The Virgin and the Outlaw

By Stephen Basdeo

In modern popular culture, heroes often possess some supernatural powers, or at other times they are so skilled at what they do that their superiority often appears to be supernatural, or at least outside of the bounds of normal humans’ abilities. In our modern and largely secular world, comic book heroes have a range of powers; Superman’s superpowers are quite literally otherworldly, hailing as he does from planet Krypton; the X-Men’s various skills are a result of the fact that they are mutants who represent the next stage in human evolution. Robin Hood was, as James C. Holt argues, a precursor to the comic book superhero.[1] And like all good superheroes, Robin Hood appears to be invincible; things always go his way. Indeed, it is important, as Eric Hobsbawm says in Bandits (1969), that thieves are represented as, or in fact represent themselves, as being supported by some sort of ‘magic’, be it a holy amulet or devotion to a particular saint who sees them through the good and bad times.[2] Thus, in medieval texts, Robin’s invincibility stems partly from the fact that he is devoted to the Virgin Mary. As we will see, however, Robin’s Marianism was by no means unique, for in a wide range of European medieval literature, Mary is cast as the friend and special patron of outlaws who protects them.[3]

Legenda Aurea, 1290 circa, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence

One set of sources which have been largely overlooked in Robin Hood scholarship are medieval miracle tales, which is surprising as many of them feature thieves who, like Robin Hood, are often protected by the Virgin Mary. For example, in Jacobus de Voraigne’s The Golden Legend (c. 1262), which was a phenomenally popular anthology of saint’s lives and other miracles (more than a thousand manuscripts of it survive throughout Europe), we are told the story of how Mary saved a thief from the gallows on account of his devotion:

There was a thief that often stole, but he had always great devotion to the Virgin Mary, and saluted her oft. It was so that on a time he was taken and judged to be hanged. And when he was hanged the blessed Virgin sustained and hanged him up with her hands three days that he died not ne had no hurt, and they that hanged him passed by adventure thereby, and found him living glad of cheer. And then they supposed that the cord had not been well strained, and would have slain him with a sword, and have cut his throat, but our blessed Lady set on her hand tofore the strokes so that they might not slay him ne grieve him, and then knew they by that he told them that the blessed Mother of God helped him, and then they marvelled, and took him off and let him go, in the honour of the Virgin Mary, and then he went and entered into a monastery, and was in the service of the Mother of God as long as he lived [tr. William Caxton].[4]

A similar tale is told in William of Malmesbury’s twelfth-century anthology entitled Miracles of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in which we are introduced to a thief named Ebbo.

Especially among laymen the story of Ebbo the thief is told and retold with zest. No man was ever bolder breaking into rich men’s stables or burgling their houses. If his eye was caught by a steed of unusual speed or size, be rustled it by night. If anything valuable was rumoured to be hidden in a chamber, he crept right into the room however many bolts protected it, slithering like a slippery snake through the tiniest of crevices.[5]

Yet he is a good outlaw, we are assured, because he was devoted to the worship of the blessed Virgin:

Despite all this, he deeply loved our Lady Mary, so far as that kind of man could. He commended himself to her in every situation, and sometimes wept at the thought of her, even though he did not abstain from sacrilege and was driven on by an innate love of sweet greed. Even when he had determined upon a robbery, he would call upon her name, begging not to be caught. Similarly, when he had pounced upon the prey he sought and had satisfied his greed, he would make over a tenth of what he had stolen to be used by her servants, especially in a house where he heard that religion was flourishing.[6]

Ebbo’s fame appears to have been quite far-reaching; it was not only in Malmesbury’s text that Ebbo features but also in Cantigas de Santa Maria (c. 1221–84), a collection of 420 poems written in Portuguese and Galician. When Ebbo is captured, then in a similar manner to the way in which she rescued the thief in The Golden Legend, when Ebbo is hanged she makes sure that the rope does not kill him by suspending him in the air.

Royal 2 B.VII, f.206
Bas-de-page scene of Ebbo, the thief, surrounded by five figures, two of whom are bearing knives, and being supported by the Virgin for two days on the gallows; a decorated initial ‘D'(ominus). Royal MS_2_b_vii_f206r

With the Virgin Mary being a popular figure of devotion among thieves in Europe, Robin’s devotion to her becomes rather less remarkable. Out of all of the early Robin Hood tales, there are texts in which Robin’s devotion to the Virgin is made explicit: A Gest of Robyn Hode (c. 1495), and also a later seventeenth-century story entitled Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne (the physical ms for this text dates from the 1600s, but a similar story was known during the fifteenth century).[7] In A Gest of Robyn Hode, one of the reasons why Robin Hood commands his followers, Little John, and Will Scarlet, to never harm any travelling party with women is because of his devotion to Mary:

A gode maner than had Robyn;

In londe where that he were,

Every day or he wold dyne

Thre messis wolde he here.

The one in the worship of the Fader,

And another of the Holy Gost,

The thirde of Our dere Lady,

That he loved allther moste.

