The Critical Reception of Mrs. Brown of Falkland’s Robin Hood Ballads

Paper Presented to the Women’s History Network Conference, Leeds Trinity University, 16-17 September 2016.


Abstract: The earliest ballads of Robin Hood such as A Gest of Robyn Hode (c.1450) and Robin Hood and the Potter (c.1450) give no clue as to the manner of Robin Hood’s birth. This was still the case when Joseph Ritson published his influential ballad anthology entitled Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795). Five years after Ritson, however, Robert Jamieson published Popular Ballads and Songs, from Tradition, Manuscripts, and Scarce Editions (1806). In that collection two new never-before-seen Robin Hood ballads appeared entitled The Birth of Robin Hood and The Wedding of Robin Hood and Little John. Jamieson had transcribed the ballads from Anna Gordon Brown of Falkland, Scotland. Although twentieth-century Robin Hood critics have derided Mrs. Brown’s ballads as being of little merit compared to earlier material, Mrs. Brown enjoyed a ‘literary afterlife’ in the tradition as Goody – the old woman who recites Robin Hood stories to dinner guests – in the first ever Robin Hood novel entitled Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time (1819). The proposed paper, therefore, is intended to fit into the panel ‘Women Collectors and Collected Women’.


Introduction

Throughout history many Scottish authors have shaped the Robin Hood legend. For example, it is in medieval and early modern Scottish chronicles written by Andrew of Wyntoun, John Major, and Walter Bower, for instance, that Robin is first established as a ‘historic’ figure, and not merely a man who exists in ballads. During the nineteenth century, the first two Robin Hood novels entitled Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time and Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, both of which were published in 1819, were written by Scottish authors and first published in Edinburgh.[1] There is not a single scholar who would question the appearance of the works of Wyntoun, Bower, Major, or Scott within the Robin Hood canon – that is to say, those texts which scholars have agreed are an undeniable part of the Robin Hood tradition. Yet as this paper illustrates, there has been a certain amount of hesitancy on the part of modern critics to include within the tradition three Robin Hood ballads which first appeared when Robert Jamieson transcribed them from Mrs. Brown of Falkland (1747-1810).

To begin with, it is necessary to provide a very brief history of Robin Hood scholarship during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. There was a significant degree of interest in the medieval English past during the mid-to-late eighteenth century, and much of this amateur scholarship focused upon medieval and early-modern ballads, especially those relating to historic worthies such as King Arthur and Robin Hood, with ballads about him appearing repeatedly in various antiquaries’ works.[2] Thomas Percy’s three volume Reliques of Ancient English Poetry in 1765 featured the ballad Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, and in the four volume work Old Ballads, Historical and Narrative published by the Welsh bookseller and antiquary in 1784 almost every post medieval Robin Hood ballad was printed. The most famous eighteenth-century Robin Hood scholar, however, was Joseph Ritson (1752-1803). His two volume work Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads was, upon its first publication in 1795, the definitive collection of Robin Hood texts. Ritson made available in two volumes texts such as the fifteenth-century poems A Gest of Robyn Hode, and Robin Hood and the Monk. In his collection Ritson also included the texts of seventeenth-century broadside ballads such as Robin Hood and the Tanner, and Robin Hood’s Progress to Nottingham.

rh-books-1700s
Eighteenth-Century Robin Hood Scholarship: Percy’s Reliques (1765), Evans’ Old Ballads (1784) and Ritson’s Robin Hood (1795)

None of the ballads in Ritson’s collection, however, provided the story of Robin Hood’s birth. It was not until Jamieson published a collection of ballads entitled Popular Ballads and Songs, from Tradition, Manuscripts, and Scarce Editions in 1806 did an account of Robin’s birth appear in a ballad entitled The Birth of Robin Hood. Another never before seen ballad relating to Robin’s life entitled The Wedding of Robin Hood and Little John also appeared in the same collection. Walter Scott in Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border published in 1802 included another of Mrs. Brown’s Robin Hood ballads entitled Rose the Red, and White Lily. Jamieson and Scott transcribed these ballads from Mrs. Brown. Usually the only woman associated with the Robin Hood legend is Maid Marian, and the only writers who have represented her have usually been men. Thus, a conference which focuses upon women’s history is the perfect opportunity to discuss these ballads and explore what I shall call the ‘literary afterlife’ and subtle influence of Mrs. Brown upon later manifestations of the Robin Hood tradition – a woman whose contributions to the legend, if she is remembered at all, have often been dismissed by late-nineteenth and twentieth-century scholars.

