Visions of “Piers Plowman” in the 18th Century

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

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

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

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

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

Long had our dull forefathers slept supine,

Nor felt the raptures of the tuneful Nine

Till Chaucer first, a merry bard, arose,

And many a story told in rhyme and prose.

But age has rusted what the poet writ,

Worn out his language, and obscured his wit;

In vain he jests in his unpolished strain,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

[vi] Ibid.

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

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

[ix] Ibid., p. 11.

[x] Helen Young, ‘Where Do the “White Middle Ages” Come From?’, The Public Medievalist, 21 March 2017, online edn., https://www.publicmedievalist.com/white-middle-ages-come/ [Accessed 11 December 2017].

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Robin Hood’s Death

Robin Hood's Death in Howard Pyle's
Robin Hood’s Death in Howard Pyle’s “Robin Hood” (1883). [Scanned Image]

One of the reasons for the longevity of the Robin Hood legend is the fact that, in the original medieval ballads, his origins are not stated. He is simply there, in the forest. No one knows why he is an outlaw, he just is. This state of affairs allowed later writers such as Anthony Munday to ascribe to him the grandiose title of Earl of Huntingdon. However, we do know how the ballads tell of Robin Hood’s death.

In the ballad ‘A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode’ (published in printed form c.1470), Robin, after living as an outlaw in the forest a full twenty-two years, begins to feel ill. His cousin is the Prioress of Kirklees, and in addition to her spiritual role, is also something of a nurse. He decides therefore that he will go to his cousin to be bled (bleeding was believed to be a cure for a range of ailments from the medieval period down to the 1800s). Yet his cousin was a devious woman and, conspiring with her lover, Roger of Doncaster, bleeds Robin excessively so that he dies:

Yet he was begyled, I wys / Through a wycked woman / The pryoresse of Kyrkesly / That nye was of his kynee.

For the love of a knyght / Syr Roger of Donkester / That was her own speciall / Full evyll mote they fare.

[…]

Syr Roger of Donkestere / By the pryoresse he lay / And there they betrayed good Robyn Hode / Through theyr false playe.

Later ballads such as ‘Robin Hood’s Death’ (a ballad that is perhaps 18th/19th century origin) would embellish his last moments even further. Little John his lifelong companion is by his side. Robin shoots a final arrow out of the window and asks to be buried wherever it lands:

These words they readily promis’d him / Which did bold Robin please / And there they buried bold Robin Hood / Near to the fair Kirkleys.

There is a grave stone close to the site of the former Kirklees priory with the following epitath:

Robin Hood's Grave in Kirklees [Source: http://nijurbex.blogspot.co.uk/]
Robin Hood’s Grave in Kirklees [Source: http://nijurbex.blogspot.co.uk/%5D

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 [such] utlawz as he an iz men
Vil england nivr si agen
Obiit 24 kal: Dekembris, 1247.

To my fellow Yorkshire folk, it is doubtful that there was ever a Robin Hood who was buried here. Firstly, the grave was “discovered” in the eighteenth century, and even the “Old” English wording is inconsistent with the Middle English that Robin Hood and his men would have spoken. Thomas Percy, who in the eighteenth century collected many old ballads, including ‘Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne’, was sceptical about the grave:

This epitath appears to me suspicious. However, a late antiquary [Will Stukeley] has given a pedigree of Robin Hood, which, if genuine, shows that he had real pretensions to the earldom of Huntington.

Percy was right to be sceptical, the genealogy provided by Stukeley was nothing more than an invention of an eighteenth-century Robin Hood enthusiast.

Evidence suggests that the ballad ‘Robin Hood’s Death’ was not very popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. Even more so, only one movie in the last 100 years, Robin and Marian (1976) has shown a scene with Robin Hood dying – that movie wasn’t popular either! It seems people don’t like seeing/hearing/reading about the outlaw’s death.

Robin Hood’s Garland (1856)

When you begin researching the original Robin Hood ballads, the names of a few late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century antiquarians become familiar to you. The likes of Thomas Percy, an Irish Bishop who rescued a collection of manuscripts from a house fire, and without whose efforts the ballad of ‘Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne’ (c.1450) would have remained unknown to us. Another, and perhaps more famous antiquarian, is Joseph Ritson, who in 1795 published Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw. His really is a fine collection, doing exactly what it says on the tin, comprising examples of the earliest medieval ballads down to compositions from the eighteenth century. Later on, in the nineteenth century, John Gutch would expand, and critique Ritson’s work and methodology with A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode: With Other Ancient and Modern Ballads and Songs Relating to this Celebrated Yeoman (1847). Finally, most Robin Hood scholars will be familiar with the work of Professor Francis J. Child in the 1880s, who collected a total of 37 extant ancient and modern Robin Hood ballads, and whose collection of Robin Hood material is said to be the most extensive.

Life and Ballads of Robin Hood (1859)As an avid ebayer,  I managed to pick up the following second hand book from 1865 entitled: The Life and Exploits of Robin Hood: And Robin Hood’s Garland (1859). It is, despite its relatively small size, a lengthy work at 447 pages (longer than the 1823 edition of Ritson’s anthology), and as far as I can ascertain contains more examples of Robin Hood ballads than either Percy, Ritson, or indeed Child. It even has examples of early eighteenth century satirical ballads such as the (it seems hitherto untapped by Robin Hood Scholars) one entitled ‘Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster’. There is also a scholarly critique of the existing theories surrounding Robin Hood’s birth, exploits, noble descent, etc., as well as the script for one of the fifteenth century May Games. It is, despite its small appearance, one of the most comprehensive collection of materials pertaining to Robin Hood, containing 45 ballads, poems or songs about the outlaw.

I have yet to fully explore some of the (hitherto unknown to me) treasures contained in this little book, but I was surprised when I did not find this work referenced in the works of modern historians and literary critics such as Dobson and Taylor’s Rymes of Robin Hood, Stephen Knight’s Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, J. C. Holt’s Robin Hood, or Stephanie Barcziewski’s Myth and National Identity. Although, given the fact that some cheap nineteenth-century chapbooks such as the one i am speaking ofabove were sometimes published under different titles, it is entirely possible that this work has been scrutinised before by historians. At the very least, however, at my next PhD supervision meeting with Prof. Hardwick and Dr. Mitchell I’ll have an interesting talking point!