Monday, 14 October 2013
Myriads of Robin Hoods
Some would have it that there is no 'historical background' to the legend as such, and that the character is really a hybrid of older tales, all mixed together with elements of folklore and mythology. Certainly, the oldest written form of the story as we know it, The Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode (first printed in the 1470s), is up to its eyeballs in debt to earlier tales of Fulk Fitwarin, Eustace the Monk and Hereward the Wake. If taken to pieces and carefully analysed, very little of the narrative can be confidently stated as being original.
So does that mean there was no historical Robin, and that all such 'historicist' theories are so much hot air? Possibly, though that would make the character almost unique: very few English medieval ballad heroes are entirely fictional. Surely the most enduring of them all was once flesh and blood, and not merely stitched together from the rags of other stories? A sort of Frankenstein's Outlaw?
The problem with gleaning medieval records looking for evidence of a historical Robin is that there are too many: brigands, outlaws, cut-throats and general ne'er-do-well's named Robert Hood (or variants) abound, and it is next to impossible to pick one out from the crowd and say 'this is the man'.
To give an idea of what I mean, here is a short sampling of the list of historical villains bearing the outlaw's name:
1219: Robert Hod, outlaw: murdered a man named Ralph Pessun in the Abbot of Cirencester's garden and fled, along with two accomplices. Fate unknown.
1225 AD: Robert Hod, fugitive, fled the assize court at York and had his chattels seized by the Sheriff of Yorkshire to the value of 32 shillings and 6 pence. Crime and fate unknown.
1240: Robert Hode, one of a gang that murdered a man in Devon. All of the suspects fled and were outlawed. Fate unknown.
1256: Robert Hode in Thyrune, Northumberland, fled in the company of a murderer named Richard who murdered a man with an arrow. Intriguingly, the clerk of the court changes Richard's name to John in the repeat entry: a clerical error, or did he have Robin Hood and Little John in mind?
1266: Robert Hod, townsman of Cambridge, was among the rebels that infested the Isle of Ely after the defeat and death of Simon de Montfort at the Battle of Evesham.
...etc! There are also the later Robert Hoods that appear in The Wakefield Court Rolls, and form the basis for one of the more popular recent theories that Robin was one of the 'Contrariants' i.e. one of those who rebelled against King Edward II.
So who was that hooded man, if anyone? Personally I plump for the Yorkshire fugitive of 1225 as the most intriguing, as well as one of the few to have haunted Robin Hood's traditional stamping ground of Yorkshire (if not Nottinghamshire). On the other hand, 'Hobbehod' may have been completely unremarkable, and just one of the many criminals that plagued Yorkshire in the summer of that year.
Whatever the truth, the mystery behind Robin Hood will probably never be unravelled, and continue to provide great raw material for fiction for centuries to come...