The Robin Hood Ballads

The way was long,
The wind was cold,
The minstrel was infirm and old,
His harp, his sole remaining joy,
Was carried by an orphan boy.

One of regular visitors to this site, Adele Treskillard is a modern day minstrel and author who sings with her group, known as Wren’s Song She has a keen interest in Robin Hood research, particularly with the evolution of those early medieval ballads about the outlaw and we have had long discussions vie email about their content. So I have decided to post an article I did for a Robin Hood Forum many years ago about the ballads concerning his exploits and the many other forgotten outlaw tales.

From our warm, centrally heated and double glazed homes, it is almost impossible to imagine what life was like for our medieval ancestors. On those dark, freezing cold evenings there was no doubt very often little to do except talk around the fire or sleep. So the minstrels (from ‘ministralis’ meaning dependant) who were kept by the great landlords must have sometimes been treated like our ‘pop’ stars of today.

Merry it is in halle to hear the harpe,
The minstrelles synge,
The jongleurs carpe.

Their ballads can be best described rather like modern day ‘soap operas’. These ‘talkyngs’ held the beliefs and aspirations of those who told the story and were created to entertain. This is important to remember. Like our modern day ‘soaps’, they did not survive if they were not popular. When the minstrel told how Robin hanged the sheriff or cut him in pieces, they were not describing a historical event, but we can be sure they were the vain dreams of many men gathered around the fire.

The violence of those early Robin Hood ballads is ruthless:

John smote off the munkis hed,
No longer wolde he dwell;
So did Much the litull page,
Ffor ferd lest he wolde tell.

And could you imaging Hollywood allowing Errol Flynn to do this to Basil Rathbone?
He tooke Sir Guy’s head by the hayre,
And sticked itt on his bowes end:
‘Thou has beene traytor all thy life,
Which thing must have an ende.’

Robin pulled forth an Irish knife,
And nicked Sir Guy in the fface,
That he was never on a woman borne
Cold tell who Sir Guye was.

That is not the Robin Hood I grew up reading about. Little John even shoots the sheriff in the back!
But he cold neither soe fast goe,
Not away soe fast runn,
But Litle John, with an arrow broade,
Did cleave his heart in twin.

Like many Robin Hood enthusiasts, I try to pull those early ballads apart, scrutinize the names and try to fix them into a historical context. But, by the time the existing ballads of Robin Hood came to be written down, the outlaw hero was already a figure of traditional narrative.

His world seems to be of the later Middle Ages, but he doesn’t seem to belong to any particular year or event. He has no ancestry, he remains impersonal and illusive and perhaps this is the key as to why his popularity has lasted for eight centuries. Robin’s legend is unique, because it exists without its text. His story can be manipulated to become anything, from a yeoman, disinherited nobleman, or a native Saxon fighting evil Normans.

So what evidence is there to suggest he ever lived? No one ever said they saw or knew him. No surviving chronicles exist that prove he existed. The early chroniclers-centuries later- only seem to use references from the ballads. So we come back to the work of those minstrels and entertainers for any evidence. But did the audiences of those early Robin Hood ballads, in their wealthy household, or market place or tavern, even care if this outlaw ever lived?

Whoever wants to hear more must open his purse.
My biggest disappointment, when I first started reading about the Robin Hood legend, was to discover how much of his story appears to have been ‘borrowed’ from other outlaw ballads. This led Professor Francis Child (1825-96) the great American Philologist, in his monumental ‘English and Scottish Popular Ballads’ to describe our hero as ‘absolutely a creation of ballad muse.’
There is indeed striking similarities between the stories of Robin Hood and the ballad heroes of an earlier date. The legend of Fulk Fitzwarin survives in a single manuscript, probably of the reign of Edward I (1239-1307) and contains at least two almost identical stories that later appear in the 15th Century ‘Geste of Robyn Hode’. Fulk’s brother John confronts ten merchants and the truthfulness of their answers determines whether or not they keep their goods.

In the ‘Geste of Robyn Hode’, Little John and Much stop the two monks and do the same. Later on Fulk Fitzwarin and his men ambush King John in Windsor Forest, where the King begs for mercy and swears to restore to Fulk his entire inheritance. In the ‘Geste’ King John’s role is played by the Sheriff of Nottingham, otherwise the story is substantially the same.

