Robin Hood – Heritage and forms through the ages

Seminar Paper, 2003

13 Pages, Grade: 1,7



1. Introduction

2. The Robin Hood Myth

3. First written evidence and early ballads: 14th – 17th century

4. Performances of many kinds celebrating Robin Hood: 15th – 18th century

5. Popular Narratives and Film: 20th century

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

"Many men speak of Robin Hood who never drew his bow: so runs the old proverb, suggesting both the popularity and the mystery of the Robin Hood tradition. A modern equivalent might be: Many people know about Robin Hood but have never read the texts." (Knight 1997, xiii)

This quotation is a very good evaluation of the status of knowledge considering the Robin Hood related texts. Most people only know Robin Hood from various film adaptations. They are not aware of the fact that the Robin Hood legend has now endured in written form for over 600 years.

When speaking of Robin Hood we think of attributes like "outlaws", "rob the rich to feed the poor", "Maid Marian", "arrow and bow" or "noble man" as the common features of the Robin Hood myth. In fact, only few of these stereotypes are a part of the early written tradition as it will be illustrated in the following.

2. The Robin Hood Myth

Nearly everything that is known about Robin Hood can be transferred back to five delivered ballads and one dramatic fragment. In addition to these, there are official sources, like assize records, enrolments, tax lists or other official registers, where, from a certain point on, the name Robin Hood appeared. One of them could have been the man who started the legend.

There is Robert Hod, for example, who is mentioned in the York assizes records of 1226 because he had not paid his taxes and was a fugitive. Or in 1296 appeared a man, named Gilbert Robynhod, in Sussex. These are only two examples to show the similarities concerning the name or some of the legendary stories.

But there are so many of them, especially during the 13th and 14th century, that historians like "to trace through this reference a personalised and historicized process" (Knight 1997, 21), i.e. they are of the opinion that there must have been a certain Robin Hood who started the legend and afterwards others were identified with him due to their actions. It suggests that during the late 13th century Robin Hood was already such a well known legend, that many outlaws, thieves and fugitives got named Robin Hood or something similar.

All in all, the legal reference cannot tell us what the real Robin Hood was like or whether there was one original Robin Hood. It is more the fact that it shows us how many versions there were and how the process of becoming a "Robin Hood" had worked.

3. First written evidence and early ballads: 14th – 17th century

Robin Hood was first mentioned in William Langland's Piers Plowman in 1377.

In the B text Sloth refers to the popularity of the "rhymes of Robyn Hode" in saying:

" I Kan noght parfitly my Paternoster as the Priest it syngeth,

But I kan rymes of Robyn hood and Randolf Erl of Chestre. "[1]

Therefore, we could assume that the origin of the Robin Hood legend must be in the 12th/13th century. It goes without saying, that this is a fact about which researchers are still arguing.

During the 15th century the character Robin Hood is presented in several chronicles, so for instance in Andrew of Wyntoun's Orygynale Chronicle of 1420 or in Walter Bower's Continuation of John of Fordun's Scotichronicon, which is a history of Scotland and England. The book contains this passage about the year 1296:

"Then arose the famous murderer, Robert Hood, as well as Little John, together with their accomplices from among the dispossessed, whom the foolish populace are so inordinately fond of celebrating both in tragedy and comedy." (Holt 40).

But nearly everything we know about the medieval Robin Hood, can be traced back on five ballads and one dramatic fragment. Despite the common knowledge, Robin Hood was not the outlawed noble, who took from the rich to feed the poor within those first ballads. Instead of this, he often appeared as the bloody thief who fought with cruel and greedy bishops or priests. In addition, there was also no fixed enemy, as it was the case within the later texts, concerning the Sheriff of Nottingham. Lady Marion and Friar Tuck are also both parts of the later tradition.

The oldest surrendered ballad is Robin Hood and the Monk from 1450 and was found in a collection of manuscripts together with some prayers and an essay on the seven deadly sins, truly a really strange combination. The aim of this ballad is it, in the first place, to praise the life in the woods. Furthermore, it describes how Robin is betrayed by a monk and after having fought and killed the monk, Robin gets imprisoned by the sheriff. Only because of the merciful king Robin is freed. There is a sense within the ballad that the solidarity of the outlaws and the freedom of the forests provide security against the strange and corrupting forces of organised religion, i.e. the monk, and the legal system symbolised by the sheriff. The ballad ends with a very moral laudation on the service under the king.

Robyn Hod and the Shryff off Notyngham is a twenty-one lined dramatic fragment from East Anglia, which is written on one side of a single sheet of paper. The other side of the page contains accounts of money received by one John Sterndalle in 1475/76. The early manuscript lacks speaker rubrics, scene divisions and stage directions. On the whole, it is an incomplete part of the ballad Robin Hood and Guy of Guisborne, which will be analysed later on.


[1] "I do not know my paternoster perfectly as the priest sings it. But I know rhymes of Robin Hood and Randolph, earl of Chester." Quoted in Holt, J C. Robin Hood. Thames and Hudson, 1991, p16

Excerpt out of 13 pages


Robin Hood – Heritage and forms through the ages
Dresden Technical University  (Anglistik)
Medievalism in Popular Culture
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ISBN (eBook)
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396 KB
Robin, Hood, Heritage, Medievalism, Popular, Culture, Literatur, literarische Quellen, May Games, Lady Marion
Quote paper
Julia Paternoster (Author), 2003, Robin Hood – Heritage and forms through the ages , Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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