Robyn loved Oure dere Lady:

For dout of dydly synne,

Wolde he never do compani harme

That any woman was in.[8]

In Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, when Robin and Guy, a bounty hunter, are fighting in the forest, Robin is almost killed.

Robin was reachles on a roote,

And stumbled at that tyde,

And Guy was quicke and nimble with-all,

And hitt him ore the left side.

“Ah, deere Lady!” sayd Robin Hoode,

“Thou art both mother and may!

I thinke it was never mans destinye

To dye before his day.”

Robin thought on Our Lady deere,

And soone leapt up againe,

And thus he came with an awkwarde stroke;

Good Sir Guy hee has slayne.[9]

It is only when Robin calls upon the Virgin Mary that he finds the strength to fight his way out of his close call with death at the hands of Sir Guy. Mary is also briefly invoked in another early poem entitled Robin and Gandeleyn (c. 1450), which might be related to the corpus of early Robin Hood texts, and she is also briefly called upon in The Outlaw’s Song of Trailbaston (c. 1305). According to their representations in medieval literature, therefore, there is a pan-European cult of Mary among many thieves during the Middle Ages.

12827.h.1/3, opposite 148
19th-century illustration of Robin Hood fighting with Guy of Gisborne

Pointing out that Mary appears in outlaw tales is all well and good, but one has to ask: why was the Virgin Mary a popular figure of devotion with outlaws? A cynical reading of Robin Hood’s Marianism is posited by Crystal Kirgiss, who argues that while Robin pays lip service to Our Lady, ‘he is in fact devoted to the Virgin only insofar as it serves his own financial purpose’.[10] Robin does indeed benefit financially from his worship of the Virgin Mary; one year after Robin lends £400 to Sir Richard of the Lee, in order that Richard could settle his debt to the Abbot of St. Mary’s in York, the outlaws find a monk travelling through the forest with £400; the money is taken from the monk because he lies about how much money he had on his person. The logical conclusion for Robin is that, since the monk is from the Abbey of St. Mary’s, their paths have crossed because Mary is ensuring that Robin gets his money back.

I am unconvinced by Kirgiss’s argument; as it says at the beginning of the Gest, Robin’s worship of the Virgin is something that he does every day, and not every day in the outlaw’s life presented the opportunity for financial enrichment. In Catholic thought, the idea is that people pray to Mary for her to intercede with God on their behalf. Yet as Rachel Fulton-Brown points out, while Mary had a maternal aura, she was often just as intimidating as God the Father.[11] In Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, Mary is seen actually helping Robin Hood to win the battle. As Fulton Brown further shows, there are numerous instances in medieval literature where Mary helps those whom society would deem as sinners and wrongdoers; she intervenes in the affairs of adulterous couples, for instance, and she is representative of the mercy of Christ.[12] If Mary was already known in the medieval period as the sinners’ helper, then Robin’s devotion to her begins to make sense.

Such a perspective explains why, in countries such as Italy which still have a strong Catholic identity, Mary is still venerated among members of the most infamous criminal gangs: the Sicilian Mafia and the ‘Ndrangheta, and also among the Mexican cartels.

Robin Hood is, of course, an English legend at its core. Over time, especially as a result of the Protestant Reformation in the Tudor period, the overtly Catholic elements of the Robin Hood story were quietly dropped, although there are a few brief references to Mary in Anthony Munday’s two influential plays: The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington and The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon (1597–98). By the time of the Enlightenment, when Joseph Ritson published his scholarly Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795), Robin’s piety is acknowledged but it is treated as a quaint reminder of a more superstitious age.


[1] James C. Holt, Robin Hood, 2nd edn (London: Thames and Hudson, 1989), p. 6.

[2] Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits, rev. ed. (London: Abacus, 2003), p. 56-58.

[3] I would like to thank Rachel Fulton-Brown for bringing the story of Ebbo the Thief to my attention via Twitter. Fulton Brown has recently written a monograph entitled Mary and the Art of Prayer: The Hours of the Virgin in Medieval Christian Life and Thought (Columbia University Press, 2018). Fulton-Brown also provides regular updates via her blog:

[4] Roger Chartier, ‘The Hanged Woman Miraculously Saved’, in The Culture of Print: Power and the Uses of Print in Early Modern Europe, ed. by Roger Chartier and Linda G. Cochrane (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), pp. 59-91 (p. 73).

[5] William of Malmesbury, Miracles of the Blessed Virgin Mary, trans. by R. M. Thomson and M. Winterbottom (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2015), p. 103.

[6] Ibid.

[7] See Thomas Ohlgren, Robin Hood: The Early Poems, 1465-1560; Texts, Contexts, and Ideology (Newark, Del: University of Delaware Press, 2007) for information on dating the Gest.

[8] ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, ed. by Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren [Accessed 5 June 2018].

[9] ‘Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne’, in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, ed. by Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren [Accessed 5 June 2018].

[10] Crystal Kirgiss, ‘Popular Devotion and Prosperity Gospel in Early Robin Hood Tales’, in British Outlaws of Literature and History: Essays on Medieval and Early Modern Figures from Robin Hood to Twm Shon Catty, ed. by Alexander L. Kaufman (Jefferson, NC: MacFarland, 2011), pp. 165-78 (p. 165).

