Being A General and True History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Rogues, Cheats, Murderers and Rebels of Every Description; Together with Examinations of Historical True Crime Literature, Penny Dreadfuls, and other Sorts of Pernicious Trash; Set Forth to Public View for the Common Benefit of Mankind
This is the second post in a series in which I have been transcribing little-known nineteenth-century Robin Hood poems. The New Monthly Magazine was published between 1814 and 1884. It was the Tory party’s answer to Liberals‘ Monthly Magazine established by Sir Richard Phillips, and tried to emulate the famous Gentleman’s Magazine in both style and content. The periodical showcased the literary work by both professional and amateur writers, and the example below is a poem by William Jones entitled ‘A “Lytell Geste” of Robin Hood’ which appeared in the April 1870 issue of The New Monthly Magazine, and the poem itself tells the story of Robin Hood and Allen-a-Dale.
“’Tis a mettlesome day for a buck to slay,
When Sherwood’s glades look brightest,”
Sang bold Robin Hood, as he wended his way,
With a heart the gayest and lightest.
“Ay, sweet is the deer, and its savoury cheer,
But sweeter the bells when an abbot draws near,
With his purse full of nobles, his rings and his chains,
And a ransom in prospect to add to our gains.
By St. Hubert! I would such a chance I had now,
For the merry men lack of the metal, I trow.”
Not an abbot or friar, nor bishop nor prior,
Met Robin that day in the forest,
But a yeoman drew nigh, with a tear in his eye,
And a look that seem’d one of the sorest.
Quoth Robin, “Good fellow, while summer is mellow,
And all is now smiling, delightful,
Why are you cast down, and thus bitterly frown;
Has fortune been fickle or spiteful?”
“Alas, worthy woodman, you guess at my grief,
I have much to distress and to vex me;
To make my words brief, you can give no relief
To the troubles that haunt and perplex me:
I wooed a fair maiden, who troth’d in return,
But the mother is timid, the father is stern;
To-day she will marry against her own will,
But Allin-a-Dale will be true to her still.”
“Is it so?” cried bold Robin; “your friend I will be,
I will stop this queer wedding; and, mind you,
Be ready at hand, when I give you command,
And a wife I will certainly find you!”
The outlaw then took off his jerkin of green,
And sent for a tatter’d and worn gabardine,
Took a staff in his hand, put a patch on his face,
And trudg’d off to town at a forester’s pace.
He arrived just in time, for he heard the last chime
Ring merrily out from the steeple,
And enter’d the church, with a shuffle and lurch,
As a beggar should do ‘midst the people.
The bridgegroom, ungainly, had taken his place,
The bride she hung back with a lacklustre face,
The guests were all dress’d in their holiday trim,
The parson was there looking solemn and prim,
He open’d his book, and had scarcely begun,
When, “Stop!” cried bold Robin, “I’ll show you some fun!”
All gazed on the beggar, who stepping forth eager,
Clear’d the way with a bound to the railing,
“And,” said he, “worthy priest, let me tell you, at least,
Your words are thus far unavailing;
The bride is unwilling, as all can well see,
To mate such a scarecrow, or worse, if there be;
A right proper man I can find for the maid,
So the wedding need not for a husband be stay’d.”
All look’d quite aghast, – some took courage at last,
And press’d on the beggar most hotly.
But he waved them aside, and then smilingly cried,
“My dress may appear somewhat motley,
But you see Robin Hood, of merry Sherwood,
Who is not the world quite a stranger;
So fall back, I pray, or your addlepates may,
Be in some tribulation and danger!
So he sounded his horn, and in tunics of green
His men of the woodlands were speedily seen;
Quoth Robin, “Good people, I mean you no evil,
Stay awhile in your places, be quiet and civil:
Now Allin, stout yeoman, come wed this fair woman,
Worthy priest, ‘tis a change for the better;
Right willing you find them, so hasten to bind them,
And a fat buck I will be your debtor!”
So the marriage took place with a heartier grace
Than it had been if otherwise fated.
And thus “lytell geste,” one of Robin Hood’s best,
May well to his praise be related.
Author: William Jones
Title: ‘A “Lytell Geste” of Robin Hood’
Periodical Title: The New Monthly Magazine
Page Nos. 432-433.
It is Stephen Knight in Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (2003) who made the later tradition a valid area of scholarly enquiry. His wide-ranging survey of the legend covered various incarnations of Robin Hood from his medieval incarnations to the twentieth century.
