Curteous Outlaws and Elizabethan Rogues: The 16th-Century Context of “A Gest of Robyn Hode”

A conference paper to be delivered at the Forthcoming MEMS Festival, University of Kent, 17-18 June 2016.

Introduction

A number of excellent scholarly examinations have been carried out upon A Gest of Robyn Hode, notably by Stephen Knight, Thomas Ohlgren, John Marshall, and Alexander Kaufman, as well as older discussions by James C. Holt and R. B. Dobson and J. Taylor.[1] For the most part, these essays have focused upon the content of the Gest within its medieval context. It is the most significant of all the early Robin Hood poems, and at 1,824 lines long is certainly the longest, in all likelihood being a compilation of various Robin Hood tales to which somebody, at some point, gave unity.[2] It is the first time that Robin’s social mission is coherently articulated, being a man who ‘dyde pore men moch gode’.[3] The Gest is definitely of medieval origin, dating from the mid-fifteenth century.[4] It was not printed, however, until the early sixteenth century: one edition was printed by Jan Von Doesbroch in Antwerp around 1510; a further edition was printed by Wynken de Worde between 1492 and 1534; Richard Pynson also printed an edition of the Gest, with his death in 1530 obviously making his edition some time before that date; and William Copland printed an edition c.1560.[5]

Awdley Title Page
Title Page: John Awdley’s The Fraternity of Vagabonds (1575 Edn.)

When the Gest was being printed, a new type of criminal was emerging: the rogue and the vagabond. These felons did not live apart from society, as the greenwood outlaws of the past did. Instead they were a part of society, and were relatively indistinguishable from the law-abiding. This paper suggests that changes in the nature of crime, and its concomitant cultural expression – the emergence of rogue literature – contributed to the idealisation of Robin Hood and his gentrification. This paper will therefore discuss the Gest in the context of it being printed alongside sixteenth-century rogue literature, such as Robert Copland’s The Highway to the Spitalhouse (1535-36), Gilbert Walker’s Manifest Detection of Dice Play (1552), John Awdley’s Fraternity of Vagabonds (1561), and Thomas Harman’s A Caveat for Common Cursitors, Vulgarly Called Vagabonds (1566). This is not to say that these works are taken here to represent a ‘true’ picture of crime during the early modern period. Instead these texts are viewed as ‘factual fictions’: they were real to contemporaries, being an outlet ‘through which the various classes of the “middling sort” of Tudor and Stuart England projected their anxieties’.[6] People needed to believe in the myth of a good outlaw, even if such a myth was ultimately based upon a fiction, because real, contemporary criminals were altogether more menacing.

Context

The medieval period certainly had its fair share of crime,[7] and it is of course during the medieval period that tales of Robin Hood and Adam Bell first emerge. The sentence of outlawry literally placed an offender beyond the protection of the law. But the sentence itself began to lose much of its potency by the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.[8] It was a sentence that existed prior to the establishment of the legal precepts of habeus corpus. It fell into disuse by the late medieval period because the social and legal system of England was changing from one based upon the exclusion of felons, to one based upon the confinement of offenders.[9] Thus by the time that the Gest was printed, it would have been rare to find somebody who had been placed beyond the law: in the early modern period all people were subject to the law.

Gest illustration
Illustration from A Gest of Robyn Hode (c.1500)

Additionally, when the time the Gest was being printed, the breakdown of medieval economic and social structures was occurring and society was on its way to becoming capitalist. As a consequence, the perceived increasing numbers of supposedly ‘masterless men’ were becoming a problem for the Tudor state, and were legislated against in the Vagabonds and Beggar’s Act (1495):

Vagabonds, idle and suspected persons shall be set in the stocks for three days and three nights and have none other sustenance but bread and water and then shall be put out of Town. Every beggar suitable to work shall resort to the Hundred where he last dwelled, is best known, or was born and there remain upon the pain aforesaid.[10]

The problem remained a source of irritation to the authorities throughout the century. While the ‘rogue’ had appeared as a named literary type in Awdley’s Fraternity of Vagabonds in 1561, by the next decade the Vagabonds Act (1572) was also legislating against this new type of criminal:

All the partes of this Realme of England and Wales be p[rese]ntlie with Roges, vacabonds and sturdie beggers excedinglie pestred, by meanes wherof dailye happenethe in the same Realme horrible murders, thefts and other greate owtr[ages], To the highe displeasure of allmightie god, and to the greate anoye of the common weale.[11]

J. Thomas Kelly writes that ‘poverty existed as a widespread and dangerous phenomenon of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England’.[12] But at the same time as the poor were getting poorer, the rich were gaining more wealth,[13] and a new type of ideology was emerging: individualism. Rogues and vagabonds, due to the breakdown of medieval social and economic structures owed loyalty to nobody. It is for this reason that Hal Gladfelder, writing about rogue literature, says that the genre’s emergence, and its portrayal of socially marginal people struggling to survive within a new economic system, was a response to the breakdown of feudalism.[14] The rogues, vagabonds, and cony-catchers present in Tudor rogue literature were essentially deviant proto-capitalist entrepreneurs.[15]

