ‘The Good Old Times’, 141.
[53] Butler, ‘The Good Old Times’, 143.
[54] Thomas Love Peacock, Maid Marian and Crochet Castle Ed. G. Saintsbury (London: MacMillan, 1895), 126.
[55] Peacock, Maid Marian, 84.
[55] Butler, ‘The Good Old Times’, 150.
[57] Knight, Reading Robin Hood, 126.
[58] See Stephen Basdeo, ‘Radical Medievalism: Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood, Wat Tyler, and Adam Bell’ in Leeds Working Papers in Victorian Studies, Volume 15: Imagining the Victorians Eds. Stephen Basdeo and Lauren Padgett (Leeds: LCVS, 2016) [FORTHCOMING].
[59] Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, 153.
[60] Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, 152.
[61] The Adventures of Robin Hood, dirs. Michael Curtiz & William Keighley (1938) [DVD]
[62] Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, 161.
[63] Drayton, op cit.