J.C. Holt’s Robin Hood, and Stephen Knight’s Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw

cover, J.C. Holt's Robin HoodTake no scorn to wear the horn
It was the crest when you were born
Your father’s father wore it
And your father wore it to

Robin Hood and Little John
Have both gone to the fair o
and we will to the merry green wood
To hunt the buck and hare o

– “Hal-N-Tow” (traditional)

One of the most enduring romantic heroes of the Middle Ages is that of the outlaw Robin Hood of England, but the debate as to him being a living man or only a legend continues to this day. Old ballads relate that Robin Hood and his followers roamed the green depths of Sherwood Forest near Nottingham in the center of England. There they lived a uninhibited life, passing their time playing games of archery, hunting the king’s deer, and robbing the rich. They apparently shared their swag with the poor and never injured women or children. Sounds to good to be true, doesn’t it?

Some hold Robin Hood to be a real man. But who was he? These two books take radically different approaches to answering that crucial question. Bear in mind that here are no actual records that might corroborate that Robin Hood was an actual person, but there are an immeasurable number of paintings, books, ballads, stories and other writings that would say he was. He is known by many names, including Robin Hood, Robin Wood, Robin of Sherwood, Robert Earl of Huntington, Roberd Hude, Robert Hood, and others. There is no record of his life at all so nobody knows for sure if he existed. So how does one prove that he existed? With some difficulty…

The first literary reference to Robin Hood is in the year 1377. Much of the social background in the early ballads suggests the early 14th century (the time of the previous real Robin Hood candidate). But there is some foundation to the theory that the Robin Hood legend was alive and well in the 13th century, too. Hence some historians like J. C. Holt prefer an earlier real Robin Hood. Holt has a number of arguments for why he believes that the Robin Hood legend originated in the early decades of the 14th Century with his central reason being the appearance of Robinhood surnames around the end of the 13th century that gave rise to men taking the name of the first Robin Hood as a form of honorific. He believes that the real Robin Hood is lost to the mists of time itself but that the genesis of Robin Hood can be traced to the activities of actual outlaws who did indeed “rob the rich to provide for the poor.” Mind you that they most likely were as fond of the poor as were Reagan and Thatcher in this century – no evidence is presented in this book or other sources on this hero that say what happened to the involuntary largess they acquired from the King, the Church, and the rich.

The most auspicious of the early existing Robin Hoods was discovered by L.V.D. Owen in 1936. The Yorkshire tax rolls for 1225-1226 mention that “Robert Hod, fugitive” had chattels worth 32 shillings, 6 pence. The same outlaw turns up in entries for later years, once under the nickname Hobbehod. The money was owed to the Liberty of St. Peter’s York – Holt notes this means he was a tenant of the archbishop of York. And while in some of the ballads Robin Hood fought against the abbot of York, the legendary Robin didn’t live very near to the archbishop’s lands. Unfortunately, most of the records were lost. We know almost nothing about this outlaw. The record of a “Robert Hod, fugitive” does not prove that he was the Robin Hood. It will be more than fifty years before Robin Hood enters the popular ballads – more than the span of the life of almost everyone living at that time.

A reviewer would be wise to note that the premise by Holt that other outlaws contributed to the legend and the name Robin Hood was adopted to honor these early outlaws is – to say the least – suspect. Just because the name starts showing up with slight variations does not, to my satisfaction, prove when the Robin Hood myth first arose. Nor does it demonstrate clearly that there was an actual outlaw named Robin Hood.

I quote Robert Graves in The White Goddess:

“By his successful defiance of the ecclesiastics Robin became such a popular hero that he was later regarded as the founder of the Robin Hood religion […] ‘Hood’ (or Hod or Hud) meant ‘log’–the log put at the back of the fire–and it was in this log, cut from the sacred oak, that Robin had once been believed to reside. Hence ‘Robin Hood’s steed’, the wood-louse which ran out when the Yule log was burned. In the popular superstition Robin himself escaped up the chimney in the form of a Robin and, when Yule ended, went out as Belin against his rival Bran, or Saturn–who had been ‘Lord of Misrule’ at the Yule-tide revels. Bran hid from pursuit in the ivy-bush disguised as a Gold Crest Wren; but Robin always caught and hanged him. Hence the song: ‘Who’ll hunt the Wren?’ cries Robin the Bobbin.’

