“If they must have a British Worthy, they would have Robin Hood”

By Stephen Basdeo

This post originally appeared on the IARHS website

Amongst the great writers of eighteenth-century literature, the names of two men stand out: Sir Richard Steele (1672-1729) and Joseph Addison (1672-1719). These two quintessentially “Augustan” [1] writers dominated the literary marketplace between 1709 and 1715 through their essay periodicals The Tatler and The Spectator. Due to the expiration of the Licensing Act in 1695, which saw the end of government censorship, there was an explosion of printed material, [2] and Addison and Steele’s periodicals were part of this expansion in the availability of print culture.

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Addison and Steele’s periodicals

The public appetite for literature it seemed could not be sated. Although these periodicals had a seemingly modest circulation of just 3,000 copies, Addison claimed a readership for The Spectator that was somewhere approaching 60,000. [3] The fame of The Tatler and The Spectator also spread overseas: James Madison (1751-1836), the fourth President of the United States, recalled having read these periodicals daily (which by his time had been bound into 8 volumes and gone through numerous editions). [4] Addison’s high estimate for the number of readers is not unreasonable, for periodicals such as The Tatler, like many of the other periodicals available in the early eighteenth century, were designed to be read and debated in public arenas such as the coffeehouse and the tavern, and periodicals, or “moral weeklies” as Jurgen Habermas calls them, contributed to the birth of the bourgeois public sphere, or as we might phrase it today, public opinion. [5] Through the essays in these periodicals these authors promoted a culture of aristocratic politeness among urban readers, in which learning and self-improvement were the order of the day. [6]

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Frontispiece of Joseph Addison, from Robert Cochrane, ed., The English Essayists: A Comprehensive Selection from the Works of the Great Essayists from Lord Bacon to John Ruskin (London: William P. Nimmo, 1876).

It is Addison’s reference to Robin Hood in the eighty-first issue of The Tatler which I would like to bring to your attention. He opens his essay with a quotation from Virgil’s Aeneid:

Hic Manus ob Patriam pugnando Vulnera passi,Quique pii Vates & Phaebo digna locuti, Inventas aut qui Vitam excoluere per Artes,Quique sui memores alios fecere merendo.

Here are the hands that suffered wounds by fighting for their country and those devoted poets, who spoke words worth of Phoebus or those who improved life through learned arts and those who by their merits caused others to remember them. [7]

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Credit: Phoebus, or Apollo, from the Victoria and Albert Museum

Addison tells his reader that he was musing upon the notion of immortality:

“There are two Kinds of Immortality; that which the Soul enjoys after this Life, and that imaginary Existence by which Men live in their Fame and Reputation.” [8]

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Marble bust of Alexander the Great

It is with the second type of immortality that Addison concerns himself with in his essay, and he says that he spent the whole afternoon mentally cataloguing the various heroes and “military Worthies” that have appeared throughout world history. [9] He was so preoccupied with this matter, he says, that after many hours awake thinking it over, he fell into a deep sleep and proceeded to have a dream in which he was invited into a great hall in which a number of prestigious persons entered:

The first who step’d forward, was a beautiful and blooming Hero, and as I heard by the Murmurs round me, Alexander the Great. He was conducted by a Crowd of Historians. [10]

Other ancient worthies enter: Xenophon, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Julius Caesar, Cicero, Hannibal, Cato, Pompey the Great, Augustus; it is all very classical, which of course ties into the neoclassical modes of the eighteenth century.

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Augustus of Prima Porta

All of these worthies sit at a table, but it is revealed that there is an empty seat at the table where these illustrious heroes are seated. They begin to whisper among themselves and discuss who, from British history, is worthy to join them at their table. Would they choose King Arthur? He had, after all, been called a “British Worthy” only a few years prior in John Dryden’s opera King Arthur; or, the British Worthy (1691). How about King Alfred, the only English King ever to have been given the epithet “the great”? No—neither of these men are good enough in the estimation of men such as Caesar and Augustus. They conclude by saying that,

“if they must have a British Worthy, they would have Robin Hood.” [11]

An outlaw who (supposedly) lived in the thirteenth century was greater than all of the other heroes of English history, and worthy enough to take his place amongst the likes of Alexander and Caesar.