[11] Rachel Fulton Brown, Mary and the Art of Prayer: The Hours of the Virgin in Medieval Christian Life and Thought (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), pp. 53-54.

[12] For an informative review of Fulton Brown’s book see here: Nathan Ristuccia, ‘Our Lady of Everything’, First Things, May 2018 [Accessed 5 June 2018].


“Robin Hood’s Rescue of the Three Squires” and the Political Economy of Banditry

Many Robin Hood ballads were printed as broadsides during the seventeenth century. The majority of them depict Robin Hood as a rather inept outlaw who, every time he stops somebody, tends to get beaten up. Some of them do, however, present us with a picture of what we expect Robin Hood to do: mount a heroic fight against the dastardly Sheriff of Nottingham. One such ballad is Robin Hood Rescuing Three Squires, which is the title that the American Scholar, Franis J. Child gave it. However, the ballad sometimes has variant titles such as Robin Hood Rescuing the Widow’s Three Sons (Child actually records three different versions of this ballad, though none of the stories in any of them significantly diverge from the other).

RH and Woman
Robin Hood talking to the ‘silly’ old woman

The story is a basic one in which one day Robin comes across an old woman who is weeping. Robin approaches her and asks her what is wrong:

What news? What news? Thou silly old woman?

What news hast thou for me?

Said she, There’s three squires in Nottingham town

Today is condemned to die.[i]

(‘Silly woman’ was not meant to sound disparaging. Instead it meant ‘old’ or ‘frail’ woman). The sheriff has had three young men arrested and they have been sentenced to be hanged. In some versions of this tale, it is the woman’s sons who are to be hanged.

What happens next is rather interesting, however: everybody knows that Robin Hood’s sworn enemy is the Sheriff of Nottingham. In most stories, from the medieval poem A Gest of Robyn Hode (c. 1450) down until modern films, he will often do anything he can to get one over on the sheriff.  However, in this ballad it is clear that Robin has a criteria for judging whether someone is worthy of being rescued:

O have they parishes burnt? He said,

Or have they ministers slain?

Or have they robbed any virgin.

Or with any man’s wives lain?

They have no parishes burnt, good sir,

Nor yet have ministers slain,

Nor have they robbed any virgin

Nor with other men’s wives lain.

O what have they done? said bold Robin Hood,

I pray thee tell to me.

It’s for slaying of the king’s fallow deer,

Bearing their long bows with thee.[ii]

Robin does not decide to automatically ride to their rescue, it will be noticed. He first ascertains what type of criminals the men due to be hanged are; whoever the writer of this ballad was it is obvious that he is a very moral, asking as he does whether they have killed any ministers or committed adultery. Furthermore, several medieval and early modern texts state that Robin never harmed women, so in this case he has to ascertain that too. Robin’s attitude here, in fact, demonstrates a rudimentary awareness of the political economy of organised crime and its relationship with the state and law enforcement.[iii] Throughout history, organised crime networks are content to not cause too much trouble for local law enforcement. In fact, laying low and not bothering law enforcement in their daily duties is often beneficial for bands of criminals: it takes the heat away from them. Furthermore, the merry men need to be seen as the ‘good guys’; they depend, as all bandits do (cf. Hobsbawm’s Bandits, 1969) upon the goodwill and favour of the people; not a single soul would look favourably upon Robin and his men if they were to rescue from the gallows arsonists, adulterers, or those who mistreated women.

RH and Gallows
Robin Hood rescuing three men from the gallows

Luckily for the woman and her three sons, it seems that the sheriff has indeed unjustly arrested them. The men appear to be kindred spirits of Robin’s for they have only hunted the king’s deer. Robin, therefore, decides to rescue all of the men. On his way to Nottingham, he meets a beggar and asks to change clothes with him (presumably, he thinks he will be too recognisable in his suit of Lincoln green). The execution is taking place just outside the castle walls. Once there, Robin finds a crowd gathered around the gallows, and the sheriff asks if anyone will serve as the hangman for the three young felons. Robin (as the beggar) volunteers. At the foot of the gallows, Robin blows his horn and

The first loud blast that he did blow,

He blew both loud and amain,

And quickly sixty of Robin Hood’s men,

Came shining over the plaini.

O who are you the sheriff he said,

Come tripping over the lee?

The’re [sic] my attendants brave Robin did say,

They’ll pay a visit to thee.[iv]

In revenge for attempting to execute some poor young lads who probably only wanted to feed themselves, the outlaws grab hold of the sheriff and take him back to the forest. They then erect a gallows there and hang him instead.