But the way scholars do research has changed since Knight wrote his study. The digitisation of many primary sources, and in particular Victorian periodicals, has meant that scholars can now uncover many more previously unknown literary works. Robin Hood was featured in a number of minor poems during the nineteenth century. Some were good, and indeed some were bad. The piece I have transcribed below is taken from Bentley’s Miscellany in 1846. The periodical was started by Richard Bentley in 1836, who invited Charles Dickens to be its editor. Some very famous novels were first serialised in the magazine: Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1838) and William Harrison Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard (1839) made their debuts here.
As people are unlikely to have read this particular poem before, I therefore leave it for readers without providing any commentary or argument upon it – though any thoughts people have are welcome in the comments.
I have found quite a few of these minor poems, and in the coming weeks will be uploading more of them.
W. H. C. W. ‘Robin Hood and his Merry Men’
Bentley’s Miscellany, July 1846, p.246
Under the merry greenwood tree
With me who likes may roam;
And there, although we shall be out,
We’ll make ourselves “at home;”
And, by your leave, beneath its leaves
Will we conn o’er again
The quips and cranks, and merry pranks,
Of Robin Hood and merry men.
To Sherwood Forest Robin Hood,
Real Earl of Huntingdon,
An outlaw fled, and there, ‘tis said,
Was join’d by Little John,
Who was a great man, as they say,
At drawing well the strong bow;
And as his shaft went a long way,
No doubt he drew the “long bow!”
Bold Robin Hood was so beloved,
His band increased in haste,
As also Friar Tuck’s, the fat,
Who never would see waste
In any thing that he conceived
The inner man might succour:
He bib’d the wine, and if ‘twas wrong,
Twas but a bib and Tuck-er(r).
A useful member to the band
Was Tuck at Feast or fire;
The deer they took ‘twas wrong to cook,
So in conscience kept a friar.
Though ven’son then, as now, was dear,
This vantage they could reap –
Just like their means the game was near,
And so they got it cheap.
The chieftain as the chief of darts
Contentedly down sat him;
But couldn’t ‘scape sly Cupid’s arts,
Or shafts he levell’d at him.
Maid Marian was made Robin’s queen,
Queen of the greenwood shade,
Annd kindly kept his cave well swept,
Because he’d no house made.
That Robin was a robber bold
May well be understood;
In every joke you saw he told
That he was Rob(b)in(g) Hood.
We’re told Tell was a telling shot,
(Nice even to a hair,)
And because he shot the apple,
Tell and Hood are deem’d a pair.
Let this opinion current go,
From monarch to the pedlar;
Who’d spoil them of their sweet deserts,
A most obnoxious meddler!
Long may the fame of Robin Hood,
And all his merry men,
As merry make all merry hearts,
Who’d merry make again!
But see where artful Dryden next appears,
Grown old in rhyme, but charming ev’n in years,
Great Dryden next, whose tuneful muse affords
The sweetest numbers, and the fittest words.
Whether in comic sounds or tragic airs
She forms her voice, she moves our smiles or tears.
If satire or heroic strains she writes,
Her hero pleases, and her satire bites.
From her no harsh unartful numbers fall,
She wears all dresses, and she charms in all.
How might we fear our English poetry,
That long has flourish’d, should decay with thee.
– Joseph Addison, Account of the Greatest English Poets (1694)
John Dryden (1631-1700) is a significant figure in the literary history of the seventeenth century, and was counted by Joseph Addison (1672-1719) as being the best poet throughout the whole of English history. He lived through one of the most tumultuous centuries in English history, witnessing the English Revolution and Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell (1642-1659), the Restoration of Charles II, and the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which saw James II ousted from the English throne in favour of William of Orange and his wife, Mary.
Dryden’s own career was affected by the changing political scene in Britain. He worked in an administrative capacity for the Protectorate, and had a certain degree of admiration for Cromwell, having authored the poem Heroick Stanzas in his honour. He was, however, able to see which way the wind was blowing. Upon the Restoration he allied himself with the returning Stuarts. He became one of their most loyal supporters, and was appointed as Poet Laureate by Charles II in 1668. But after the ascension of William and Mary in 1688, his position as Poet Laureate was rescinded and he had no choice but to concentrate on dramatic works and translations.
