On this blog over the past few years we have looked at some of the earliest ballads of Robin Hood. These survive from the early fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. But apart from the ballads, there are also place-names, proverbs, dramatic records and tantalizing references to ‘rymes’ about the allusive outlaw. The most famous reference is in William Langland’s Piers Plowman (1377), where Sloth, the lazy priest confesses that:
‘I can nouЗte perfitly my paternoster as the prest it syngeth,
Sadly none of these ‘rymes’ survive before the fifteenth century. The earliest existing poem comes from Andrew of Wyntoun’s Orygynale Cronykil, which was compiled about 1420. In short rhymed couplets it has:
Litil Iohun and Robert Hude
Waythmen war commendir gud;
In Ingilwode and Bernnysdaile
Thai oyssit al this time that trawale.
Little John and Robert Hood
Were well praised as forest outlaws
In Inglewood and Barnsdale
They practised their labour all the time.
One of the most interesting ‘rhymes’ for me is the fragment discovered in Lincoln Cathedral Library in the 1940’s by George E Morris. I am indebted to Adele Treskillard and Trish Bazallgette for their invaluable help. Adele managed to locate an image of the scribbled two rhymed couplets from the manuscript and Trish has helped me obtain information on how and when it was discovered.
The fragment was found amongst a miscellany of grammatical texts, dating from the thirteenth and fourteen centuries. It appears that a student from the early fifteenth century hastily wrote or scribbled two rhymed couplets from a Robin Hood poem as an exercise in translating English into Latin:
Robyn hod in scherewod stod
Hodud and hathud hosut and schold
Ffour and thuynti arowes he bar in hit hondus.
Robin Hood in Sherwood stood
Hooded and hatted, hosed and shod
Four and twenty arrows
Evidence from the dialect locates the poem to the North Midlands of England and the use of the ‘weak preterite verbs’ (hodud, hathud, hosut) give it a date of c.1425.
In the past scholars have assumed that Langland’s ‘rymes of Robyn Hood’ were the long narrative ballads such as Robin Hood and the Monk, but scholars are now having a re-think. The evidence from Wyntoun and the Lincoln manuscript suggests that they were originally easily remembered short lyrics, passed on orally in rhymed couplets. In time, some would then eventually be expanded into what we describe as the Robin Hood ballads.