Outlaws and Rogues – Modus Operandi

There are some similarities between the ways in which greenwood outlaws such as Robin Hood and the rogues and vagabonds in Tudor rogue literature operated, As illustrated in the Gest, when Robin wishes to steal from somebody, he first invites them to dine with him in the forest. The traveller is treated to a sumptuous feast, and at the end of it Robin asks him to pay for the meal.[16] If the traveller pleads poverty and is found to be lying to Robin, when the traveller’s effects are searched he is robbed of all the money about his person.[17] Similarly, trickery is employed by many of the various types of rogues in the works of Walker, Awdley, and Harman. Often this was done, as illustrated in cases of Cheaters and Fingerers, described by Awdley, through conning unsuspecting victims out of their money while gambling.[18]

index
Thomas Harman’s The Unfortunate Traveller (1594)

But there were differences between outlaws such as Robin Hood and Tudor rogues. Firstly, outlaws lived in the forest. There is a sense of unity between the outlaws and the natural world: [19] the first glimpse of Robin Hood and Little John in the Gest sees him leaning against a tree.[20] In another outlaw ballad that is of medieval origin, although not printed until c.1557-58, Adam Bell, Clim of the Clough, and William of Cloudeslie, [21] the poem similarly opens with a celebration of the natural world: ‘Mery it was in grene forest / Among the leves grene’.[22] At no point is it ever implied in the Gest that the outlaws wish to live in the urban environment. The outlaws encounter trouble, for example, whenever they leave the forest and venture into the town:.[23] For example, the outlaws have to make a swift getaway after Robin competes in the archery contest;[24] and after being pardoned by the King and entering his service, Robin finds the world of the Royal court unpalatable, returning to the greenwood after an absence of only ‘twelve moneths and thre’.[25] Outlaws who value freedom see themselves as having no place in urban environments.

In contrast, rogues do not operate within a separate physical space such as the greenwood. At this point it should be noted that rogues were not a homogenous criminal group: Awdley’s Fraternity or Vagabonds and Harman’s Caveat for Common Cursitors, for example, give different names to a number of various types of criminals. They could masquerade as common beggars, as Copland remarked in The Highway to the Spitalhouse.[26] Or as in Walker’s A Manifest Detection of the Most Vile and Detestable Use of Diceplay, when his gentleman ‘haply […] roamed me in the Church of Paul’s’, the rogues that he is introduced to are seemingly gentlemanly tricksters from the shady world of dice play.[27] Awdley in the Fraternity of Vagabonds makes reference to another different type of rogue: the Courtesy Man. This type of rogue, says Awdley:

Is one that walketh about the back lanes in London in the daytime, and sometimes in broad streets in the night season, and when he meeteth some handsome young man cleanly apparelled, or some other honest citizen, he maketh humble salutations and low curtsy.[28]

The Courtesy Man will ingratiate himself into the honest gentleman’s service, but he will then repay their generosity by ‘stealing a pair of sheets or coverlet, and so take their farewell in the morning, before the master or dame be stirring’.[29] Evidently, rogues are a product of the urban environment, and instead of wearing suits of Lincoln Green as Robin Hood is portrayed as doing in the Gest,[30] Tudor rogues and vagabonds go abroad ‘commonly well-apparelled’,[31] spending their days, according to their representations in rogue literature, in the back alleys and courts of the town.[32]

Robin and the outlaws in the Gest do not steal from people indiscriminately, and instead they adhere to a strict moral code. In the first fytte of the Gest, Little John asks Robin:

“Where we shall take, where we shall leve,
Where we shall abide behynde;
Where we shall robbe, where we shal reve,
Where we shall bete and bynde.”[33]

Robin’s reply as to whom the outlaws are permitted to steal from is clear and concise: they are not permitted to steal from any husbandman, nor any good yeoman, nor from any knight or squire. The only people that the outlaws are permitted to rob are corrupt clerics and the Sheriff of Nottingham:

“These bisshoppes and these archebishoppes,
Ye shall them bete and bynde;
The hye sherif of Notyingham,
Hym holde ye in your mynde.”[34]

As Maurice Keen stated in the 1960s, ‘to the poor they [the outlaws] shall be all courtesy […] but to the rich and unjust no mercy is shown’.[35] Although the idea that Robin steals from the rich and gives to the poor is not fully articulated in Gest, it is clear that he and his outlaws do not rob people indiscriminately.

