What does it mean to search for the “true Robin Hood”? It isn’t a question of whether your loyalty is to Richard Greene or Keven Costner. It isn’t which story is the better, but who the earliest stories were based off of.
The book Robin Hood, by David Baldwin, identifies four early poems of Robin Hood –
- The Little Geste of Robyn Hode and His Meiny (a compilation of five poems)
- Robin Hood and the Potter
- Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne
- Robin Hood and the Monk
Summarizing the poems very briefly, and noting other early references to Robin Hood, he goes on to discuss how the poem’s details have been interpreted to suggest different dates. Does the reliance upon the longbow suggest a later date? Does the poor knight’s debt to the church suggest an early date (before laws were passed to prevent the churches from acquiring more land)? Why do the poems start in Barnsdale (Yorkshire) yet have the Sherriff of Nottingham as the principal enemy? Does the name Robin Hood exist in history and if so, can it identify the origins of the story? Did the term become a generic term for hooded-robber, or was it meant as a reference back to a particular bandit who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor?
David Baldwin outlines the history of five kings under whom Robin Hood could have lived and then goes on to explain which historically recorded outlaw he believes matches up best with the early songs. If historical books fall on a spectrum from almost novel-like to academic this book leans towards the academic style of writing. The author is trying to argue against the 17th century and onwards tradition of Robin Hood and King Richard, so the book has to explain the details of where all the different traditions originated, and where he was finding his information. Then because it is summing up the lifetimes of five different kings in two chapters he cannot take the time to make their lives come to life through story. He does spend a decent amount of time on the setting in which he thinks Robin Hood lived, and gives a glimpse into a nation in such civil disorder as would quite possibly justify an outlaw being seen as a source of justice.
The name Robin Hood is now synonymous not with “hooded robber” but with someone taking the side of the poor against the wealthy, without regard for the law. It is a term that invokes the notion of a higher justice. Baldwin suggests instead it was a “rough justice,” a justice brought about by having the power, where people could potentially go for redress of their grievances but one that obtained its strength not from being right but from being able to back it up with violence. The earliest poems identify Robin giving to specific individuals and not the poor in general. His pardon from the king might have been practicality and friendship more than the king recognizing any true “rightness” in Robin’s cause. Reading and thinking about it I find myself reflecting on if there if there is a difference between a person doing violence that happens to be just and a person seeking justice that happens to be violent.
It is an interesting book and was the inspiration for me to do some medieval related homeschool projects. I’ll post about those tomorrow.