(One of the odd things about the early ballads of Robin Hood is who wrote them down. As Julianne Toomey in an online discussion group notes: “In most of the traditional ballads, Robin swears often “by our Lady.” Would anyone like to argue, er, discuss the notion that this Lady was not the Blessed Virgin Mary? If so, what would this imply? It could be later Christian gloss, but according to Robin Hood by J. C. Holt, the very earliest Robin Hood ballads were written down in the 1200s, and since we know that the folks who could write back then were mostly monks, I have trouble believing monks would bother to record the tale of a man who threatened their lifestyle.” Holt’s Robin is English, but it’s quite possible that the forgotten author of the “Hal-N Tow” ballad believed that Robin Hood was Celtic in nature – the reference to “Take no scorn to wear the horn / It was the crest when you were born” suggests a linkage to the Herne the Hunter myth. If so, cover, Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlawthe origins of Robin Hood could be centuries before the commonly accepted date. But this is just the speculation of a piper interested in Robin Hood and Celtic myths.)

Stephen Knight takes a different approach in that he traces the origins of Robin Hood back through the literary record of his tales. I won’t spoil the story for you by saying who Knight thinks was Robin Hood, but suffice it to say that he rejects the commonly held thesis that Robin Hood was mythological. This is in striking contrast to such mythologists as Graves who in The White Goddess spoke – as I note before – of Robin as a “popular hero” who was “regarded as the founder of the Robin Hood religion” who was obviously conceived by a pre-Christian group. Another writer, Margaret Murray, in her 1931 tome The God of the Witches, argued that Robin was a manifestation of The Horned God, i.e. Herne. Both views are firmly rejected by Knight, who clearly is not interested in alternative rationales for the Robin Hood myth.

But the best part of this book is Knight’s tracing of the development of Robin down through the centuries. For example, the folk of the late Middle Ages saw him simply as an opponent of centralized authority, whereas the Elizabethans gentrified him to support the aristocracy and to oppose what they saw as a corrupt Catholic Church. One of the more interesting tellings of the myth is not in this book: Robin of Sherwood was a British TV series of the early 1980s, about the adventures of Robin Hood and his band. Strictly speaking, the series was about the Saxons and Normans, but it was explicitly Celtic in nature – even the music, from the Celtic band Clannad. And the central thesis was that of Robin being the “son of Herne” was Celtic since Herne was a Celtic deity.

Knight’s study is often obtuse, but with glimmer of drollery. In the end, it turns out that – despite his stated intention of doing so – he isn’t really interested in finding the “real” Robin Hood, someone upon whom the legend might have been based. (He does suggest who was the real Robin Hood but it hardly matters.) In fact, I think it’s probably best not to try, not so much because it’s a nigh impossible task, as he suggests, but because if we did manage to find the real Robin Hood, we’d probably be bitterly disappointed by how little he actually resembled what we think he was. Instead, he dissects how the whole legend has grown and evolved over the years, and what purposes it has served for different folks at different points in history. Knight feels that the true essence of the tradition is a rebellion against authority, which often takes the form of roguish humor, and apparently has survived as a living myth that way.

(Thames and Hudson, 1989)
(Blackwell, 1994)

Jack Merry

I'm a fiddler who plays in various bands including Chasing Fireflies, the Estate contradance band; I'm also the Estate Agent for everything music related including the tours our myriad musicians do elsewhere. My drink, or so my wife Brigid says, is anything liquid, but I like a good dark beer and a spritely cider most of all. Scotch-Irish by ancestry, my favoured music is Irish, Scottish and Nordic trad.

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