Rogues, on the other hand, would steal from people of all social classes, and their victims could hail from both the poorer and wealthier classes. A ‘ruffler’ in Awdley’s work would, for instance, ‘goeth with a weapon to seek service, saying he hath been a servitor in the wars, and beggeth for his relief. But his chiefest trade is to rob poor wayfaring men and market women.’[36] The ‘frater’ would similarly ‘prey […] commonly upon poor women as they go to the markets’.[37] Robert Greene would say of ‘devilish cony-Catchers’ in 1591 that:

The poor man that cometh to the Term to try his right, and layeth his land to mortgage to get some crowns in his purse to see his lawyer, is drawn in by these devilish cony-catchers that at one cut at cards looseth all his money, by which means he, his wife, and children [are] brought to utter ruin and misery.[38]

Tradesmen could also be targets of these thieves, as Awdley says of the ‘whipjack’ that ‘his chiefest trade is to rob booths in a fair, or to pilfer ware from stalls, which they call “heaving off the booth”’.[39] Alternatively, their victims could be of higher social status, just as the cheats in Walker’s Manifest Detection of Diceplay who spent their nights ‘taverning with trumpets, by day spoiling gentlemen of their inheritance’ (emphasis added).[40] The rogues and vagabonds presented in Tudor rogue literature were people who were willing to make money by cheating and stealing. As the Gest makes clear, these are things that outlaws of Robin Hood’s type also aspired to, admittedly, but the difference was that people knew who outlaws were, and if they were truthful with them, and were not a member of the corrupt classes of society such as the clergy, they might have passed them unmolested.

Conclusion

It is clear that there was an emerging dichotomy between rogues, vagabonds, and greenwood outlaws during the sixteenth century. The changing reputation of Robin Hood between the late medieval period and the sixteenth century illustrates this: in Walter Bower’s Continuation of John of Fordun’s Scotichronicon (c.1440), Bower says that:

Then arose the famous murderer, Robert Hood, as well as Little John, together with their accomplices from among the disinherited, whom the foolish populace are so inordinately fond of celebrating both in tragedies and comedies, and about whom they are delighted to hear the jesters and minstrels sing above all other ballads.[41]

Bower was a member of the Clergy and, judging by the treatment that clerics receive at the hands of Robin Hood in the Gest, it is perhaps no surprise that he treats of Robin negatively. But when chronicles from the sixteenth century are studied, however, the depiction of Robin Hood becomes less ambiguous. In John Major’s Historia Majoris Britanniae (1521), it is said that:

About this time it was, as I conceive, that there flourished those most famous robbers Robert Hood, and Englishman, and Little John, who lay in wait in the woods, but spoiled of their goods only those that were wealthy […] He would allow no woman to suffer injustice, nor would he spoil the poor, but rather enriched them from the plunder taken from the abbots. The robberies of the man I condemn, but of all robbers he was the most humanest and the chief.[42]

Richard Grafton in his Chronicle at Large (1569) incorporated material from Major’s work, and expanded it, and Robin Hood emerges as thoroughly gentrified.[43] Similarly, in John Stow’s Annales of England (1592) he says that Robin Hood and Little John ‘renowned theeves’ known for ‘dispoyling and robbing the rich’, and concluding with Major’s statement that he was the most humane and Prince of all Robbers.[44] Any threatening aspects of Robin’s character would finally be neutered by Anthony Munday in his two plays The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington and The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon (1597-98).

In contrast, the inhabitants of the Elizabethan ‘underworld’ were still being portrayed as foreboding characters at the end of the century. Greene’s The Black Book’s Messenger (1592) almost anticipates the criminal biographies of the eighteenth century by telling, in a moralistic fashion, the story of

Ned Browne […] a man infamous for his bad course of life and well known about London […] in outward shew a Gentlemanlike companion.[45]

Despite his genteel outward appearances, however, he is a threatening figure, and would ‘bung or cut a good purse’ from either a man or woman if he could.[46] Early during the next century, Thomas Dekker’s Lanthorne and Candle-light (1608) represented ‘the laws, manners, and habits of these wild men’ of London.[47] Dekker showed how this supposed underworld, which appeared to mirror legitimate economic and social structures,[48] was divided and subdivided in to ‘ranks’, and had their own ‘canting’ language.[49]

525px-Richard_Head_1666
William Head’s The English Rogue (1665)

Some efforts were made to gentrify the rogue, notably by William Shakespeare with his character, Sir John Falstaff.[50] The rogue continued as a literary type in Richard Head’s The English Rogue (1665) which is essentially a ‘fond’ examination of excess and deception in the life of the protagonist, Meriton Latroon, linking the low-born rogue to his aristocratic counterpart, the rake.[51] It would be rare for Robin Hood to receive negative treatment after the sixteenth century. An attempt would be made during the eighteenth century, when criminal biographies such as Alexander Smith’s A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1714) described him as a man of a ‘wicked, licentious inclination’ who ‘followed not his trade’.[52] It was perhaps easier to gentrify the outlaw and make him appear semi-respectable: he robbed according to a clear moral code, and he was easily identifiable. This way of operating set him in contrast to his more menacing, sinister underworld counterparts: the rogues, vagabonds, fraters, cony-catchers, and prigs who existed in urban settings in early modern England.