Mrs. Brown’s Ballads and their Critical Reception

Anna Gordon was born in Aberdeen in 1747, the daughter of Thomas Gordon, a Professor of Humanities, and Lilias Forbes. She grew up in a Scotland in which ballads were central to both elite and popular culture’.[3] The most significant ballad which was transcribed from Mrs. Brown of Falkland was the aforementioned The Birth of Robin Hood.[4] The story follows the daughter of Earl Richard who falls in love with a servant named Willie – a union of which she knows her father the Earl would disapprove. The Earl’s daughter and Willie often have secretive meetings in the forest, and it is soon revealed that she is pregnant. The Earl’s daughter escapes from her home to go and give birth in the forest. Realising that his daughter is missing, the Earl convenes a search party and goes out after her. He finds his daughter in the wood, exhausted from having given birth and, despite the circumstances of the illegitimate birth the Earl is overcome with happiness upon seeing the child:

abrownballad
Anna Gordon’s ‘The Birth of Robin Hood’ in Jamieson’s Popular Ballads (1806)

He kist him o’er and o’er again:
‘My grandson I thee claim;
And Robin Hood in the gude green wood,
And that shall be your name.’ [5]

Thus the ballad sets up a noble parentage for Robin Hood. While The Birth of Robin Hood has at least made into Barrie Dobson and John Taylor’s critical anthology of Robin Hood ballads Rymes of Robyn Hood (1976), Brown’s second Robin Hood ballad entitled The Wedding of Robin Hood and Little John did not, and has received very little critical attention. The ballad relates the story of two women who one day decide to dress in men’s clothes and travel into the greenwood under the assumed names of Nicholas and Roger Roun. The two women are found sleeping in the wood by Robin Hood and Little John, and eventually one of the women, Roger, becomes pregnant:

“When we were in our father’s ha’,
We wore the beaten gold;
But now we wear the shield so sharp,
Alas! We’ll die with cold!”
Then up bespake him Robin Hood,
As he to them drew near;
“Instead of boys to carry the bow,
Two ladies we’ve got here.”
So they had not been in gud green-wood,
A twalmonth and a day,
Til Roger Roun was as big wi’ bairn
As ony ladie could gae.[6]

During the early nineteenth century when the ballads first appeared, there appears to have been little question over whether the ballads should be included as part of the developing canon. Ritson’s original text was reprinted in 1820,[7] 1823,[8] 1832,[9] and then revised and expanded in 1865.[10] Brown’s ballads appeared in both the 1832 and the 1865 editions of Ritson’s text. Furthermore, the historian John Mathew Gutch included Brown’s ballads in his two volume critical anthology A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode published in 1847. Gutch justified the inclusion of Brown’s The Birth of Robin Hood by writing that:

It is certainly characteristic, and perfectly consistent with [Robin Hood’s] subsequent life and conduct; insomuch, that it cannot be said of the renowned hero of Sherwood, as Deianira says of Hercules, – “Dissimiles hic vir et ille puer”.[11]

And of Rose the Red, and White Lily and The Wedding of Robin Hood and Little John he says that

There can be no doubt that the three following ballads relate to Robin Hood and Little John and have their origin in the same tradition.[12]