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In Addison’s essay all of the ancient worthies are from the Classical period, with the exception of Robin Hood. Indeed, Addison’s placing of Robin Hood—a medieval figure—among all those classical heroes seems incongruent. In the early part of the eighteenth century, whilst it was recognised that the Middle Ages were integral to Europe’s past, the period was “not much liked” by scholars and thinkers.[12] And 1750 is the date that Peter Raedt cites as having been the year when eighteenth-century scholars stopped being dismissive of the Middle Ages as a barbaric interlude between antiquity and the “enlightened” eighteenth century and the period began to be appreciated in its own right.[13] Raedt concentrates his article on Germany, and while some of his points are applicable to England, at the same time England seems to have never truly “lost” an appreciation of its medieval past during the early part of the eighteenth century. Dryden’s and Purcell’s King Arthur has already been cited, and Dryden also “translated” (into perfectly rhyming couplets) parts of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in his Fables: Ancient and Modern (1700). Handel also produced a medievalist opera Rinaldo (1711) set during the time of the First Crusade (1096-1099). Thomas Arne and James Thomson also authored the libretto for the opera Alfred (1740), known most famously today for its finale Rule Britannia! An appreciation for England’s medieval past also manifested itself in architecture, most famously in the Temple of British Worthies at Stowe, designed in 1734 by William Kent. Whilst the marble busts of most of the great men on display there are mostly from the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, there are two medieval figures present: King Alfred and Edward, the Black Prince.

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Temple of British Worthies at Stow Gardens

Yet Addison’s idealisation of Robin Hood as a British Worthy is an anomaly when compared to the works of Arne who venerated a King, Alfred, and the establishment figures that were sculpted in marble by William Kent. Robin is different to these other illustrious persons because he is an outlaw. And Addison’s reference to Robin Hood is certainly more positive than the one which would appear in Alexander Smith’s A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen (1719) only a few years after Addison was writing, where Robin is described as a “wicked, licentious” individual. [14] This makes it seem odd that Addison would choose Robin Hood to make a point in a “moral weekly.” I have two theories about this. Firstly, it would seem that Robin Hood was by the early eighteenth century gentrified enough in the public consciousness for him to be used in such a way. The gentrification process had begun with Anthony Munday’s two plays The Downfall of Robert Earl of Huntington and The Death of Robert Earl of Huntingdon (1597-98) where Robin is recast firmly as an establishment figure. [15] The second is that an idealisation of Robin Hood fits in with eighteenth-century contemporaries’ love of liberty. In a later issue of The Tatler, Addison wrote about another vision he had in which he witnessed the goddess of Liberty presiding over the prosperity of the nation. [16] Although crime was increasingly viewed as a problem during the eighteenth century, as indicated by Fielding’s lament that the streets of London would soon become impassable except “without the utmost hazard,” [17] liberty-loving men of Georgian England resisted any attempt by the government to form a professional police force. In a rather odd sort of way, highwaymen (and Robin is the original highwayman) were loved by the people because to many they were seen to embody liberty. [18] People of all ranks held a degree of admiration for highwaymen. At the trial of the “Gentleman Highwayman,” James Maclaine (1724-1750), for example, “many persons of rank of both sexes attended his examination, several of whom were so affected with his situation that they contributed liberally towards his support.” [19] This admiration of outlaws and highwaymen perhaps then explains why Smith, whose Highwaymen is a heavily moralist text, is so keen to recast Robin Hood in a negative light, for he evidently disagrees with the prevailing admiration for both Robin Hood and contemporary criminals.