References

[1] See the following works by Stephen Knight: Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in the Outlaw Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015); Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003); Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw (Cambridge: Brewer, 1994). Works by Thomas Ohlgren include: Robin Hood: The Early Poems, 1465-1560 Texts, Contexts, and Ideology (Newark, Del.: University of Delaware Press, 2007); ‘The “Marchaunt” of Sherwood: Mercantile Ideology in A Gest of Robyn Hode’ in Robin Hood in Popular Culture: Violence, Transgression, and Justice Ed. Thomas Hahn (Cambridge: Brewer, 2000), 175-190. There is also John Marshall’s research: ‘Picturing Robin Hood in Early Print and Performance: 1500-1590’ in Images of Robin Hood: Medieval to Modern Eds. Lois Potter & Joshua Calhoun Newark, Del.: University of Delaware Press, 2010), 60-82, as well as Alexander Kaufman, ‘Histories of Context: Form, Argument, and Ideology in A Gest of Robyn Hode’ in British Outlaws of Literature and History: Essays on Medieval and Early Modern Figures from Robin Hood to Twm Shon Catty Ed. Alexander Kaufman (Jefferson, NC: MacFarland, 2011), 146-164. Older works include James C. Holt, Robin Hood 2nd Edn. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1989) and R. B. Dobson & J. Taylor, Rymes of Robyn Hode: An Introduction to the English Outlaw 3rd Edn. (Stroud: Sutton, 1997).
[2] Dobson & Taylor, Rymes of Robyn Hode, 74.
[3] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’ in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales Eds. Thomas Ohlgren & Stephen Knight (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000), 80-168 (148).
[4] There is debate about the dating of A Gest of Robyn Hode: James C. Holt originally argued that ‘the Gest was first composed, in something close to its present form, in the fifteenth century, perhaps even as early as 1400’ – Robin Hood, 11. He subsequently revised this estimate, saying that c.1450 was a ‘safer date’ than c.1400 – James C. Holt, ‘Robin Hood: The Origins of the Legend’ in Robin Hood: The Many Faces of that Celebrated English Outlaw Ed. Kevin Carpenter (Oldenburg: Bibliotteks- und Enformationssystem der Universität Oldenburg, 1995), 27-34.
[5] Dobson & Taylor, Rymes of Robyn Hode, 71-72.
[6] Craig Dionne, ‘Fashioning Outlaws: The Early Modern Rogue and Urban Culture’ in Rogues and Early Modern English Culture Eds. Craig Dionne & Steve Mentz (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2006), 33-61 (38).
[7] Andrew McCall, The Medieval Underworld (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1979).
[8] McCall, The Medieval Underworld, 109.
[9] Melissa Sartore, Outlawry, Governance, and Law in Medieval England (New York: Peter Lang, 2013), 14.
[10] Vagabonds and Beggars Act 11 Henry 7 c.2 1494 cited in J. R. Tanner (ed.), Tudor Constitutional Documents, AD 1485-1603 with an Historical Commentary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1930), 469-470. Admittedly this was not the first piece of legislation passed against vagabonds and beggars. Two statutes of Edward III punished ‘who wandered at night or otherwise acted suspiciously’, while another statute of Richard II similarly brought punitive measures against vagrants. But the Tudor legislation against vagabonds and suspected persons was different in several respects: the Reformation had eroded the Church’s welfare provisions for the poor, with the State forced to intervene (often in a haphazard and inefficient manner) in the granting of poor relief to those in need; Tudor legislation was more repressive than earlier laws, given the fact that the Tudor monarchs viewed the poor with suspicion, conscious of the lack of legitimacy for their rule – See J. Thomas Kelly, Thorns on the Tudor Rose: Monks, Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1977).
[11] An Act for the Punishment of Vagabonds 14 Eliz. 1 c. 5 Parliamentary Archives HLRO HL/PO/PU/1/1572/14Eliz1n5 (1572).
[12] Kelly, Thorns on the Tudor Rose, 111.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Hal Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative in Eighteenth-Century England: Beyond the Law (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001), 34.
[15] Brooke A. Stafford, ‘Englishing the Rogue, “Translating” the Irish: Fantasies of Incorporation and Early Modern English National Identity’ in Rogues and Early Modern English Culture Eds. Craig Dionne & Steve Mentz (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2006), 312-336 (323)
[16] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 92-101.
[17] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 117-123.
[18] John Awdley, ‘The Fraternity of Vagabonds [1561]’ in Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars: A New Gallery of Tudor and Stuart Rogue Literature Ed. Arthur F. Kinney (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990), 85-102 (95-97).
[19] Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, 17.
[20] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 90.
[21] For a critical discussion of Adam Bell, see Thomas Hahn, ‘Adam Bell, Clim of the Clough, and William of Cloudesley’ in Medieval Outlaws: Ten Tales in Modern English Ed. Thomas Ohlgren (Stroud: Sutton, 1998), 239-252.
[22] Anon. ‘Adam Bell, Clim of the Clough, and William of Cloudeslie’ in Rymes of Robyn Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw 3rd Edn. Eds. R. B. Dobson & J. Taylor (Stroud: Sutton, 1997), 258-273 (260).
[23] Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, 17.
[24] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 125-130.
[25] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 145.
[26] Robert Copland ‘The Highway to the Spitalhouse [1535-36]’ in Key Writings on Subcultures, 1535-1727: Classics from the Underworld, Volume One 3rd Edn. Ed. A. V. Judges (London: Routledge, 2002), 1-25 (5).
[27] Gilbert Walker, ‘A Manifest Detection of the Most Vile and Detestable Use of Diceplay, and other Practices Like the Same [1552]’ in Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars: A New Gallery of Tudor and Stuart Rogue Literature Ed. Arthur F. Kinney (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990), 59-84 (66).
[28] John Awdley, ‘The Fraternity of Vagabonds, 94.
[29] Awdley, ‘The Fraternity of Vagabonds’, 95.
[30] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 143.
[31] Awdley, ‘The Fraternity of Vagabonds’, 95.
[32] Steve Mentz, ‘Magic Books: Cony-Catching and the Romance of Early Modern London’ in Rogues and Early Modern English Culture Eds. Craig Dionne & Steve Mentz (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2006), 240-260 (240).
[33] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 91.
[34] Anon. ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’, 92.
[35] Maurice Keen, The Outlaws of Medieval Legend 4th Edn. (Dorset: Marboro, 1989), 100.
[36] Awdley, ‘The Fraternity of Vagabonds’, 92.
[37] Ibid.
[38] Robert Greene, ‘A Notable Discovery of Cozenage [1591]’ in Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars: A New Gallery of Tudor and Stuart Rogue Literature Ed. Arthur F. Kinney (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990), 155-186 (164).
[39] Awdely, ‘The Fraternity of Vagabonds’, 92.
[40] Walker, ‘A Manifest Detection of the Most Vile and Detestable Use of Diceplay’, 71.
[41] Walter Bower, ‘Scotichronicon [c.1440]’ in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales Eds. Thomas Ohlgren & Stephen Knight (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000), 25-26 (26).
[42] John Major, ‘Historia Majoris Britanniae [1521]’ in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales Eds. Thomas Ohlgren & Stephen Knight (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000), 26-27 (27).
[43] Stephen Knight & Thomas Ohlgren (eds.) Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000), 28.
[44] Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, 48.
[45] Robert Greene, ‘The Black Book’s Messenger [1592]’ in Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars: A New Gallery of Tudor and Stuart Rogue Literature Ed. Arthur F. Kinney (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990), 193-205 (193).
[46] Ibid.
[47] Thomas Dekker, ‘Lanthorne and Candle-light [1608]’ in Rogues, Vagabonds, and Sturdy Beggars: A New Gallery of Tudor and Stuart Rogue Literature Ed. Arthur F. Kinney (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990), 213-260 (214).
[48] Craig Dionne & Steve Mentz, ‘Introduction’ in Rogues and Early Modern English Culture Eds. Craig Dionne & Steve Mentz (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2006), 1-29 (2).
[49] Ibid.
[50] Dionne & Mentz, ‘Introduction’, 2.
[51] Ken Gelder, Subcultures: Cultural Histories and Social Practice (London: Routledge, 2007), 8.
[52] Alexander Smith, A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen Ed. Arthur Heyward (London: Routledge, 1933), 408.