However, the attitude towards these ballads changed as the nineteenth century progressed. A further edition of Ritson’s work appeared in 1884 which did not include Brown’s ballads.[13] Between 1882 and 1898 Francis J. Child published the multivolume The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. His third volume was devoted almost entirely to Robin Hood ballads. Yet Brown’s ballads were not to be included alongside other ‘canonical’ Robin Hood texts but were placed in the second volume which dealt with songs of Scottish origin. The main reason that he gave for placing Brown’s ballads outside of the Robin Hood canon was that many of them bear resemblance to other popular Scottish ballads, and Child stated that all of Brown’s songs were said to be variants upon the popular Scottish ballad Willie O’ Douglas Dale.[14]

He justified excluding Rose the Red, the White and Lily and The Wedding of Robin Hood and Little John from the Robin Hood tradition because:

Robin Hood has no love-story in any ancient ballad, though his name has been foisted into modern love ballads, as in “Robin Hood and the Tanner’s Daughter” […] Maid Marian is a late accretion. There is a piteously vulgar broadside, in which Maid Marian, being parted from Robin, dresses herself “like a page” (but armed fully), meets Robin Hood, also under disguise, and has an hours fight with him.[15]

When discussing The Birth of Robin Hood Child made a break with established scholarly practice and renamed the ballad as Willie and Earl Richard’s Daughter. To justify this he stated that:

This ballad certainly does not belong to the cycle of Robin Hood, and for this reason the title hitherto held by it could not be retained […the title of] the Earl of Huntingdon has no place in the ancient traditional ballads of Robin Hood, but is of later literary invention.[16]

Child was correct, of course, for Robin was not named as the Earl of Huntingdon until 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.

fjchild
American Scholar F. J. Child (1825-1896)

Taken at face value, Child’s justifications for excluding these ballads appear to be relatively sound. What is perplexing, however, is that despite the objections listed above, Child includes as part of the Robin Hood canon certain ballads at which his afore-mentioned rationale could also be raised. For example, most of the later seventeenth-century Robin Hood ballads such as Robin Hood and the Tanner and Robin Hood and the Scotchman are merely variations upon the theme of The Jolly Pinder of Wakefield. Although very few ballads reveal that Robin has a love interest such as Robin Hood and Maid Marian, and Robin Hood’s Birth, Breeding, Valour, and Marriage which sees Robin marry Clorinda, the Queen of the Shepherdesses, Child has no compunction about including these in the tradition. Child also includes Martin Parker’s A True Tale of Robin Hood originally published in 1632.[18] This ballad names Robin as the Earl of Huntingdon, yet is included despite his remarks that any ballad stating that Robin was a nobleman was of dubious canonicity.

Conclusion

The reasons why Child applied these double standards to these ballads will likely have died with Child himself. Child’s view has persisted into modern scholarship. Barrie Dobson and John Taylor state in Rymes of Robyn Hood that

Mrs. Brown’s ballad owes nothing but Robin Hood’s name to the native English cycle of stories.

While they even went so far as to suggest that Brown simply invented the stories, saying that

It remains suspicious that for the missing story of [Robin Hood’s] birth we have to wait until the recitation of a remarkable Scottish woman delivered five years after the first (1795) edition of Ritson’s comprehensive collection.[19]

The suggestion that Brown invented these ballads contradicts David C. Fowler’s earlier argument that Mrs. Brown’s ballads were learned from her mother, aunt, and her maidservant. Moreover, Mrs. Brown’s ballads appear nowhere in the even more recent ballad anthology by Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren entitled Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales (2000).[21] But the exclusion of Brown’s ballads from the overall tradition, especially in the face of the double standards applied to their ‘authenticity’ when compared to other Robin Hood tales, should encourage a rethink of what scholars mean by ‘canon’ when discussing legends such as Robin Hood.

rh1
Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time 2 Vols. (Edinburgh, 1819)

However, Mrs. Brown would go on to enjoy a ‘literary afterlife’ as the old village woman Goody in the framing narrative of the first Robin Hood novel entitled Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time published in 1819. The novel begins in the nineteenth-century lawyer’s home in Oxfordshire where he is holding a dinner party, and the subject turns to ancient songs and ballads. The lawyer reveals that there is a woman named Goody living in the village who is descended from Welsh bards and knows by heart several tales of Robin Hood. On the next evening the whole village descends on Goody’s cottage to hear a tale of Robin Hood and his merry men.[22] Stephen Knight, who has studied this novel in depth, agrees that Goody is modelled upon Mrs. Brown.[23]