In conclusion, although the legend of Robin Hood seldom features in discussions of organised crime, banditry, and its relationship to the state, it is clear that whoever wrote this ballad had an idea that bandits could not simply thwart the actions of members of law enforcement as they pleased. Modern portrayals of Robin Hood also hint at this pattern of behaviour in Robin Hood’s gang; in the 1980s television series entitled Robin of Sherwood (1984–86), Robin recognises the value of not killing the sheriff; the outlaws need the Sheriff and Guy of Gisborne to stay alive because, in spite of the fact that the sheriff is ever ready to hunt them down, the outlaws must not be seen as the aggressors and certainly not as people who would kill wantonly. To quote a very recent, though entirely unrelated, fictional portrayal of organised crime, the television series Gotham: when a low-ranking member of an organised crime is holding Jim Gordon captive and is ready to kill him, the big boss comes along and stops them from being killed; he reminds his minion that “there are rules”. Similarly with Robin Hood, there were rules to be followed; Robin’s arch-enemy was the Sheriff of Nottingham, but that did not necessarily mean that Robin was ever ready to defy the sheriff for no good reason.

[i] ‘Robin Hood Rescuing Three Squires’, in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, ed. by Francis J. Child, rev. ed., 5 vols (New York: Dover, 2003), 3: 180.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] See the following works for more information on the operations of organised crime and the history of organised crime: S. Skaperdas, ‘The political economy of organized crime: providing protection when the state does not’, Economics of Governance, 2: 3 (2001), 173-202; Kelly Hignett, ‘Co-option or Criminalisation? The State, Border Communities and Crime in Early Modern Europe’, Global Crime, 9: 1 (2008), 35-51; Mark Galeotti, Organised Crime in History (Abingdon: Routledge, 2008)

[iv] ‘Robin Hood Rescuing Three Squires’, 3: 181.

Reading Robin Hood in World War Two (1939–45): Data from Mass Observation

Before the twentieth century, Robin Hood was a literary figure: he is the main protagonist in a number of important literary works such as A Gest of Robyn Hode (c. 1450); Anthony Munday’s The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington and The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon (1597–98); Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819); and Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822). Many fine scholarly studies have been conducted which have studied the production and dissemination of these texts.[i] In the twentieth century, the principal means through which the outlaw’s story was disseminated became films and, as domestic television ownership increased, serialised shows. Added to this we can, in the late-twentieth and twenty-first centuries, add videogames.[ii] Thus, in the twentieth century, Robin Hood became a visual rather than a literary hero.

While the late-Victorian period witnessed a number of new Robin Hood children’s books being written and published, there were noticeably fewer in the twentieth century, perhaps as a result of the emergence of film technology. Robin Hood scholarship that focuses on twentieth-century sources likewise tends to privilege cinematic portrayals of the outlaw rather than the literature which appeared. Yet people were still reading Robin Hood, as we know from Mass Observation records.

Britain by Mass Observation
First edition of Madge’s Mass Observation Book.

Mass Observation was a project started by the philanthropists and filmmakers, including Humphrey Jennings, Tom Harrisson, and Charles Madge, in 1937. Their aim was a simple one: to create a record of everyday life in Britain by having volunteers write about what they had done on a given day and submit it to the archive.[iii] The first major project was to chronicle people’s thoughts about the abdication of Edward VIII and the coronation of George VI in 1938. Mass Observation continued throughout the Second World War (1939–45) and was occasionally used by the wartime government as a means of collection information on public morale.

Sarah Hawks Sterling’s Robin Hood and His Merry Men (1928) was one of the most popular books requested by children at Fulham Library.[iv] This was surprising for me as a researcher because I assumed that, when Robin Hood books were read by children in the twentieth century, it was generally the American Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (1883). Indeed, when Penguin Books decided to publish a Robin Hood story as part of their Classics range, it was Pyle’s story that they chose for the collection, rather than any English author.

In Mass Observation records, we also see the continuing popularity of Scott’s Ivanhoe amongst children in London, in particular the Penguin Books 6d. edition.[v] The same record also records that nineteenth-century school editions of Ivanhoe remain in circulation and are popular among youths.

We see another unnamed child opting for Sterling’s book in 1942. In Marylebone, a Mass Observation worker saw a child carrying four books on their way home: Sterling’s Robin Hood, and some anonymous works The War of the Wireless, Shadow of the Swastika, and The First Quarter. More importantly, the child also gives the reasons why they have chosen these books: because they liked adventure books; because the books had been recommended by a friend; and they were similar to other books that they had read. They even told the interviewer that it generally takes them half a week to read through a full book.[vi]

Mass Observation did not focus merely upon children, however, for the investigators also interviewed adults. What is interesting are the Variety shows which were held on evenings. On 14 November 1942, a show was held in Bournemouth to raise money for civilians in USSR (the Soviet Union was part of the Allied Forces at this point). The theme of the show was “Merrie England”, Three Robin Hood songs were sung at this event. None of them were of the traditional ballad type, however, and the finale was a song that I have not yet identified, entitled The Wedding of Robin Hood.[vii] There is a Scottish ballad entitled The Wedding of Robin Hood and Little John, as recorded in J. M. Gutch’s ballad anthology A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode (1847),[viii] but it is a minor ballad and certainly not worthy a spectacular finale, so it may have been a completely new song composed for the event.