Recidivism in “A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode” (c.1450)?

Recidivism is one of the most fundamental concepts in criminal justice. It refers to a person’s relapse into criminal behavior, often after the person receives sanctions or undergoes intervention for a previous crime.

National Institute of Criminal Justice

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

I will talk here again about the ballad A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode (referred to hereafter as the Geste). It is a poem that was composed c.1450 but not printed until much later, most probably between the years c.1490 and c.1510. It is a long tale composed of eight ‘fyttes,’ and chronicles many of the deeds and exploits that Robin becomes embroiled in. It is a long poem at 1,824 lines.

I will dwell here upon fyttes seven and eight in the Geste. Before going further, let me say that Robin Hood is first and foremost a criminal. He’s an outlaw who sets himself up in defiance of the authorities. People seem to forget this. Anything he is taken to represent, such as a love of liberty, or “the fellowship of free and equal men” as some scholars say, are meanings which people ascribe to the legend rather than anything which Robin in the early texts says that he represents.

Let us begin at the end of fytte six, where Robin has killed the Sheriff:

Robyn bent a good bowe,
An arrowe he drew at his wyll,
He hyt so the proude sheryf,
Upon the grounde he lay full styll.
And or he myght up aryse,
On his fete to stoned,
He smote of the sheryves head,
With his bryght bronde.

The King is understandably a bit annoyed that this outlaw has killed his representative of law and order, and in the seventh fytte we are told that:

The kynge came to Notynghame,
With knyghts in grete araye,
For to take that gentyll knight,
And Robyn Hode, yf he may.

The King is also a bit miffed that when he has been hunting, he cannot find any deer, for Robin and his men have been feasting upon them. So the King resolves to travel into the forest in disguise to meet Robin Hood and capture him. Dressed as monks, the king and his men happen to come across Robin and his men. This part of the poem is a rehash of medieval and early-modern ‘King and Commoner’ ballads, and cannot be taken to be factually true. When Robin meets the King (in disguise as a monk) Robin praises the King, and the King is impressed with this.