Robert Southey in his unfinished poem entitled Robin Hood: A Fragment which was published in 1847 utilises the plot of The Birth of Robin Hood. Earl William – a name obviously taken from Brown’s ballad – and his lover Emma are now respectably married:

O! Emma! fairest, loveliest of thy sex!
[…]
For sure, if ever on a marriage day
Approving angels smiled
Upon their happy charge,
‘Twas when her willing hand
Was to Lord William given.
The noble to the noble — blooming youth
To manhood in its comeliness and prime:
Beauty to manliness and worth to worth;
The gentle to the brave —
The generous to the good.[24]

In fact, Southey expanded and continued the plot of Brown’s ballad, which sees Robin’s mother die and Earl William descend into depression. Thus the situation is this: works which are considered to be canonical have taken some of their inspiration from a supposedly non-canonical work, and in view of this, perhaps it is time to reconsider the status of Mrs. Brown’s ballads within the Robin Hood tradition.


References

[1] Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in the Outlaw Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), pp.36-54.
[2] See Monica Santini, The Impetus of Amateur Scholarship: Discussing and Editing. Medieval Romances in Late-Eighteenth and Nineteenth-Century Britain (Bern: Peter Lang, 2010).
[3] Ruth Perry, ‘The Famous Ballads of Anna Gordon, Mrs. Brown’ in A Cultural History of Women in the Age of Enlightenment ed. by Ellen Pollack 6 Vols. (Michigan: Michigan State University Press, 2012) 4: 2 [Internet <https://lit.mit.edu/wp-content/uploads/Famous-Ballads.pdf&gt; Accessed 27 July 2016].
[4] For a critical edition, see Anna Gordon Brown, ‘The Birth of Robin Hood’ in Rymes of Robyn Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw ed. by R. B. Dobson & J. Taylor 3rd Edn. (Stroud: Sutton, 1997), pp.195-197.
[5] Brown, ‘The Birth of Robin Hood’, p.197.
[6] Anna Gordon Brown, ‘The Wedding of Robin Hood and Little John’ in A Lytell Geste of Robin Hood ed. by J. M. Gutch (2 Vols. London: Longman, 1847), 2: 391.
[7] Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads ed. by Joseph Ritson (London: T. Egerton, 1795; repr. London: Longman, 1820).
[8] Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads ed. by Joseph Ritson (2 Vols. London: T. Egerton, 1795; repr. London: C. Stocking, 1823).
[9] Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads ed. by Joseph Ritson (2 Vols. London: T. Egerton, 1795; repr. 2 Vols. London: William Pickering, 1832).
[10] Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads ed. by Joseph Ritson (2 Vols. London: T. Egerton, 1795; repr. London: Bell and Daldy, 1865).
[11] A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode ed. by J. M. Gutch, 2: 373; the translation of the Latin reads ‘how different from the present man was the youth of earlier days’.
[12] A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode, ed. by J. M. Gutch, 2: 377.
[13] Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads ed. by Joseph Ritson (2 Vols. London: T. Egerton, 1795; repr. [n.p.]: [n.pub.], [n.d.]).
[14] The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, ed. Francis J. Child (5 Vols. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 1882-1898; repr. 5 Vols. New York: Dover, 2005), 2: 406.
[15] Child, 2: 417.
[16] Child, 2: 412.
[17] Child, 3: 130.
[18] Child, 3: 227-233.
[19] Dobson Taylor, p.195.
[20] Suzanne Gilbert, ‘Orality and the Ballad Tradition’ in The Edinburgh Companion to Scottish Women’s Writing ed. by Glenda Norquay (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), 35-43 (pp.39-40).
[21] Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, ed. by Stephen Knight & Thomas Ohlgren (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000).
[22] Anon. Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time 2 Vols. (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1819), 1: 54-78.
[23] Knight, Reading Robin Hood, p.146-147.
[24] Robert Southey, Robin Hood: A Fragment (London: William Blackwood, 1847), pp.1-2.