Addison’s and others’ representations of Robin Hood raise questions as to whether the so-called ‘medieval revival’ of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century was actually much of a ‘revival’ at all. In the eighteenth century, however, the Robin Hood tradition has a neoclassical overlay, in a similar manner to Ben Jonson’s play The Sad Shepherd; or, a Tale of Robin Hood (1631), where the story of Robin Hood is portrayed as a classical and quasi-tragic story of lost pastoral love. [20] Drawing further connections with antiquity, in the play Maid Marian is equated with the goddess Diana. [21] After Addison was writing, Ely Hargroves, in Anecdotes of Archery (1792), catalogues all of the greatest archers in history, highlighting many of the illustrious archers of history such as Pandarus, Ulysees, Aeneas, and Robin Hood. [22] As Robin Hood scholars we are often told that the credit for popularising the medieval period rests largely with Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), a novel which, in the words of John Henry Newman (1801-1890),

‘first turned men’s minds in the direction of the Middle Ages.’ [23]

Whilst Scott’s historicist vision of the Robin Hood tradition was different to the neoclassical eighteenth-century interpretations of it discussed above, a sustained interest, admiration even, for medieval figures can be traced throughout the eighteenth century, not just from the Gothic Revival of mid-to-late part of the century onwards.

In conclusion, whilst many early eighteenth-century appropriations of Robin Hood are negative, Addison’s elevation of Robin Hood into the status of a “worthy” in the face of negative interpretations is interesting for it confirms to us that the gentrification process was not a linear process but an uneven one. Addison’s essay is the only “gentrified” representation of Robin Hood (gentrified in the sense that he is elevated into someone equal to the heroes of antiquity) which I have managed to find between c.1700 and c.1730 and is certainly deserving of consideration. It is often fleeting comments about Robin Hood in later texts such as The Tatler which allow us to map and construct an idea of how people in past ages interpreted the legend at various points in its history. By 1709 it seems that Robin’s status was firmly gentrified in public consciousness for Joseph Addison to speak about him in a “moral weekly.”


Notes

[1] “Augustan,” named after the Roman Emperor, Augustus, is the term usually applied to “high” culture in England which flourished during the reigns of Queen Anne and George I. It is so called because artists and writers imitated Classical styles in their works, e.g. Alexander Pope’s Dunciad (in imitation of the Iliad), or his Imitations of Horace.

[2] Julian Hoppit, A Land of Liberty? England, 1689-1727, The New Oxford History of England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 177.

[3] Joseph Addison, “The Spectator, Number 10.” [1711] The Spectator: A New Edition, Reproducing the Original Text, Both as First Issued and as Corrected by its Authors. Ed. Henry Morley (London: George Routledge & Sons, 1880), 19.

[4] Ralph Ketcham, James Madison: A Biography (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1971), 39.

[5] See Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (London: Polity, 1989).

[6] James V. H. Melton, The Rise of the Public in Enlightenment Europe, New Approaches to European History 22 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 96.

[7] “No. 81,” in The Tatler, ed. Donald F. Bond. 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 2: 13-21. Bond notes that but “for the last two sentences, this number is by Addison,” 13. The Latin verse from Virgil included at the beginning of Addison’s article for my essay is translated by Richard Thomason (Ph.D. student at the University of Leeds).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 2: 19.

[10] Ibid., 2: 17.

[11] Ibid., 2: 20.

[12] Peter Raedt, “Representations of the Middle Ages in Enlightenment Historiography,” The Journal of Medieval History 5, no. 1 (2002): 1-20 at 1.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Alexander Smith, A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen. Ed.  Arthur Heyward (London: George Routledge & Sons, 1933), 412.

[15] Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), 44.

[16] “No. 161,” in Bond, The Tatler, 2: 397-401. This issue is also authored by Addison.

[17] Henry Fielding, An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers (Dublin: G. Faulkner, 1751), 1.

[18] Lucy Moore, Conmen & Cutpurses: Scenes from the Hogarthian Underworld (London: Penguin, 2001), xiii.