Dryden exhibited a high degree of interest in England’s medieval past. He wrote the highly successful play King Arthur; or, The British Worthy in 1691, which was accompanied with an elegant musical score by the composer Henry Purcell. He also translated some of the works of Chaucer in his Fables: Ancient and Modern (1700). But Dryden also kept an eye on the popular culture of the day, and to this end, in partnership with the printer Jacob Tonson, he published several volumes of Miscellany Poems which appeared in 1684, 1685, 1693, and 1694, and were reprinted repeatedly until a full six-volume edition in 1716, the sixth part of which was published posthumously after Dryden’s death in 1700.
Too often we tend to view the literary history of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries through the works of a number of ‘great’ writers such as Dryden himself, Addison, Richard Steele, and Daniel Defoe. Yet these were works of high literature, and were not read by people every day. Instead, the various collections of Miscellanies which were published throughout the period tell us what was popular at the time for readers. In the words of one critic:
They were the form in which many ordinary people would have read poetry in the eighteenth century, and offer insights into readers and consumers of the past […]they represent a particularly important and popular mediation of poetry in the eighteenth century.
Miscellanies (and there were many more apart from Dryden’s collections) tended to reflect the popular culture of the moment. There must have been a temporary vogue among readers in the early eighteenth century for pieces of light pastoral poetry. Pastoral poetry and plays derive from the classical tradition and tend to represent simple country life, in the vein of Ben Jonson’s The Sad Shepherd; or, A Tale of Robin Hood (1631), in which Robin, instead of being an outlaw, is ‘Chief Woodsman of the Forest’ who gathers together ‘all the shepherds and shepherdesses of the forest’ together for a feast. The Robin Hood ballad which is published in Dryden’s collection is not marketed as a popular ballad, even though it was available in contemporary broadsides. Instead, it is presented as a piece of ‘pastoral poetry’, indicated by the volume’s preface:
There is no sort of poetry, if well wrought, but gives delight. And the pastoral perhaps may boast of this in a peculiar manner. For, as in painting, so I believe, in poetry, the country affords the most entertaining scenes, and most delightful prospects.
Hence a ballad of Robin Hood, which details life in the forest, fits perfectly inside a volume dedicated to celebrating pastoral poetry.
Indeed, if it is accepted that Miscellanies contain pieces of poetry which were popular with readers at the time, this would seem to complicate Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren’s remarks about this ballad. They say that:
This ballad was moderately well-known, with three versions surviving from the seventeenth century, that in the Roxburghe collection seeming earlier than the two collected by Pepys, and therefore the basis for this text. It appeared in three eighteenth-century collections before Ritson, but is not included in the early garlands, which may suggest it is less than fully popular in its distribution.
My argument to that is that the ballad can hardly have been ‘moderately well-known’ given the fact that, out of all the Robin Hood ballads which were available to contemporaries, the editor of the Miscellanies chose this ballad to reflect popular contemporary works.
This was, moreover, an age in which gradually the works of native English authors were becoming respected; it is in the eighteenth century, for instance, that the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare first became thought of as ‘classics’. Sophisticated readers began to treasure the works, not only of Chaucer and Shakespeare, but of the ballad writers. We owe the survival of many seventeenth-century popular ballads, for instance, to the labours of Samuel Pepys, who collected and preserved a number of broadsides in his personal library. Alongside Pepys were other eminent men who collected and preserved ballads, such as John Selden, and John Bagford whose collections of ballads became the Roxburghe Collection of ballads. Thus it was not the plebeian classes who only enjoyed English ballads but those of higher stations in life as well.
Finally, the inclusion of A Ballad of Bold Robin Hood, Shewing his Birth, Breeding, and Valour in Dryden’s Miscellanies confirms Liz Oakley-Brown’s argument that after c.1600 the Robin Hood tradition began to move away from being an oral tradition to being a predominantly textual one. In Dryden’s volume, this Robin Hood ballad was not something that would have been sung. Rather it was something that somebody would have read. It is therefore the appearances of Robin Hood ballads in pieces of literature such as this that allow us to chart the development of the Robin Hood tradition, seeing how it gradually became gentrified and respectable for an audience of readers.
As a fan of Dryden myself, it would please me greatly if it ever turned out that Dryden himself wrote the ballad, but that seems very unlikely.
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 RobynHodewas 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. In the poem, Robin is described as ‘a good yeman [yeoman]’. His fellow outlaws Little John, Will Scarlet, and Much the Miller’s Son are similarly described as ‘good’. 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.’ 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. As a more conservative historian, for Holt Robin Hood was representative of knightly or aristocratic interests. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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. In Robin Hood and the Monk (c.1450), one of the merry men, Much, brutally kills a young boy. 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.’ 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’. 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.