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Review: Paul Kingsnorth’s “The Wake” (2014)

Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake (Manchester: Unbound, 2014) 372pp. PB £8.99 ISBN 978-1-78352-098-5

Although a review of this work has already been posted on the website of the International Association for Robin Hood Studies, I am participating in a round table discussion of this book at the forthcoming Medievalism Conference in Bamberg, Germany in July 2016. The following review is therefore taken from the notes I have made while reading Paul Kingsnorth’s novel.

Kingsnorth has authored several works so far – both fiction and non-fiction. But The Wake is perhaps the most ambitious of all of them. The reason for this is because the whole is written in an invented form of Anglo-Saxon English. Here is a sample of the ‘language’ that appears in Kingsnorth’s work:

Aefry ember of hope gan lic the embers of a fyr brocen in the daegs beginnan brocen by men other than us. hope falls harder when the end is cwic hope falls harder when in the daegs before the storm the stillness of the age was written in the songs of men (2).

The ‘language’ used serves to alienate the modern reader. Kingsnorth no doubt is striving to give an air of historical ‘authenticity’ to his work. All of this is all very well and good, but one cannot help wondering what the point of it is when a vast majority of his readers cannot understand what Buccmaster – the outlaw protagonist of the novel – is saying or doing. I defer on this matter to Sir Walter Scott’s dedicatory epistle to Ivanhoe (1819) who explained why he avoided doing the same as Kingsnorth and instead opted to write in modern English:

It is true that I neither can nor do pretend to the observation of complete accuracy […] in important points of language and manners. […] the motive which prevents my writing the dialogue of the piece in Anglo-Saxon or Norman French, and which prohibits my sending forth to the public this essay printed with the types of Caxton or Wynken de Worde, prevents my attempting to confine myself within the limits of the period in which my story is laid. It is necessary for exciting interest of any kind that the subject assumed should be, as it were, translated into the manners, as well as the language, of the age we live in.[1]

To this day Scott is correct: people desire to read something that they can understand. More than this, however, because Kingsnorth is no skilled Anglo-Saxon linguist, his characters come across as simpletons when speaking his invented language, or as another reviewer, Robert DiNapoli,[2] says, a kind of ‘caveman’ speak: ‘buccmaster they all saes buccmaster gretans to you’ (11). As a result of its language, the characters often appear two-dimensional, incapable of complicated thought. The sum total of the sentiments expressed in the novel are: Norman bad, Saxon good.

The novel itself aims to be a ‘post-apocalyptic’ novel depicting what occurred in England in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest of 1066. He begins his narrative by quoting William the Conqueror’s words on his deathbed (oddly quoted in modern English):

I have persecuted the natives of England beyond all reason. Whether gentle or simple I have cruelly oppressed them. Many I unjustly disinherited; innumerable multitudes perished through me by famine or by the sword. Having gained the throne of that kingdom by so many crimes. I dare not leave it to anyone but God (i).

And William of Malmesbury (oddly, also quoted in modern English):

England is become the residence of foreigners and the property of strangers…they pray upon the riches and vitals of England; nor is there any hope of a termination of this misery (iii).

What Kingsnorth actually does throughout the novel is to recycle an old idea: that of the ‘Norman Yoke’. The idea was current in nineteenth-century scholarship and posited that English society under the Anglo-Saxons was composed of ‘freemen’ and was almost proto-democratic. Then the Normans came and all that apparently changed, and the freedom-loving English folk were oppressed by autocratic Normans. It is an idea to which Kingsnorth still adheres:

Historians today tend to sniff at the old radical idea of the Norman Yoke. History, like any academic discipline, has its fashions. In my view the yoke was very real (358).

