‘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].

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Robin Hood’s Grave

Anon. 'Robin Hood's Death and Burial' ed. by Joseph Ritson Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (London: T. Egerton, 1795)
Anon. ‘Robin Hood’s Death and Burial’ ed. by Joseph Ritson Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (London: T. Egerton, 1795)

Last Thursday (2nd July 2015), I and the other delegates to the International Association for Robin Hood Studies got the chance to visit Robin Hood’s grave in Kirklees, West Yorkshire.

According to the legend, in old age Robin Hood fell ill and went to visit his cousin, who was the Prioress of Kirklees, so that he could be bled. However, his cousin conspired with her lover, Sir Roger of Doncaster, to kill Robin. So she opened a vein, locked Robin in the upper room of the gatehouse, and let him bleed to death. This is how the story is recounted in one of the earliest Robin Hood texts, A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode (c.1450):

Yet he was begyled, I wys, through a wycked woman, the pryoresse of Kyrkesly, that nye was of kynne.

For the love of a knyght, Syr Roger of Donkester, that was her owne speciall, full evyll mote they fare.

They toke togyder theyr counsell, Robyn Hode for to sle, and how they myght best do that dede, his banis for to be.

Than bespake good Robyn, in place where as he stode, to morrow I muste to Kyrkesley, craftely to be leten blode.

Syr Roger of Donkestere, by the pryoresse he lay, and there they betrayed good Robyn Hode, through theyr false playe.

Cryst have mercy on his soule, that dyde on the rode, for he was a good out lawe, and dyde pore men moch god.

The Gatehouse - the second floor is the room where Robin Hood (allegedly) died.
The Gatehouse – the second floor is the room where Robin Hood (allegedly) died.

Later Robin Hood texts would expand upon the story of the death even further. The ballad Robin Hood’s Death and Burial says that in his dying moments, Robin sounded his bugle horn and Little John came running. John wanted to burn down the priory in revenge for Robin’s death, but, noble to the end, Robin commands him not to, for:

I never hurt woman in all my life, nor man in woman’s company.

Instead, Robin wishes John to help him fire one last arrow, and where the arrow falls, says Robin, is the spot that should mark his grave:

Lay me a green sod under my head, and another at my feet, and lay my bent bow by my side, which was my music sweet, and make my grave of gravel and green, which is most right and meet.

The arrow falls over a mile away from the priory, and the spot, legend has it, is now marked by the grave that now stands to this day.

(c) Stephen Basdeo
(c) Stephen Basdeo

On the grave itself there is an epitaph which reads (in a text which is supposed to resemble Middle English):

Hear underneath dis laitl stean
Laz robert earl of Huntingtun
Ne’er arcir ver as hie sa geud
An pipl kauld im robin heud
Sick utlawz as he an iz men
Vil england nivr si agen
Obiit 24 kal: Dekembris, 1247.

You may be able to see this epitaph on the accompanying picture, though you may have to enlarge it.

Now, there have been doubts about this grave for a great number of years. The earliest reference to the existence of this grave is in the year 1610 – quite a few years after Robin Hood, if he ever existed, actually lived!

Thomas Percy, the editor of Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), admitted that the grave and the epitaph was suspicious.

Joseph Ritson, on the other hand, in his Robin Hood (1795), seemed to think that it was genuine enough.

The current structure around the grave actually dates from the 1850s, so what you’re seeing in the picture is not a medieval structure.

Whether there is a Robin Hood buried under there cannot be said. It’s around the right location for a grave of the famous outlaw (if he existed), and no one has ever disturbed the soil to see if anyone is buried under there.

Most modern researchers tend to take the grave with a pinch of salt, unless they’re a big part of the ‘real Robin Hood’ industry (a bit like the Jack the Ripper industry).

All doubts aside, it was an enjoyable visit, and it’s nice to see where Robin might have died, had he existed.

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!