In the Disney live-action film and many other versions of the legend, Robin Hood engages with Little John in a quarter-staff fight on a narrow bridge (or a log) over a river. It is doubtful whether the tale about this duel is of medieval origin as the earliest evidence suggests the story was composed by a professional ballad writer and entered in the Stationers’ Registers as ‘Robin Hood and Little John’ on 29 June 1624.
In stanza 12 and 13 from the ballad we have:
Then Robin Hood stept to a thicket of trees,
And chose him a staff of ground oak;
Now this being done, away he did run
To the stranger, and merrily spoke:
Lo! See my staff is lusty and tough,
Now here on this bridge we will play;
Whoever falls in, the other shall win
The battle, and so we’ll away.
The popular old English quarter staff can trace its history right back to the very early martial arts of Asia and many other ancient cultures around the world. Simple to manufacture, the stout pole was usually between five and eight feet in length (sometimes with weighted tips, metal spikes or caps on the ends) and proved to be a popular weapon in the combat sports and summer games held during the early Middle Ages and again in Tudor times. It was an effective weapon due to its ease of use and long reach.
Dr Johnson (1709-1784) described the quarter staff thus: “A staff of defence, so called, I believe, from the manner of using it; one hand being placed in the middle, and the other equally between the end and the middle.”
The sport was a favourite in country districts and was also taught in the schools of defence which existed in many towns. Made from various woods, including Oak, Ash, Hawthorn, Maple and later Bamboo, the art of wielding them needed a good deal of strength, dexterity and skill and also good coordination between eye, body and hand. When attacking, the latter hand shifted from one quarter of the staff to the other, giving the weapon a rapid circular motion, which brought the ends to bear on the adversary at unexpected points. Sometimes it was thrust like a spear or used in the form of a club.
In stanzas 17 and 18 from the ballad ‘Robin Hood and Little John’ we have:
The stranger gave Robin a crack on the crown,
Which caused the blood to appear;
Then Robin, enrag’d, more fiercely engag’d,
And follow’d his blows more severe.
So thick and so fast did he lay it on him,
With a passionate fury and ire,
At every stroke, he made him to smoke,
As if he had been all on fire.
Because of its use as a ‘less than lethal weapon’ in sporting pastimes, may have given rise to the common term, ‘giving quarter’.
© Clement of the Glen