Thus Kingsnorth has not actually done anything innovative here: the nineteenth century was full of fictional works which express to varying degrees the Anglo-Saxon versus Norman theme: Pierce Egan the Younger’s 1840s outlaw novels, and even some of those horrendous late nineteenth-century children’s books all to some degree repeat the idea that the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans were at odds with each other.

Kingsnorth attempts to portray Buccmaster as some type of Hereward the Wake (died c.1072) or Robin of Locksley from Ivanhoe, gallantly fighting for his country against the Norman oppressors. And he follows the now familiar storyline in medievalist fiction of how people become outlaws: Buccmaster is dispossessed of his lands by the Norman conquerors, and from thence becomes an outlaw/resistance fighter. But he is an outlaw with barely any redeeming qualities. Even before he is outlawed, we are told that he beats his wife (10) which, while domestic abuse may indeed have been prevalent in Anglo-Saxon society, hardly endears the character to a modern reader. Unlike the Robin Hood of Ivanhoe, Buccmaster does not seek to build a better society. Instead he simply wants vengeance, and he comes across as a quite brutal character who it is difficult to sympathise with. In the tales told about them, both Robin Hood and Hereward the Wake do commit violent acts, but they were never cruel. They did not take pleasure in their killing. Buccmaster is essentially unstable, and it appears more that the conquest and his dispossession was simply the perfect excuse for him to indulge his inherent violent tendencies.

At the end of it all, the reader is left pondering what the point of this novel was. Does Kingsnorth have a point to make about modern society? According to Adam Thorpe, who wrote the dire Hodd (2009), Kingsnorth’s novel, which he praises, apparently exhibits ‘a subdued sense that the novel intends a modern parallel with our own dispossessed times’, [3] although Thorpe does not actually say what modern-day relevance it has. Kingsnorth is, admirably, an environmental activist. But apart from a general sense that men could hunt freely before the Norman conquest, any application to modern times is probably lost on the modern reader due to the novel’s pseudo-Saxon tongue.

Although The Wake was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2014, it is difficult to imagine that this novel will have any staying power. If a person wants to read a tale of a gallant Anglo-Saxon freedom fighter, then they need to follow the following instructions: head to Waterstones, or any other bookshop. From there head to the classics section and pick up a copy of Ivanhoe by the immortal Walter Scott.

Notes

[1] Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe: A Romance (1819 repr. Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1871), 15.
[2] Robert DiNapoli, ‘Lost in Translation: Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake’ Arena Magazine No. 133 (December 2014), 52-53.
[3] Adam Thorpe, ‘The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth review – “A literary triumph”’ The Guardian 2 April 2014 [Internet <<http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/apr/02/the-wake-paul-kingsnorth-review-literary-triumph>&gt; Accessed 16 April 2016].

Joseph Ritson (1752-1803)

GESTEBewick
Ritson’s introduction to A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode.

One of the more interesting characters that I have come across in the course of my research is the antiquarian, Joseph Ritson (1752-1803). Ritson was born in Stockton-on-Tees northern England. Not a lot is known of his early life. His tutor, Rev. John Thompson, however, spoke of him as one of his best pupils. [1] He never went to university but was instead apprenticed to a solicitor. Ritson is remembered, however, for his antiquarian pursuits; an interest he maintained throughout his life.

Before going into detail about his antiquarian research, however, I would like to dwell upon some of his eccentricities. Unusually for people in the eighteenth century, Ritson was a vegetarian. Nicholas Harris explained in his biography that:

A perusal of Maudeville’s Fable of the Bees, induced […] serious reflection and caused him firmly to adhere to a milk and vegetable diet, having at least never tasted, during the whole course of those thirty years, a morsel of flesh, fish, or fowl. [2]

At a time when eating beef was seen as patriotic (it was the era of ‘the roast beef of old England), Ritson’s diet must have raised a few eyebrows. He published the reasons for his vegetarianism in An Essay on Abstinence from Animal Food, as a Moral Duty (1802).