[19] Andrew Knapp & William Baldwin ed. “JAMES MACLANE Called ‘The Gentleman Highwayman.’ Executed at Tyburn, 3rd of October, 1750, for Highway Robbery.” The Newgate Calendar. http://www.exclassics.com/newgate/ng234.htm (accessed 26 August 2015).

[20] Stephen Knight, “‘Meere English Flocks’: Ben Jonson’s The Sad Shepherd and the Robin Hood Tradition,” in Robin Hood: Medieval and Post-Medieval, ed. Helen Phillips (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2005), 129-44 at 131.

[21] Ibid., 134.

[22] Ely Hargroves, Anecdotes of Archery from the Earliest Ages to the Year 1791 (York: Printed for E. Hargroves, 1792), 1-17.

[23] Alice Chandler, “Sir Walter Scott and the Medieval Revival,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 19, no. 4 (1965): 315-32 at 315. 

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The Roman Robin Hood: Bulla Felix (fl. AD 205-207)

(Header Image: Two Roman Bandits Fighting – 19th-Century Print)

This post is a précis of the following article: B.D. Shaw, ‘Bandits in the Roman Empire’ Past & Present No.105 (1984), pp.3–52, as well as supplemental information from Thomas Grunewald, Bandits in the Roman Empire: Myth and Reality Trans. J. Drinkwater (London: Routledge, 2004). The story of Bulla Felix will also appear in an extended form in my forthcoming book: The Lives and Actions of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Rogues, and Murderers (Pen & Sword, 2018).


Introduction

Throughout human history it appears that, as long as an ‘upperworld’ has existed – mainstream society with laws and systems of government – there has also existed an ‘underworld’ – those who have transgressed the law and set themselves in opposition to society. The ancient world is full of examples of bandits. The book of Judges in the Old Testament refers to robber bandits:

The leaders of Shechem rebelled against Abimelech by putting bandits in the hills, who robbed everyone who travelled by on the road (Judges 9: 25, New English Translation).

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Jesus was Crucified along with two Bandits (17th-century print)

Indeed, Jesus used the example of bandits to provide the illustration to his parable of the Good Samaritan:

After careful consideration, Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho when he fell into the hands of bandits. They stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead (Luke 10: 30, New International Version).

This post aims to introduce readers to a man who can justifiably be called ‘The Roman Robin Hood’: Bulla Felix, who flourished as a bandit in Brundisium, Southern Italy between 205 and 207 AD.

Interfectus a latronibus (“Killed by Bandits”)

The Roman state enacted a number of measures to deal with bandits: Shaw notes that the construction of watchtowers and military posts were not simply a means of subduing potentially hostile populations but also to protect travellers from robbers; similarly, Roman soldiers were not just instruments of conquest but also provided a rudimentary form of policing, functioning as detectives, law enforcers, torturers, executioners, and gaolers. Having said this, this form of policing was only effective in the highly militarised parts of the empire, but there were many areas where the arm of the state could not fully penetrate. For this reason numerous laws were also passed which encouraged local people (whom the Roman state knew would often give tacit approval to the actions of bandits) to betray them in return for a reward. Furthermore, citizens were exempted from homicide laws if they killed a bandit.

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(c) Bernard D. Shaw, Past & Present

Yet in spite of the measures enacted against it, banditry continued to be a problem throughout the entire Roman Empire, from Judaea to Britannia, and the three most common causes of death were old age, sickness, and attacks by bandits. Travelling on the country roads from town to town presented the greatest threat to coming into contact with bandits. Contemporary records reveal that high status Roman citizens could often simply disappear if they travelled beyond city walls without adequate protection. Another sign of the ubiquity of bandits in Roman life is the fact that “killed by bandits” appears as an inscription on several tombs.

Indeed, there was a sense that bandits were a class apart from common criminals. The justice meted out to them, if they were caught, was summative (i.e. judgment against them was declared on the spot). The punishment ranged from being thrown to wild beasts in the amphitheatre, to being burned alive or being crucified.