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. 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. 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.
 R. B. Dobson & J. Taylor (eds.) Rymes of Robyn Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw 3rd Edn. (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 1976), p.xxix.
 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.
 Rodney Hilton ‘The Origins of Robin Hood’ Past & Present No. 14 (1958), pp.30-44.
 James C. Holt ‘The Origins and Audience of the Ballads of Robin Hood’ Past & Present No. 18 (1960), pp.89-110.
 Maurice Keen ‘Robin Hood – Peasant or Gentleman?’ Past & Present No. 19 (1961), pp.7-15.
 Stephen Knight Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994).
 Henry Summerson ‘The Criminal Underworld of Medieval England’ The Journal of Legal History 17: 3 (1996), pp.197-224.
 Henry Fielding An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers (Dublin: G. Faulkner, 1751), p.1.
 Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account (Cambridge: CUP, 1987) p.124.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 Anon. Here begynneth a Lytell geste of Robyn hode…
 Lucy Moore Conmen and Cutpurses: Scenes from the Hogarthian Underworld (London: Penguin, 2001), p.iii.
 Gillian Spraggs Outlaws and Highwaymen: The Cult of the Robber in England from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century (London: Pimlico, 2001).
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…
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.
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!
Twitter spats between public figures are a common occurrence these days, even making it into the national news (ahem, Katie Hopkins), but public quarrels between prominent figures are nothing new, as this post will show.
I love the eighteenth century; people were so refined; polite in their manners, and elegant and graceful in their dress. Aristocrats were paternalist, benevolent beings who cared for the people under their charge; all the criminals were gentlemanly Dick Turpins; it was a period which witnessed the emergence of great literary works such as the first novel, Robinson Crusoe (1719), by Daniel Defoe; it was an age of Enlightenment in which men cast off the vestiges of religious superstition in favour of “scientific” reason; Georg Frederich Handel composed music and it was divine. It truly was a time of elegance and harmony…
Or so TV shows such as Poldark and movies such as The Madness of King George would have you believe…Most of the “myths” of the Enlightenment have been well-and-truly debunked by historians these days; it was a time of slavery, and of highland clearances; the criminals were actually brutes, and crowds jostled for space at Tyburn to view them being hanged because it was an entertaining event; whilst Robinson Crusoe is a decent novel, I am truly glad that I will never have to suffer reading Pamela (1740), or Clarissa (1748), by Samuel Richardson ever again.
In fact, when you look at eighteenth-century literature, a lot of it in some way or other seems to be satire. Joseph Addison’s and Richard Steele’s Tatler and Spectator periodicals satirised the follies of polite society. Henry Fielding’s Shamela (1743) was a direct piss-take of Richardson’s Pamela. The anonymous Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster was a stab at the Prime Minister, Robert Walpole (as was Fielding’s Jonathan Wild). In fact, it would be fair to say that a lot of 18th-century writing was driven by personal feuds between people who were prominent in public life.
But let me direct your attention to a little literary spat between three poets/playwrights (similar to a Twitter spat between celebrities today) which occurred in 1717 and which continued for the rest of their lives. First, however, let me introduce the players of the drama about to be unfolded to you:
Colley Cibber (1671-1757) – an actor playwright, and Poet Laureate, and the manager of the Theatre Royal at Drury Lane. He was most noted for his comical “fop” parts. He regards himself first and foremost as an actor.
Alexander Pope (1688-1744) – one of the best poets of the age; author of several poetical, satirical, and philosophical works, such as The Rape of the Lock (1714), The Dunciad (1728), and the editor of one of the first collected editions of the works of William Shakespeare; criticised by modern-day feminist commentators because he believed that woman were intellectually inferior to men.
John Gay (1685-1732) – another poet/playwright; a man who would achieve future fame in 1728 with his ballad opera, The Beggar’s Opera.
Pope and Gay, along with another writer, John Arbuthnot, collaborated on a play entitled Three Hours After Marriage in 1717. It was to have Cibber as its lead role. It is fair to say that it wasn’t one of Gay, or Pope’s, greatest successes (it lasted only 7 nights); that is to say, the audience wasn’t taking too kindly to it. So Cibber, in the lead role, decided to start telling a few jokes on stage instead.
Pope and Gay happened to be in the audience, however, and they were furious. And they sat there, seething; this was their artwork and it was being degraded with tavern jokes.