He was also an atheist. When he died, for instance, he was in the middle of completing a tract that attempted to prove that Jesus Christ was an imposter. Indeed, throughout his life he was known to have told his associates that:

He did not believe that there was any such being as Almighty God, or that there was any future state of rewards or punishment, and the greatest devil he knew was a nasty, crabbed, ill-natured old woman. [3]

But he was always a kind man, and would do anything to help his friends. His kindliness manifested itself in various ways. He was known to be very charitable towards the poor. Not out of the hope of ‘storing up treasures in heaven’ but simply out of fellow human goodness. [4] He did not need a God to tell him to do good works.

RitsonSC
Ritson’s Select Collection of English Songs.

Ritson could also be cantankerous, although this was probably a result of the mental health issues he suffered from throughout his life. He was one of a group of antiquarian scholars who came to prominence during the eighteenth century, but he constantly criticised other scholars’ methodologies in the press. Thomas Percy, who took it upon himself to ‘edit’ old English ballads, came in for a lot of criticism by Ritson. The criticism was often justified; Percy, for instance, ‘edited’ the medieval ballad of Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne so as not to offend the polite sensibilities of his eighteenth-century readers. Consequently, Robert Southey would later remark of Ritson that:

Ritson is the oddest, but most honest of all our antiquarians, and he abuses Percy and Pinkerton with less mercy than justice’.[5]

Luckily, despite his severe criticism of other scholars, people such as Sir Walter Scott appeared to know how to handle him and his eccentric ways.

He published many collections of ‘ancient’ (I will discuss the implications of this below) poetry, such as The Northumberland Garland (1793) and Ancient English Metrical Romances (1802). Ritson is chiefly remembered nowadays, however, for the work that he did on the Robin Hood legend. In 1795 he published his two volume work Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw (1795). In this publication Ritson gathered together every known Robin Hood text then known, and made available for the first time in an accessible printed form the ballad A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode (c.1450). As well as Robin Hood and the Potter and Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, both of which date from the fifteenth century, he included many of the later seventeenth-century broadside ballads such as Martin Parker’s A True Tale of Robin Hood (1631), and Robin Hood and the Tanner (late 17th century). Ritson, however, was quite cunning in including these later ballads in a collection of ‘all the ancient poems, songs, and ballads’. Except for the Geste, Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, and Robin Hood and the Potter, most of the later ballads in his collection were not ‘reliques’ of an ancient English past; they were still being sold as broadsides for a penny during the eighteenth century.

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

Ritson also offered readers ‘historical anecdotes’ of Robin Hood’s life which he prefaced to the beginning of the collection of ballads. But before we discuss the biography of Robin Hood that he had written, let me give you some background in regards to Ritson’s political beliefs. Ritson was an outspoken republican who wished to see an end to the monarchy. But these beliefs, with the commencement of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815), and the repressive legislation on political freedom of thought brought in by the Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, meant that it was quite dangerous to express republican sympathies in public. Ritson himself was conscious that he was being watched by the authorities. While in the early years of the Revolution he referred to his friends by such names as ‘Citizen Equality’, by 1793 he decided to stay silent in all political matters:

I find it prudent to say as little as possible on political subjects, in order to keep myself out of Newgate. [6]

Consequently, he needed an outlet for his republican sympathies. So when he was writing his biography of Robin Hood, he transformed Robin Hood from being a small-time medieval outlaw who lived in the woods to a radical, almost revolutionary bandit:

In these forests, and with this 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. [7]

Ritson states, furthermore, that Robin’s acts of defiance against the King should be viewed as the highest form of patriotism:

It is not, at the same time, to be concluded that he must, in this opposition, have been guilty of manifest treason or rebellion; as he most certainly can be justly charged with neither. [8]

In short, Robin was a man whom:

In a barbarous age, and under a complicated tyranny, displayed a spirit of freedom and independence, which has endeared him to the common people, whose cause he maintained, (for all opposition to tyranny is the cause of the people), and in spite of the malicious endeavours of pitiful monks, by whom history was consecrated to the crimes and follies of titled ruffians and sainted idiots, to suppress all record of his virtuous acts, will render his name immortal. [9]