The tale of the Saxon outlaw known as Hereward and the Potter is almost identical to the ballad ‘Robin Hood and the Potter.’ The only difference is that William the Conqueror has become the Sheriff of Nottingham. This story-line also appears in the 13th Century ballad of ‘Eustace the Monk’ (c.1170-1217) who also flourished during the reign of King John. Eustace lives in the forest with a band of men and through many disguises the outlaw manages to trick and ridicule the Count of Bologne and lure him into the forest, where he is ambushed but eventually freed. Victims are brought to Eustace’s camp and asked how much they carry. If they tell the truth they are allowed to keep it, if not the outlaws keep the difference.
Sound familiar?

Always in these outlaw legends the champion of justice is the master outlaw. In the ‘Tale of Gamelyn,’ probably written about the middle of the fourteenth century we have the familiar outlaw code:
Whil Gamelyn was outlawed, had he no cors:
There was no man for him ferde the wors.
But abbots and priouris, monk and chanoun.

The audiences of the middle ages seemed to thoroughly enjoy stories of concealment and trickery. Fulk disguises himself as an old monk, a merchant and a charcoal burner. Hereward is disguised as a potter and a fisherman. Eustace the Monk wears the clothes of a potter, shepherd, pilgrim, charcoal burner, woman, leper, carpenter and minstrel. William Wallace became a potter, pilgrim a woman (twice) and a beggar. Robin Hood dressed up as a potter, butcher, beggar, shepherd, old woman, fisherman, Guy of Gisborne etc. These became the stock-in-trade tales of those early entertainers.

Some of the Robin Hood ballads seem to have changed very little and probably remain close to their medieval originals, others are not. Out of thirty-eight poems and songs published by Francis Child between the years 1882-1898 only five surviving ballads and a fragment of a play about Robin Hood seem to originate from the middle ages.

So for me, starting out on my historical quest for the ‘real’ outlaw Robin Hood, this was all a crushing blow. How much of his legend has even a grain of historical truth? Even the story of the firing of his last arrow seems to have been lifted from ancient mythology. The search was going to be a lot harder than I thought!

So my look back at the early outlaw ballads was a reality check. But I have continued my quest for the truth behind the legend of Robin Hood. It has opened up many doors into various aspects of the rich tapestry of our nation’s history. On this web site I will continue to post about the Robin Hood Places, Robin Hood History and of course the Robin Hood Ballads. But it must never be forgotten that it was those many mysterious, anonymous, often-illiterate minstrels and entertainers; the touring ‘pop stars’ of their time, that first spawned the countless incarnations of the legend that we know today.

I will finish with a proverb from c.1400-25 that is a warning to all those who join with me, through this web site, on the long and winding trail of the greenwood outlaw:
For mani, manime seith, spekith of Robyn Hood that schotte never in his bowe.Please click on the Labels Robin Hood Places, Robin Hood Ballads and Robin Hood History for more information.


Clement of the Glen said...

The Robin Hood Ballads
Fulk Fitzwarin
Eustace the Monk
William Wallace
Adele Treskillard
Wren's Song

Adele Treskillard said...

Many speak of Robin Hood that never shot his bow.

True (indeed). I better get back to trimming down my yew-stave.

You bring up an important point: it's best not to take anything for granted in those songs, because it was already muddled around by the time they wrote it down! There is a long winding trail of clues, though, so it's happily not hopeless ... lots of stuff, in fact, more pointed and truthful; albeit to be found in such strange sources as children's games, mummer's plays, broadsides, jingles, nursery rhymes, and even love songs!

Smiles from Sherwood,

Adele : )

P.S. Has anybody thought of trying to take the Gest apart into sequences and repeated lines? It seems a bit of a greenwood muddle.

Adele Treskillard said...

One more thing: IF the Robin Hood legend is older than medieval times, then could the sequences in Eustace The M. etc. be originally from the Robin Hood genre? I think a strong point could be made for that! To be solidly greenwood-based and repeat some of the same themes ...

Clement of the Glen said...

Hi Adele,

The proverb from history about many who speak of Robin have never shot his bow serves as a very good warning to us all.

I am sure you are right Adele, when you say that we need to look more closely at other sources such as the rich heritage of early folk games, plays and rhymes. They are just as important in the evolution of our hero.

The Gest is a hodepodge of at least four older ballads.

If you click on Robin Hood Ballads you will see I have already posted on the Geste. It seems that by the time it had reached the early printing presses some one had possibly crudely stiched 4 ballads together in a form of a 'Life' with a short bit about his death tagged on the end.

Did the ballads of Robin influence Eustace the Monk stories-hmm! We know that Eustace the Monk definately existed as did Hereward and Fulk Fitzwarin. They all have their time slots-as for Robin well, thats a problem we have to solve!