Gay became so angry that, upon another visit to the theatre, he saw Cibber and got into a physical fight with him, and guards had to be called in to stop the fracas. For Gay, that appeared to be the end of the matter, and there doesn’t appear to be any significant criticisms of Cibber in his works after that.
Pope, on the other hand, was more of a moody, brooding type of guy. Although the phrase, ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ was yet to be coined until a hundred years later, Pope must have understood its sentiments. Pope published a satirical pamphlet attacking Cibber in the immediate aftermath of the play and its dismal reception. Cibber didn’t respond to it; according to one modern commentator this was probably out of a respect for Pope’s poetic genius. Although this didn’t stop Cibber responding in kind to Pope’s criticisms; a few months later Cibber was playing the lead role in the revival of the Restoration play, The Rehearsal (originally a satire upon John Dryden written in 1672), where he ad libbed a flippant reference to Three Hours After Marriage. Once again Pope was in the audience, and was infuriated, and went backstage and poured forth a number of invectives against Cibber. For his part, Cibber kept his cool, saying:
Mr Pope, you are so particular a man, that I should be asham’d to return your language as I ought to do: but since you have attacked me in so monst’rous a manner, this you may depend on, that as long as the play continues to be acted, I will never fail to repeat the same words over and over again.
But Pope didn’t let the matter go for a number of years. In 1742 Pope revised his poem The Dunciad; originally written in 1728, the first version featured a character called Tibbald as “King of the Dunces” which was a dig at another writer named Lewis Theobald, a contemporary of Pope’s who had had the audacity to produce an edited collection of Shakespeare’s work entitled: Shakespeare Restored, or a Specimen of the many Errors as well Committed as Unamended by Mr Pope in his late edition of this poet; designed not only to correct the said Edition, but to restore the true Reading of Shakespeare in all the Editions ever published (1726). In other words, Theobald had positioned his edition of Shakespeare in direct opposition to Pope. The Dunciad was supposed to be an imitation of Virgil’s The Aeneid, in which he criticises rulers who are impressed with spectacle, and favour it over quality; and is a satire upon the decadence and degradation of 18th-century life that has caused this fascination with “dulness.”
In his 1742 edition, The New Dunciad, and The Dunciad of 1743, however, Pope took aim at Cibber, who was now the “King of Dunces”. The poem begins on Lord Mayor’s Day, in the realm of Dulness, where the Empress of Dulness is contemplating her realm:
She fixes her eyes on Bays to be the instrument of the great event.
The reference to “Bays” signifies Cibber, in his role as Poet Laureate, but the allusions didn’t stop there, for the characters and topography of the poem were altered to fit Cibber’s career as an actor, and Pope even descends into attacking Cibber’s personal appearance:
Great Cibber fat: the proud parnassian sneer,
The conscious simper and the jealous leer,
Mix on his lock: all eyes direct their rays,
On him, all crowds turn coxcomb as they gaze.
Cibber is presented in the new Dunciad as “the antichrist of Wit”.
To Cibber’s credit, he maintained a dignified silence to Pope’s satirical attacks throughout most of his life, but after the publication of The Dunciad he started to play the literary game against Pope. He responded to Pope’s Dunciad in a letter published as A Letter from Mr. Cibber to Mr. Pope, where he took Pope to task for publishing many ‘needling tales’ and also told a few embarrassing tales from Pope’s youth:
Sir, as you have for several Years past (particularly in your Poetical Works) mentioned my Name, without my desiring it; give me leave, at last, to make my due Compliments to Yours in Prose, which I should not choose to do, but that I am really driven to it (as the Puff in the Play-Bills says) At the Desire of several Persons of Quality.If I have lain so long stoically silent, or unmindful of your satyrical Favours, it was not so much for want of a proper Reply, as that I thought they never needed a Publick one: For all People of Sense would know, what Truth or Falshood there was in what you have said of me, without my wisely pointing it out to them. Nor did I choose to follow your Example of being so much a Self-Tormentor, as to be concern’d at whatever Opinion of me any publish’d Invective might infuse into People unknown to me.
Cibber evidently chose to weather these attacks, but, happily for Cibber, he got the last word. The letter was published just a few months before Pope’s death, and Pope never got to respond; the enmity with Cibber he took to his grave.
I guess this whole episode, which lasts over twenty years, pretty much goes to show that quarrels between people who are prominent in public life are nothing new.