What is conspicuous by its absence is any mention of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), starring Errol Flynn. Such a big set-piece movie, released at the time Mass Observation was initiated, I assumed would have featured in some of the records, but there are none that I have found thus far. Perhaps this should prompt future Robin Hood scholars to reassess the reach and reception of Flynn’s ground-breaking movie, and perhaps it indicates that the ‘prose’ Robin Hood persisted in popularity much longer than previously thought.

[i] J. C. Holt, Robin Hood (London: Thames and Hudson, 1982); Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in the Outlaw Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015); Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003); Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994); R. B. Dobson and J. Taylor, Rymes of Robyn Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw, 3rd edn (Stroud: Sutton, 1997); Thomas Ohglren, Robin Hood: The Early Poems, 1465-1560 : Texts, Contexts, and Ideology (Newark, Del: University of Delaware Press, 2007).

[ii] See Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, pp. 150-210. On videogames see Thomas Rowland, ‘“And Now Begins Our Game”: Revitalizing the Ludic Robin Hood’, in Robin Hood in Outlawed Spaces: Media, Performance, and Other New Directions, ed. by Lesley Coote and Valerie Blythe Johnson (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017), pp. 175-188.

[iii] See David Hall, Worktown: The Astonishing Story of the Project that Launched Mass Observation (London: W & N, 2015).

[iv] Mass Observation, Topic Collection-59_1413, p. 2.

[v] Mass Observation, File Report-1332_127, p. 116.

[vi] Mass Observation, Marylebone, Library QQM15C, R.C.C. 8. 4. 42, Topic Collection-20_2595.

[vii] Mass Observation, Bourneville Works Musical Society, Topic Collection-16_3753.

[viii] Anon., ‘The Wedding of Robin Hood and Little John’, in A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode, ed. by J. M. Gutch, 2 vols (London: Longman, 1847), 2: 389-91.

Pierce Egan’s “Robin Hood Ballads” (1840)

This post is not one of my usual essay style posts, with an introduction and conclusion, etc., but more of a research note after having got hold of a first edition of Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood novel.

Pierce Egan the Younger was one of the most popular Victorian penny-a-liner authors. Although he was the son of the more famous Pierce Egan the Elder (1772-1849), very little is known of the son’s early life.[i] The younger Egan first came to public notice when he provided the illustrations to a work that his father had written entitled The Pilgrims of the Thames in Search of the National (1838). In the same year that he collaborated with his father on the Pilgrims, he began writing Robin Hood and Little John; or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest. The novel is one of the best (in my opinion) Robin Hood novels published during the nineteenth century. It is also one of the longest: it was sold for a penny in weekly instalments over the course of two years, between 1838 and 1840.

Title Page
Title Page to Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood Ballads (1840)

The novel, targeted primarily towards working-class and lower middle-class adults, is filled with sex, violence, and radical politics, and is the story of Robin Hood’s life from his birth to his death. Egan is clearly acquainted with earlier Robin Hood works such as Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood (1795); Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819); and Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822). Egan’s novel went through several editions throughout the nineteenth century. As an appendix to the first edition in 1840, however, he included a collection of Robin Hood ballads.

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Egan’s collection is based upon eighteenth-century versions of Robin Hood’s Garland. These were anthologies of seventeenth-century Robin Hood ballads. And it is only the early modern ballads included in Egan’s collection, such as Robin Hood and the Tanner, Robin Hood and the Jolly Pinder of Wakefield, Robin Hood and Allen-a-Dale, and Robin Hood and the Bishop of Hereford. The medieval poems such as A Gest of Robyn Hode and Robin Hood and the Monk are, strangely, not included in Egan’s version.

The extent of his ‘editing’ of the texts is minimal. In fact, one might be forgiven for thinking that the appending of the ballad collection at the end of Egan’s novel was perhaps the publisher George Pierce’s idea. The preface included at the beginning is virtually plagiarised from Charles Johnson’s account of Robin Hood, with one or two notes from Joseph Ritson inserted towards the end, and there is no attempt to relate the ballads to the sequences and plotlines in Egan’s actual novel.

One contribution to the ballad collection that we can tell Egan did make, however, is in the illustrations he provided (he had also provided all of the illustrations to the novel in the first edition). Through his images, Egan did attempt to provide some continuity with his preceding novel. This is because the characters of Robin Hood and his men who appear in the novel look exactly the same as those which appear in this ballad collection. Furthermore, as the ballads accompany the first edition, and Egan often insisted on providing the illustrations to all of his first editions (later publishers incorporated entirely new illustrations in later editions), then there is no reason to suppose that these illustrations are not his.

First editions of Egan’s Robin Hood with the ballads are rare: more common is the 1850 edition, published by W. S. Johnson, which will still fetch approximately £100.

[i] To learn more about some of the facts I have managed to reconstruct about his early life from archival records clink this link.