Robin invites the disguised King and his men for a meal in the forest and they have a feast. Afterwards, Robin demands payment from the King, at which point the King reveals himself to Robin and the outlaws:

Robyn behelde our comly kynge
Wystly in the face,
So dyde Syr Rycharde at the Le,
And kneled downe in that place.

And so dyde all the wylde outlawes,
Whan they see them knele:
“My lorde the kynge of Englonde,
Now I knowe you well.”

“Mercy then, Robyn,” sayd our kynge,
“Under your trystyll-tre,
Of thy goodnesse and thy grace,
For my men and me!”

The King forgives Robin for his crimes and invites him to live at Court with him, which Robin readily accepts.

He stays with the King for a full year, after which time Robin begins to get itchy feet. In reality, he is more like the King’s hostage than his servant – what better way to control England’s most notorious outlaw than to have him directly in sight at all times, right? Anyhow, Robin asks the King if he might have a few days’ leave of the King to travel back to Barnsdale to visit a chapel he had built to Mary Magdalene in the woods:

“Yf it be so,” than sayd our kynge,
“It may no better be,
Seven nyght I gyve the leve,
No lengre, to dwell fro me.”

“Gramercy, lorde,” then sayd Robyn,
And set hym on his kne;
He toke his leve courteysly,
To grene wode then went he.

Granted seven days’ leave and no more, Robin returns to Barnsdale. Once there, he cannot help himself but break the law again:

Whan he came to grene wode,
In a mery mornynge,
There he herde the notes small
Of byrdes mery syngynge.

“It is ferre gone,” sayd Robyn,
“That I was last here;
Me lyste a lytell for to shote
At the donne dere.”

Robyn slewe a full grete harte,
His horne than gan he blow,
That all the outlawes of that forest
That horne coud they knowe,

And gadred them togyder,
In a lytell throwe;
Seven score of wyght yonge men
Came redy on a rowe.

He really cannot help himself-once back in the green wood he slays another deer, and immediately sounds his bugle horn and rejoins the other outlaws living in the forest. He remains an outlaw for another 22 years until he finally dies at the hands of the Prioress of Kirklees.

Thomas Bewick, 'Robin Hood and the Tanner' ed. by Joseph Ritson, Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw (1795).
Illustration from Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw (1795).

Now, obviously caution has to be exercised when applying a modern theoretical concept such as recidivism to an early English text, for the legal system of the 1400s was very different to the legal system in England today. But the fundamental principle – that offenders can reoffend – remains the same. To repeat the definition of ‘recidivism’: It refers to a person’s relapse into criminal behavior, often after the person receives sanctions or undergoes intervention for a previous crime. The ‘intervention’ Robin receives is being invited by the King to live at his court. Robin even receives a fee from the king – like a salary – for the duties he carries out at Court. Yet he still cannot help himself but reoffend the moment he is given a little bit of freedom from the King. Were this a more recent outlaw/highwayman from the 1700s, we would term this ‘recidivism’.

“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).

‘By god that dyed on a tree’: Crux Simplex in “A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode” (c.1450)?

Woodcut of crux simplex (1594)
Woodcut of crux simplex (1594)

A purely speculative post; I am not a medieval historian or linguist, and this is just something I’ve noticed whilst reading A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode (1510). I may be wrong, and am certainly willing to be corrected; comments are most welcome!


It is generally agreed amongst most major Christian religions that Jesus Christ died on a cross; an upright stake with a crossbeam. That Christ died on a cross, however, has been debated over the centuries, and some early-modern scholars such as Justus Lipsius illustrated the different ways in which a crucifixion could be carried out. In particular, his illustration of the crux simplex in De Cruce Libri Tres (1594) shows a man suspended upon an upright stake, [1] indicating that the instrument of death used to torture Christ could have been a simpler device compared to the cross that is commonly accepted in many Christian religions, [2] although Lipsius does also include illustrations of more recognisable crucifixions carried out upon a standard cross. Even in the modern period Patrick Fairbairn in The Imperial Bible Dictionary (1874) suggested that the ‘cross’ which Christ died upon may originally have been an upright pole. [3]

It is not the intention here to debate whether or not Christ actually died upon an upright stake, but to highlight a surprisingly interesting source where it appears as though it is implied that Christ died, not on a cross but upon a tree. This source is the medieval ballad A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode. No precise date can be given for the original composition of this ballad as it is a compilation of a number of Robin Hood tales that were originally disseminated orally, [4] although somewhere between c.1400 [5] and c.1450 [6] seems to be the consensus among researchers. The first printed appearance of the Geste, however, appeared in 1492, with successive editions appearing throughout the sixteenth century. [7] The Geste then made its appearance again in eighteenth-century ballad collections such as Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795), and Francis James Child’s five-volume work English and Scottish Popular Ballads (published between 1882 and 1898). It is a long tale composed of eight ‘fyttes’ and sees Robin and his men relieve a financially distressed knight; participate in archery contests; meeting with the King; and the Geste also tells of Robin Hood’s death at the hands of the Prioress of Kirklees.