Romanticism was a cultural and intellectual movement spearheaded by poets, artists, writers, sculptors and musicians. Whereas in the eighteenth century men such as Joseph Addison (1672-1719) complained that rural people and provincial towns were a little backwards in terms of manner and breeding, and viewed the urban area as the centre of progress, Enlightenment, and politeness, artists and thinkers during the Romantic period idealised nature and rural areas. Stories and figures from the medieval period provided the Romantics with inspiration to draw upon in their works, in contrast to the neo-classicism of the preceding century.
The Romantic period of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was therefore a reaction to the “rationality” and scientific thought which had been current throughout the 1700s, as well as the increasing industrialisation and urbanisation of the United Kingdom, during which, according to William Blake, “dark Satanic mills” began to appear up and down the country.
Robin Hood, living as he did in the forest, was an ideal subject for the Romantics, and the legend provided the middle- and upper-class poets and writers with a locus of nostalgia with which to glorify the medieval period. To the Romantics, the medieval period was almost like a rural idyll, when men were free and not wage slaves, and a period of paternalism and harmony between the different sections of society.
In the poem Robin Hood: To a Friend (1820) written by John Keats, the writer laments the loss of the medieval period:
No! those days are gone away,
And their hours are old and gray,
And their minutes buried all
Under the down-trodden pall
Of the leaves of many years:
Many times have winter’s shears,
Frozen North, and chilling East,
Sounded tempests to the feast
Of the forest’s whispering fleeces,
Since men knew nor rent nor leases.
And if Robin should be cast
Sudden from his turfed grave,
And if Marian should have
Once again her forest days,
She would weep, and he would craze:
He would swear, for all his oaks,
Fall’n beneath the dockyard strokes,
Have rotted on the briny seas;
She would weep that her wild bees
Sang not to her–strange! that honey
Can’t be got without hard money!
The author yearns for a bygone age, in which ‘men knew neither rent nor leases’. If Robin were to be alive in the 1800s, exclaims the author, ‘he would craze’ at the deforestation and urbanisation taking place in Britain which was steadily eroding his favourite haunts. One of the reasons that Robin Hood’s “profession” of highway robbery was dying out in the 1800s, says Gillian Spraggs, was because areas such as London had rapidly expanded, and former villages such as Hackney and Lambeth were now a part of the sprawling capital.
Moreover, Keats laments the change in social customs which was occurring in the early nineteenth century. In modern and urbanised societies, where people are anonymous to one another, written contracts and money dominate relations and interactions between men. A person’s “word” is no longer surety enough. Similarly, Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto (1848) would write that relationships between men had been reduced to what he called ‘the callous cash nexus’. So if the medieval Marian were to return to the 1800s, she would be shocked that she would have to purchase something which previously had been freely available to her.
Later poets would also use Robin Hood as a locus for nostalgia. A brilliant poem was written in by W. J. Linton (1812-1897) in 1865 which was explicitly nostalgic:
O for the life of Robin Hood, to wander an outlaw free
Rather than crawl in the market-place of human slavery:
Linton realised that by the 1850s industrial capitalism and liberal economics were well and truly entrenched, as factory workers filed in out of work on a daily basis, their lives governed by the clock, and at the end of the day receiving a mere pittance for their labour. Furthermore, to Linton the medieval world of Robin Hood represented health liberty, in contrast to the un-free and un-healthful, smoky Victorian city:
O for an hour of Robin Hood, and the brave health of the free,
Out of the noisome smoke to where the earth breathes fragrantly,
Where heaven is seen,
And the smile serene
Of heavenliest liberty.
There was indeed many aspects of the medieval period which were seductive to the Romantics, and this accounts for the ‘cult’ of ‘merrie England’ which persisted throughout the nineteenth century. However, the Romantics, as their name implies, were guilty of romanticising the past. Medieval England was a feudal society. Men weren’t free, and at the risk of sounding cliché, for many people in the medieval period, life was nasty, brutish and short, and Robin Hood, if he existed, would have been a common criminal.
There is a danger of overly romanticising any period of past. As an example think of the way that Julian Fellowes has recently created a “quaint” view of Edwardian life in his series Downton Abbey. He presents Lord Downton as a benevolent aristocrat, who takes care of his servants, and shares in their troubles. The reality, of course, is that the Lords were despised in the Edwardian period by a great many. In fact, the Liberals’ slogan for the 1910 election was “The Lords Must Go”, in reference to the increasingly despised way that the House of Lords blocked reforms which would benefit the common man.
In short, despite what the Romantics thought, the “grass wasn’t greener” in the medieval period.