Visions of “Piers Plowman” in the 18th Century

The best thing about having a Robin Hood theme for this blog is that it allows me to legitimately write about both crime and medievalism (medievalism, as opposed to medieval studies, examines how the medieval period has been represented by authors, artists, and writers in periods after the middle ages). Our modern understanding of Robin Hood is, of course, largely a figure of popular culture: while we know very little of who the historical outlaw may have been, we have plenty of stories about him that have survived since the Middle Ages. The first reference to Robin Hood in popular culture occurs in the B Text of William Langland’s poem entitled The Vision of Piers Plowman, which was composed between c. 1370 and c. 1390):[i]

I can noughte perfitly my pater-noster as the prest it syngeth,

But I can rymes of Robyn Hood and Randalf erle of Chestre.[ii]

Much has been written on the medieval texts of Piers Plowman, and there is even a Piers Plowman Society which aims to further research into this text. This post, however, concerns eighteenth-century views of Langland’s masterpiece.

Let us first learn a little about the context: the eighteenth century, particularly from 1765 onward, with the publication of Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry published in that year, was a period in which intellectuals were gradually “rediscovering” historical English texts. During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, neoclassicism was the dominant artistic and literary aesthetic mode. Authors and poets such as John Dryden, Joseph Addison, and Alexander Pope, while they were admiring of early English poets such as Chaucer, more often than not held their works to be rude and unrefined. Thus, in Addison’s Account of the Greatest English Poets (1694), he gives the following opinion of Geoffrey Chaucer:

Long had our dull forefathers slept supine,

Nor felt the raptures of the tuneful Nine

Till Chaucer first, a merry bard, arose,

And many a story told in rhyme and prose.

But age has rusted what the poet writ,

Worn out his language, and obscured his wit;

In vain he jests in his unpolished strain,

And tries to make his readers laugh in vain.[iii]

In other words, the poetry of the medieval period was good, but it was rather unsuitable for the polite and polished age of the Georgian period. This is why, usually, when authors and artists in the eighteenth century wished to represent the medieval period, it was usually with a baroque or neoclassical overlay.[iv]

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Addison did not include Langland in his list of the greatest English poets, although other critics in the period credit the latter with having been

The first English poet, who employ’d his muse for the refinement of manners … by his writings, it plainly appears that poetry, and politeness, grew up together.[v]

Of course, the progress of politeness, poetry, and the cultivation of manners in the medieval period was halted, according to the author, because of the various conflicts that occurred in the Middle Ages, for ‘war and faction immediately restor’d ignorance’.[vi] It was not until the author’s own era of Enlightenment that politeness, refinement, scientific and cultural progress had resumed.

However, when serious historical research into ancient English poetry began, then such poetry began to be enjoyed for its own sake.

Antiquaries throughout the eighteenth century engaged in extensive textual analysis of Langland’s poem. The afore-mentioned Thomas Percy (1729–1811), in an essay on Langland’s poem, published in 1767, argued that Pierce Plowman, as he calls it, was the product of the poetry of the Gothic ‘race’: the influence of Anglo-Saxon poetry can be felt in the structure of Langland’s poem; in turn, as Robert Shiell’s argued slightly earlier, Langland’s poetry influenced that of John Milton. In this way, Percy and Shiell argue for an almost unbroken line of literary heritage from the ‘dark ages’ through to the late medieval period, and, of course, through Milton and Percy’s own Reliques, to the early modern era.[vii]

The noted Robin Hood scholar, Joseph Ritson (1752–1803), took over the reins of Langland scholarship.[viii] Ritson identified two different versions of Langland’s poem, and unlike other scholars before him, Ritson preferred to go back to manuscript sources rather than rely on printed sixteenth-century editions of the poem. Amazingly, Ritson’s opinion of Langland was lukewarm: in his Bibliographia Poetica (1802), he says that the poem is,

but a dull performance and scarcely merits the care of a modern impression [printing].[ix]

Eighteenth-century medievalist scholarship in general was concerned with rediscovering English literary heritage, and trying to show contemporary readers that England had a rich literary heritage just like that which predominated on the continent, even though Helen Young has recently argued in an essay for the Public Medievalist that Percy’s scholarship effectively was a work of white supremacis because it somehow “whitewashed” the Middle Ages.[x] Indeed, there is indication in either the work of Percy or Ritson that either of them assumed that their ‘race’ was superior to that of other cultures. Given the fact that Percy speaks of race in terms of linguistics, it is more likely he conceived of it in terms similar to that expressed in Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary (1755), more in terms of a ‘family’, i.e. the gothic ‘races’ spoke a different family of languages to the Latin-speaking family of people. Percy and Ritson were, in fact, conscious of the alleged inferiority of their native culture when compared to that of other cultures. This makes it difficult to believe that such scholarship ever laid the groundwork for a “white” vision of the middle ages, and by extension, laid the framework for white supremacists’ belief in racial purity.

Langland’s poem will always have a special place in the eyes of Robin Hood scholars, and indeed any medieval scholar. It is a survey of medieval life and manners which, to scholars in the eighteenth century who were just beginning to establish the discipline of medieval studies, it was invaluable.

[i] The full title in Latin is: Visio Willelmi de Petro Ploughman.