In Ritson’s view Robin was a true patriot, the epitome of the eighteenth-century ‘independent man’ who would brook no interference from those in authority. [10]

Ritson’s Robin Hood was published at a time when other radical authors were appropriating figures from England’s medieval past. Ritson strains the figure of Robin Hood somewhat in order to make him fit his vision of a medieval Thomas Paine. But Robert Southey had the year previously also wrote Wat Tyler, A Dramatic Poem in Three Acts (1794), a highly anachronistic view of the leader of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, in which Tyler fights for ‘liberty’ and ‘rights’. Despite Ritson’s best efforts, however, reviewers of his work in literary magazines raised an eyebrow at his interpretation of Robin Hood’s life. One reviewer in The Critical Review, for example, said that:

Robin Hood’s character is here estimated too highly. He certainly possessed a spirit of freedom and independence; but, however we may be inclined to excuse the manner in which that spirit was displayed, it was not without a smile that we saw it denominated patriotism. [11]

Most likely the anonymous reviewer was aware of Ritson’s radical sympathies. Indeed, before William Pitt’s repressive legislation, Ritson had hardly been secretive about his republican sympathies.

History is silent about the particulars of Ritson’s later life. It is known that his mental health deteriorated rapidly in the late 1790s. In September 1803 he barricaded himself in his room and violently tried to attack all who approached him. He was thereby forcibly removed to the country house of Sir Jonathan Miles and attended to by doctors. Four days later, however, he sadly died. [12]

He certainly made his mark upon the world, however. He was viewed as an authority on all things antiquarian. Although their politics were different, furthermore, he appears to have maintained a friendship with Walter Scott, to whom he gave advice while he was composing his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802). In Scott’s novel The Antiquary (1816) we meet a cantankerous old lawyer-cum-antiquary named Jonathan Oldbuck (perhaps inspired by Ritson himself). Oldbuck regularly engages in debates with his fellow antiquaries, and Ritson is referenced in a very humorous exchange between Oldbuck and Sir Arthur Wardour (the fictional character whose name would be given to the ‘Wardour MS.’ – a medieval document which is supposedly where Scott found the tale of Ivanhoe recorded). [13]

Although Francis James Child’s collection of ballads in the late 1800s is usually given more authority than Ritson’s work, were it not for his tireless endeavours in researching Robin Hood some of the materials relating to the outlaw legend may have been lost.


References

[1]Nicholas Harris, ‘The Life of Joseph Ritson’ in The Letters of Joseph Ritson, Esq. Edited Chiefly from Originals in the Possession of his Nephew Ed. Nicholas Harris (London: William Pickering, 1833), p.ii.
[2]Harris, ‘The Life of Joseph Ritson’, pp.iii-iv.
[3]Alfred Henry Burd, Joseph Ritson: A Critical Biography (Illinois, 1916), p.102.
[4]Ibid.
[5]Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), The Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey (New York, 1855), p. 159.
[6]Joseph Ritson, ‘CVI: To Mr. Wadeson’ in The Letters of Joseph Ritson, Esq. Edited Chiefly from Originals in the Possession of his Nephew Ed. Nicholas Harris (London: William Pickering, 1833), pp.5-7 (p.7).
[7]Joseph Ritson (ed.) 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, p.v.
[8]Ritson, Robin Hood, 1, p.vi.
[9]Ritson, Robin Hood, 1, pp.xi-xii.
[10]See Matthew McCormack, The Independent Man: Citizenship and Gender Politics in Georgian England (Manchester: MUP, 2005).
[11]Anon. ‘Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw; to which are Prefixed Historical Anecdotes of his Life. 2 vols. 8vo. 12s. Boards’ The Critical Review or Annals of Literature, No.23 (1798), p.229.
[12]Burd, Joseph Ritson, 193.
[13]Walter Scott, The Antiquary [1816] Ed. N. J. Watson (Oxford: Oxford World Classics, 2002), p.64.

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

'A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode'
‘A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode’

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

See my other one here.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Men or Callous Killers?
Merry Men or Callous Killers?

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


References

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