It is in Robin’s meeting with the poor knight in the first fytte that the first reference Christ dying upon a tree is found. Robin asks the knight why he is poor. The knight has had to post bail for his son who slew a man of Lancaster, and to get the needed funds he has had to mortgage his lands to the corrupt abbot of St. Mary’s in York. When Robin meets the knight, it is the day that the repayment is due, the funds for which the knight does not have. And neither does the Knight have any friends who can help him out of his financial difficulties:

Hast thou ony frendes sayd Robyn

The borowes that wyll be

have none then sayd the knight

But god that dyed on a tree. [8]

Robin lends the knight the £400 that he needs to repay the abbot, and sends the knight on his way to York with Little John acting as a man-servant. When John and the knight arrive at the Abbey of St. Mary’s, the knight initially pretends that he cannot repay the loan. He initially pleads for mercy from the abbot, but to no avail for the abbot refuses to show any leniency:

The abbot sware a full grete othe

By god that dyed on a tree

Get the londe where thou may

for thou getest none of me. [9]

To the abbot’s chagrin, the knight reveals that he does indeed have enough money to repay the abbot, and that if the abbot had been willing to show courtesy and mercy towards him, he would have been rewarded. The abbot turns to the justice who is in the room and says:

Take my golde agayne sayd the abbot

Syr justice that I toke the

Not a peny sayd the justice

By god that dyed on a tree.[10]

Whoever the anonymous author(s) of the Geste was, it is clear that he is here referring, not a cross, but to a more simple structure. When the Sheriff of Nottingham sees Little John’s archery skills on display at a shooting match, he makes a similar oath ‘by hym that dyed on a tree.’[11] There is also another similar reference later on in the ballad. After an archery contest in Nottingham, when Robin splits the arrow in two, the Sheriff recognises them and the outlaws rush to make their escape. In the ensuing affray Little John is wounded, and he asks Robin:

Mayster then sayd Lytell Johan

If thou ever lovest me

And for that ylke lordes love

That dyed upon a tre

And for the medes of my service

That I have served the

Lete never the proud sheryf

Alyve now fynde me.[12]

Now it might be thought that too much is being read into these passages, and I could just be splitting hairs (feel free to comment below). After all, a tree can indeed mean a cross. The only time that the author uses a variation of the phrases previously highlighted is at the end of the eighth fytte where it says:

Cryst have mercy on his [Robin’s] soule

That dyed on the rode.[13]

According to the Middle English Dictionary Online, the word ‘rode’ can mean ‘cross’ in the term by which it would be popularly understood.[14] It remains to ask, however, why the author, or authors, of the Geste used ‘tree’ throughout the ballad when there were words which would have more clearly conveyed the sense of a cross proper?


References

[1] Justus Lipsius De Crvce Libri Tres Ad sacram profanamque historiam utiles. Vna cum Notis (Antwerp: 1594), p.10.
[2] The exception to this is the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ religion. They believe that Christ died upon an upright stake, or pole with no crossbeam. Their position is explained in one of their society’s publications. See Anon. Insight on the Scriptures (New York: Watchtower Bible & Tract Society, 1988), pp.1116-1117. [See jw.org]
[3] Patrick Fairburn The Imperial Bible Dictionary (London: Blackie & Son, 1874), p.376.
[4] Stephen Knight Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), p.24.
[5] A. J. Pollard writes that ‘textual and linguistic analysis has suggested a possible date of composition of the elements [of the Geste] as early as c.1400 and dates for the compositions to be committed to writing about 1450. See A. J. Pollard Imagining Robin Hood: The Late Medieval Stories in Historical Context (London: Routledge, 2004), p.6.
[6] There is debate about the dating of A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode, but James C. Holt argues that c.1450 was a ‘safer date’ than c.1400. See James C. Holt, ‘Robin Hood: The Origins of the Legend’ ed. by Kevin Carpenter Robin Hood: The Many Faces of that Celebrated English Outlaw (Oldenburg: Bibliotteks- und Enformationssystem der Universität Oldenburg, 1995), pp.27-34.
[7] Pollard, Imagining Robin Hood, p.6.
[8] 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 Shelfmark: Sel.5.18 S.T.C. No. 13689
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Frances McSparran (ed.) Middle English Compendium (University of Michigan, 2006) [Internet <<http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/mec/index.html>&gt; Accesssed 14/08/2015].

A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode (c.1450)

'A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode' (Printed c.1470 by Wyknen de Worde)
‘A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode’ (Printed c.1470 by Wyknen de Worde)

Lithe and lysten gentylmen, that be of frebore blode, I shall you tell of a good yeman, His name was Robyn Hode.

Due to the excellent work of the people at the the University of Cambridge, I managed to get my hands on a facsimile copy of the earliest printed Robin Hood text, A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode (c.1450). To anyone who is, well, not me, this is probably not exciting. But anyway it occurred to me that I hadn’t actually written anything upon the text from which my website takes its name. So here goes.

Let me say now that I am not a medieval historian, nor am I a Middle English specialist; my specialism is 18th- and 19th- century Robin Hood literature.