[ii] William Langland, ‘The Vision of Piers Plowman – B Text’, in The Vision of William concerning Piers the Plowman in Three Parallel Texts together with Richard the Redeless, ed. by Walter W. Skeat, rev. ed., 2 Vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1924), 1: 166.

[iii] Joseph Addison, ‘An Account of the Greatest English Poets’, in The Works of the English Poets, ed. by Samuel Johnson, rev. ed., 56 Vols (London: A. Strahan, 1790), 30: 34.

[iv] Rosemary Mitchell, Picturing the Past: English History in Text and Image, 1830-1870 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 9.

[v] The Historical and Poetical Medley: or, Muses Library; Being a Choice and Faithful Collection of the Best Antient English Poetry, rev. ed. (London: T. Davies, 1738), p. xi.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Thomas Percy, ‘On the Metre of Pierce Plowman’s Visions’, in Four essays, as Improved and Enlarged in the Second Edition of the Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, ed. by Thomas Percy (London: J. Dodsley, 1767), pp. 5-9.

[viii] The following information on Joseph Ritson’s contribution to Langland scholarship is taken from the following book: Lawrence Warner, The Myth of Piers Plowman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp. 2-21.

[ix] Ibid., p. 11.

[x] Helen Young, ‘Where Do the “White Middle Ages” Come From?’, The Public Medievalist, 21 March 2017, online edn., [Accessed 11 December 2017].

Passo di Lupo: An Italian Bandit

An outlaw’s life was not a merry one: in the 1820s, banditry in Italy was rife; at this time, a young travel writer named Charles Macfarlane was touring the country and managed to obtain a rare interview with one of these brigands.

I recently managed to track down a copy of Charles Macfarlane’s Lives and Exploits of the Most Celebrated Banditti and Robbers of all Nations (1833). The early nineteenth century was a good time for an aspiring author to be writing about outlaws and highwaymen. Walter Scott had already authored Rob Roy (1818) and Ivanhoe (1819). Andrew Knapp and William Baldwin had released a new multivolume edition of The Newgate Calendar (1824), and Edward Bulwer Lytton had published Paul Clifford (1830) and Eugene Aram (1832), two crime novels, to critical and popular claim. Macfarlane probably presumed that he could capitalise on the popularity of the ‘Newgate Novel’ (named after the infamous London gaol), by offering an updated version of Charles Johnson’s and Alexander Smith’s famous eighteenth-century Lives of the Highwaymen books.

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Italian bandits hiding out in Roman ruins. Illustration by J. Cattermole (c) Stephen Basdeo

(A quick plug: I shall also be following in the footsteps of Johnson, Smith, and Macfarlane when my forthcoming book, The Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen (2018) is published).


However, instead of the sensationalised style of writing adopted by his eighteenth-century forbears, Macfarlane pursues a different approach: he warns the reader in his preface that

You will not find my robbers such romantic, generous characters as those that occasionally figure in the fields of fiction. [You] will meet with men strangers to that virtuous violence of robbing the rich to give to the poor.[i]

This was not mere moralising, for Macfarlane does fulfil his promise to the reader that he will not be overly romanticising them. As for the famous Robin Hood principle of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, Macfarlane is sceptical, or rather, cynical, about this practice:

They [bandits] give to the poor indeed, but it is as spies and instruments of their own crimes, or at least in order to induce the poor to remain passive while they carry out their work of depredation against the rich.[ii]

Thus, Macfarlane’s purpose in writing the Banditti is not to render bandits in a Scott-esque romantic mode, but to present a picture of criminality.[iii] Such intentions anticipate Charles Dickens’s remarks upon thieves in the preface to Oliver Twist (1838), where, referring to Captain Macheath in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1727), he says that in his depiction of thieves there will be

No canterings upon moonlit heaths, no merry makings in the snuggest of all possible caverns, none of the attractions of dress, no embroidery, no lace, no jack boots, no crimson coats and ruffles.[iv]

Macfarlane was first and foremost a travel writer, and one example he gives of this decidedly unromantic view of a bandit’s life is in his account of a meeting with a former bandit named Luca whose nickname was ‘Passo di Lupo’ (Wolf’s Step).

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Italian Bandits. Illustration from Macfarlane’s Banditti. (c) Stephen Basdeo

Let me provide some context first: Italy is still a relatively young nation state. Since the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476, it was divided into a series of small sovereign states. This state of affairs continued until the nineteenth century, and after the upheavals of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793–1815), which in reality was the first ‘world war’,[v] the division of the country was as follows: the Pope directly ruled Rome and a large part of central Italy; the House of Savoy ruled the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia to the north of the country, which also included Nice (now part of France); the regions of Lombardy and Venetia were subject to rule by the Habsburg monarchy, while southern Italy and Sicily, known as the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, were ruled by the Bourbon dynasty.[vi] None of these states had any effective form of law enforcement beyond the local militia, and these structural weaknesses make the more rural areas of a country more likely to develop a problem with banditry.[vii] Even when Italy was unified in 1861 under the banner of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, it still experienced a problem with banditry until World War Two (1939–45), as the case of Salvatore Giuliano (1922–50) attests.

