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That was first suggested by John Major in a history of Britain published in , and it seems to have been part of a general movement towards making Robin more respectable. If, like Fouke, he opposed a bad king as a dispossessed lord, then his resistance was in a real sense in support of the existing structures of authority — very different from the guerrilla tactics against forest laws and sheriff's rule which are found elsewhere in the medieval texts.
It remains an item of faith, or perhaps obsession, among many modern commentators that Robin Hood too was a real person, and they believe that enough careful attention to the records will produce a real Robin Hood who might, like the equally obscure King Arthur, be the real figure behind the myths — or legends, as such historians would want to call them.
It is true and usually ignored by the modern historians that the earliest references to the hero all assume he was a real person amplified in story, an English Wallace, it might seem, especially because the earliest chroniclers who mention Robin are all Scottish.
Part I of this edition shows how Wyntoun in the s spoke of "waythemen," forest outlaws, who were "commendit gud" by the populace; and Bower a little later also understood them to be real outlaws who were also popular heroes; Major, even though he gentrified the hero, never displaced him into the realms of myth. Such an attitude was continued through the English commentators Grafton in the s and Stow in the late sixteenth century, and the antiquarians joined in this process.
Just as Camden found the cross that allegedly marked Arthur's grave at Glastonbury, so he wrote about the epitaph for Robin found at Kirklees and soon enough there was a stone-cut version to be seen and even a drawing of the grave Holt, , pp. Far from being history, these accounts are a tissue of non-historical materials straight from folklore or fiction.
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The Sloane Life is largely a reworking of some of the ballads, especially the lengthy fifteenth-century Gest of Robyn Hode. The epitaphs and illustrations of the grave show a distinctly literary inheritance, and the high point of Ritson's "Life" is his reprint of William Stukeley's genealogy of the hero which makes him descend from the nephew of William the Conqueror, and at the same time considers him a Saxon patriot.
By contrast to this florid nonsense, the early chronicle references, though they know of the popular story, have a spare reference to the hero that, like the Welsh Annals in the case of Arthur, might be thought to imply authenticity. Though nothing in the texts can be traced to the thirteenth century, where the "real Robin Hood" historians would place him, there is some support for such an original date in that Wyntoun located his "waythemen" in and Bower put them back to the s. Although there might well have been other reasons for that to associate him in Wyntoun with Wallace and in Bower with Simon de Montfort it does indicate their sense of the distant nature of the tradition.
That idea of antiquity and the prolific appearance of the name do not, however, suggest that there was one "original" Robin Hood, but that by then the name refers generally to someone who was in some way outside or against the law as it was being imposed. That interpretation is strongly suggested by evidence from another area, not considered by historians because it is neither individual nor criminal in orientation, but in fact providing by far the largest number of early references to the hero.
From Exeter —27 to Aberdeen , from Norfolk to Wiltshire , the length and breadth of Britain appears to have been populated with annual ritual activities focused on the hero. No scripts have certainly survived, though there are a few short plays see below that may derive from this widespread play and game tradition, focused on ritual-like activities that were non-literary like the many pageants and parades that still engage people's attention and emotions.
There would be, in early summer, a procession, led by Robin, with people dressed in green and bearing forest symbols such as branches or garlands of leaves. They would go from one village to another, or one part of the town to another, and collect money, usually in return for some entertainment, for example, a short play featuring a fight and a rescue.
The money would be used for the community, for mending the roads in one case, and although the church was involved in the events, it was effectively a civil activity involving the churchwardens rather than the priest. There seems to have been real prestige involved in playing the hero, as people waited years for their turn and even handed down that right from father to son, hence the surname "Robinhood" found on some occasions. None of this involves resistance to authority; the whole process is firmly within the law.
Robin is the figurehead of a celebration of the combination of the natural and the communal. But if we are to believe the evidence of the very early texts, the pageants would present Robin's triumph against the hostile forces of law and order which came from a distance: the sheriff, the visiting forester like Guy of Gisborne, the oppressive abbot, but not the friendly grass-roots friar. With this fictional capacity for resistance, it is not surprising that on occasions Robin Hood became the actual as well as symbolic leader in carnivals that sometimes turned to riot at places as far apart as Wednesbury in the West Midlands and Scottish Edinburgh Even though gentrification was in full flow, in the seventeenth century this social-bandit capacity was well-remembered and gave rise to the remarkable play Robin Hood and His Crew of Souldiers , in which the radical Robin Hood concedes defeat to the newly restored royalist authorities.
Two important conclusions arise from a study of the early plays and games. One is that they are so widely spread. As a hero of natural communality, Robin can emerge anywhere and even displace the existing carnival hero. In Aberdeen in he is described as replacing the previous ritual figure, the Abbot of Bon Accord. The early references and tales have a much wider spread than modern Nottingham and its tourist industry would care to admit.
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For Wyntoun the outlaws are in Inglewood, near Carlisle, and also in Barnsdale. The Gest understands Barnsdale to be in Yorkshire, and that has been a common view through the ages, but there is also a Barnsdale in Rutland between Nottingham and Rockingham , with many local references to the outlaw.
Ballads and some prose stories make Robin active throughout the Midlands and the North of England, while place names and place associations locate Robin across most of Britain, with an apparent preponderance in the Southwest, the North Central Midlands, Yorkshire, and Lowland Scotland. The other feature of interest arising from the plays and games is the clear sense that of all the genres in which the tradition appears, the original and in many ways the authentic genre is theater, here best called performance because of its deep informality. However long Robin Hood stories may become and there are some three-decker novels their essence is dramatic: an opening in the forest; a departure or meeting; an encounter in which Robin or one of the outlaws is in danger often brought about by trickery or disguise as well as courage and skill ; a harmonious ending, with either a feast or an agreement.
This structure is ideally suited to the stage. With exciting action and little dialogue, the combination of physical danger and spontaneous heroism in the Robin Hood stories has always been popular with actors and audiences. There is a remarkable consistency between the dynamic early playlets or ballads and the modern episode on TV; and there are many structural parallels between the composite ballads like the Gest or A True Tale of Robin Hood and the full-length epic film.
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It may well be that the early ballads have the plays as their sources, rather than the other way around as literary scholars have usually thought. But the ballads soon asserted themselves as a natural genre for the myth, with their quick dramatic action and their effective use of poetic suggestion, whether violent or naturally beautiful in its form.
Our good fortune is that these ballads flourished in a period when at least some were recorded, and so were preserved powerful versions of the early outlaw in his pre-gentrified form as the English social bandit. The first ballads to survive are Robin Hood and the Monk , c. Both quite full longer than the later broadsides , they present a forest hero who outwits the forces of the town and the abbey, gaining money and property from the sheriff.
Another version of the same structure is in Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne.
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The Robin of these texts inhabits the forest with his band; when alone, an outlaw is at risk and needs cunning or heroics to survive, but both are available in plenty. These ballads are fiercer than the friendly Robin of later days — Guy of Gisborne, a monk, and the sheriff all die at the outlaw's hands, though the Potter story is less aggressive and the sheriff survives.
Also, there is no charity as such: they rob the rich but give to themselves. Donations to the poor only emerge when Robin is a gentleman, able to afford such charity.