The exact date that it was printed is not known, although it is said to be between the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Its composition, however, probably dates back, according to James C. Holt, to c.1450.

Robin is a very different character to the one we would see on our TV screens today. I know I’ve used that phrase a lot on my website, but of Robin Hood it is true; over time the legend snowballed and collected different aspects, evolving along the way.

Firstly,Robin is not the Earl of Huntingdon; Robin’s elevation to the peerage came in the 16th century with Anthony Munday’s two plays, The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington (1598), and The Death of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon (1601). Instead Robin is described as a ‘yeoman.’ There is debate amongst scholars about what exactly this term meant but, generally, it is someone who was of middle rank in medieval society. Robin Hood is not a peasant.

There is no Maid Marian or Friar Tuck in these poems. These characters were later additions to the legend. Neither is the Geste set in the time of “good” King Richard and “bad” Prince John. Instead it is set in the time of an un-numbered King Edward.

The setting, moreover, is not Sherwood Forest but Barnsdale Forest in South Yorkshire:

Robyn stode in Bernysdale, and lened hym to a tree, and by hym stode lyttell Johan, a good yeman was he, and also dyde good Scathelock, and Much the myllers sone…

Marian wasn't Robin's only love interest...he also had a woman called Clarinda too!
The Robin Hood of the Geste is a very different figure compared to what we’d recognise today!

The Sheriff of Nottingham is still there, however, despite the fact that the poem is set in the Forest of Barnsdale. There are also references to Doncaster, UK. The Yorkshireman in me wants to say that this is firm proof that Robin Hood was a Yorkshireman but, alas, I cannot, for another early ballad, Robin Hood and the Monk, is set in Sherwood.

The poem, or ballad, is very long and divided into eight ‘Fyttes’. It begins with Robin and his men in the forest, and this is the plot (it’s a long poem and is, of necessity, summarised here):

Fitts 1 and 2 deal with the impoverished knight who is lent money by Robin to regain his lands from the rapacious church; in the later part of Fitt 4 the same knight returns to repay Robin. In the “interlaced” episode, Fitt 3 and the first part of Fitt 4, Little John, whom Robin has sent to serve and help the knight, is sought as a servitor by the sheriff: he leaves the sheriff’s house disgruntled by his poor treatment, brings with him the Cook, and then traps the sheriff into entering the forest and losing his possessions. The second part of the Gest starts in Fitt 5 with the Sheriff’s archery contest and trap, after which the outlaws take refuge with the knight of Fitt 1. He is then, Fitt 6, kidnapped by the sheriff and rescued by the outlaws, who kill the sheriff…Fitts 7 and 8 offer a version of the well known “King and Subject” theme in which the King in disguise meets, then in some way conflicts with, one of his subjects, and the result is honor both to the king’s flexibility and also the subject’s deep-seated loyalty. In the Gest King Edward meets, engages with, and at least symbolically joins the forest outlaws. But different from Adam Bell, his offer for Robin to join his court is not successful, and the poem ends with Robin’s return to the greenwood, unhappy with the inactive and expensive nature of court life. The last stanzas, more a palinode than a climax, sketch in the story of Robin’s death. Like other heroes he is betrayed by someone close to him and leaves a shrine and a noble memory.

The tale is almost certainly comprised of a number of different tales, and most scholars agree that there is not much of a hint that Robin Hood in the Geste steals from the rich and gives to the poor. The poem simply ends with the rather vague following lines:

For he was a good out lawe, and dyde pore men moch god.

This seems like it has been tagged on to the end, for nowhere in the whole of the Geste does Robin help any poor people or peasants. And yet, whilst it is not explicitly stated that Robin steals from the rich and gives to the poor, I’d like to think that whoever heard (or read) this text implicitly understood that he did. After all, in how many of our modern-day film adaptations of the legend do we actually hear Robin utter the words: “I steal from the rich and give to the poor”? The answer, of course, is never; we implicitly understand that he does, and it does not need saying. I cannot stress enough, however, that I am not a medieval scholar, and that last sentence really is speculation on my part. Unfortunately, we cannot gaze into the minds of medieval people to see if this was the case.

Joseph Ritson (1752-1803)
Joseph Ritson (1752-1803)

Out of all the early English Robin Hood texts, however, this is my favourite for the following reasons:

  • Despite being written in Middle English, it’s fairly intelligible to the modern reader.
  • It’s the most “biographical” of all early Robin Hood texts, unlike, for instance, Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, or Robin Hood and the Monk, which recount only episodes from the outlaw’s life.
  • You encounter Robin Hood in all his guises in this poem: he is Bold Robin Hood, the leader of a band of outlaws, and he is also a trickster.

The first time that this poem was made available to a book reading audience was in Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw (1795). Thankfully, Ritson preserved the Middle English spelling, whilst later antiquaries “translated” it into Modern English, which I think robs it of some of its power; the Geste, and other early English texts, are the primitive poetry of the nation, part of our heritage. As such, the antiquary  in me wants to see them preserved in tact, so to speak.

It’s quite a long poem, but if you ever want to read it in full, click here – though it’s quite long!