And this was the state of Italy when Macfarlane met Passo, while traveling through Abruzzi during the 1820s, which was then part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Passo was a former member of a fearsome gang of outlaws named the Vardarelli, whom Macfarlane met at a gathering in the town square. He made enquiries as to who the strange-looking man was, and his guide immediately recognised him as a local famous former outlaw. This is the description of his appearance that Macfarlane gives:

I was struck with  the appearance of a fellow with the deep scar of an old wound across his swarthy brow, and his left arm in a sort of sling.[viii]

Macfarlane’s first question was to ask him what motivated him to become a bandit:

“Please your excellency,” said [Luca], “I was making love with a Paesana, and had the misfortune to give a blow of the knife to one I thought my rival.”[ix]

Understandably, the authorities attempted to arrest Luca for having killed a man, although Luca himself viewed this as a wholly unreasonable persecution.[x] In fairness to Luca, however, the vendetta – the settling of feuds through violence – was a custom amongst both the elites and the plebeian classes between the Renaissance and the twentieth century, and it still persists among organised crime groups in Italy. Thus, Luca’s view of the authorities’ apprehension of him as unreasonable should be viewed in context.[xi] 

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Bandits in a standoff with the local milita. Illustration from Macfarlane’s Banditti (c) Stephen Basdeo

Luca’s brush with the law made him seek out the company of a famous group of brigands, the Vardarelli, who operated in Ponte di Bovino, a mountain range about thirty miles from his home in Monte Gargano. However, he was not welcomed with open arms at first. The brigands distrusted him at first, and he was effectively a prisoner in the camp for a number of weeks and not permitted to venture outside of it. Only after having proved himself to them by taking an oath administered by a local priest who ministered to the bandits was he finally allowed to accompany the robbers on their excursions. Nevertheless, Luca looked back to his robbing days with nostalgia, as Macfarlane records that,

I thought the fellow’s hawk-like eyes still beamed joyfully as he talked of stopping government mails and diligences, and rich graziers from the fairs of Foggia; and as he told me, how, at times, he had scoured the whole plain of Apulia and crossed the mountains of Basilicata, and plunged into other provinces – meeting nowhere a formidable resistance – nearly everywhere an impunity of plunder.[xii]

However, Luca recalled that the bandit chiefs kept the lesser people of the gang in a state of near poverty: the guappi, or the bullies of the gang, kept the lion’s share and threw morsels only to those below them. Then again, Macfarlane says that Luca recalled never being able to spend the little money that he did get on the few luxuries he desired. The townsfolk were generally hostile to them, which made it a no-go area. It did not help the robbers’ cause, of course, that they were indiscriminate in whom they chose for their victims, for they robbed peasants as well as rich farmers. The peasants were only left alone or given money if they needed a hiding place in the winter months. Lodging in a peasant’s house then brought with it a further threat of being betrayed to the authorities for the reward money. During the milder seasons, their accommodation was scarcely more inviting as they slept in cold caves. As a result, food could often be scarce, and Luca recalls that often they were so hungry that sheep were stolen from fields and eaten raw on the spot.[xiii] Scarcity of food meant that quarrels often broke out between the bandits. Duels were conducted and these frequently resulted in the death of a gang member.[xiv]

Eric Hobsbawm in his seminal study of banditry states that bandits often have short careers due to the fact that their ‘profession’ is a high risk one and conducive to a long life. In fact, the typical bandit’s career can be as short as two years before being either captured and punished, or returns to mainstream society.[xv] The man whom Macfarlane interviewed fell into the latter camp. Macfarlane asks him what induced him to forsake his former accomplices. It transpired that his arm had been badly injured in an altercation with the Bourbon government militia. He was permitted by some sympathetic townsfolk to shelter and recuperate in one of their houses, hidden from the authorities. Although he recovered, his injuries meant that he would not be of any further use to his fellow brigands. Luckily at this time, with banditry being so endemic in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, King Ferdinand decided that, instead of fighting what seemed like an ever losing battle, he would simply extend a pardon to all bandits who wished to take up the offer. Passo was one of those who took advantage of this. Little is known of how Lupo died – after their encounter Macfarlane does not know.


[i] Charles Macfarlane, Lives and Exploits of the Most Celebrated Banditti and Robbers of all Nations (Philadelphia: G. Evans, 1833), p. 10.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Charles Dickens, The Adventures of Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy’s Progress, rev. ed. (London: Bradbury & Evans, 1841), p. x.

[v] Michael Rapport, The Napoleonic Wars: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 1.

[vi] For more information on the history of Italy during the 19th century see the following: Christopher Duggan, A Concise History of Italy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

[vii] See Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits, rev. ed. (London: Abacus, 2004).

[viii] Macfarlane, Lives of the Banditti, p. 16.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Raymond E. Role, ‘The War Games of Central Italy’, History Today, 49: 6 (1999), online edn. [Accessed 11 November 2017].

[xii] Macfarlane, Lives of the Banditti, p. 17.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid., p. 18.

[xv] Hobsbawm, Bandits, pp. 34-45.