The Life of a Latrones

What type of person, then, became a bandit in the Roman Empire?

Shaw notes that it was mostly army veterans and deserters who took to this course of life. Their training in a state-sanctioned violent profession gave them the tools and experience in combat that they needed to turn to a life of banditry. Indeed, for some soldiers this way of life was their only recourse: the bonuses and earnings of a demobilised soldier were very frugal, and they needed to find some way to support themselves.

Another type of profession that was closely associated with banditry was that of a shepherd. The people who followed this profession were usually poor, yet a shepherd in the mountains would have known the local terrain, and often operated in areas where the state enforcement of the law was weak. Moreover, the shepherd could move about these places relatively quickly.

It is one thing to rob travellers on the highway, but it is another thing to dispose of the stolen goods. Most Roman bandits, as thieves in all ages, required the services of a receptator (a fence) to sell their stolen articles to. Often, as is the case with shepherds, the fences were usually local worthies who turned a blind eye and asked no awkward questions as to how certain items magically appeared in a bandit’s possession. The fences, if caught, were liable to the same punishments as bandits themselves – the amphitheatre, burning, or crucifixion.

Bulla Felix – the Roman Robin Hood

The main details of Felix’s life come from the writings of Cassius Dio, a Roman historian. One cannot help but be struck by the number of similarities between him and the much more famous English bandit, Robin Hood.

Like Robin Hood is said to have done, Felix headed a substantial army of around 600 men. Yet despite the attempts of the emperor to capture him,

[Felix] was never seen when seen, never found when found, and never caught when caught.

It was not simply an army of 600 brutish fighting men that he had built up but a sophisticated intelligence network: the information he received from those loyal to him allowed him to stay one step ahead of the law.

Another similarity to Robin Hood is that Felix only stole from the rich, and what is more, he gave a lot of these proceeds to the poor. This is another reason why he was always able to evade the authorities: the locals were loyal to him and his men. If the writings about him are to be believed, Felix was an early example of what Eric Hobsbawm calls ‘a social bandit’: someone whom the lord and the state regard as criminal, but who remain within peasant societies and are looked up to as champions, freedom fighters, righters of wrongs.

Felix, like his medieval successor Robin Hood, was also a master of disguise, and there is one particular incident in particular which is reminiscent of a scene from early Robin Hood literature:

While in disguise he approached the Roman military officer who had been tasked with “exterminating” his gang. Bulla told the officer that he knew where Bulla could be found (not a lie) and said that he would betray Bulla if only the centurion would follow him to the bandit’s hideout. The gullible officer swallowed the bait and advanced into a wooded thicket where Bulla’s men promptly took him prisoner. Back in Bulla’s camp there ensued a piece of serio-comic drama in which Bulla reversed the normal lines of authority. He donned the official robes of a Roman magistrate, climbed onto a tribunal and summoned the centurion, with his head shaven, before his “court”. Bulla then delivered his sentence: “Carry this message back to your masters: let them feed their slaves so that they might not be compelled to turn to a life of banditry” (Shaw, 1984, p.47).

This is like a scene in the fifteenth-century ballad Robin Hood and the Potter, in which Robin, disguised as a potter, is invited to dine with the Sheriff of Nottingham. Robin informs the Sheriff that he can take him to meet Robin Hood and capture him. The Sheriff agrees, but when he and Robin are in the forest, Robin blows his horn at which all his outlaws come running, and Robin reveals his true identity. Robin allows the Sheriff to leave on the condition that he vows never to molest him and the outlaws again. The Sheriff, humiliated, agrees and is permitted to leave. Neither story is probably true.

In the end, it was a woman who proved to be Felix’s downfall: the authorities found out about a certain woman that he was intimately involved with. She was convinced to betray him for a fee. Felix was later arrested while sleeping in his cave. He was sentenced to be thrown into the wild beast pit and he was torn limb from limb.