Thomas Ohlgren and the late Lister Matheson succeed in making the familiar seem somehow fresh and new in this book, a compilation of extant fragments, manuscripts, and early printed versions of the Robin Hood rhymes. They accomplish this by taking the "warts and all" approach to transcribing the texts (xxii), embracing the gaps, the obsolete letters, the inconsistencies, and the imperfections of the early texts themselves. In doing so, Ohlgren and Matheson perhaps recreate something of the pleasure early readers must have enjoyed in holding, seeing, and reading tales that were already widely circulated and celebrated. This edition of the rhymes of Robin Hood is intended more for the use of linguistic scholars than for general readers or students. Certainly, the faithful re-production of the flaws in these manuscripts and early printed texts requires more parsing on the part of the modern reader than other editions might, but that is part of the excitement. Most readers who use this edition of the rhymes will already know what happens, for example, in A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode, and some will even recognize the differences between the most famous early editions (the Pynson, the Lettersnijder, and the Wynkyn de Worde editions), but the restoration of the original spellings and typesetting practices in this volume somehow turns the well-worn tale into a real page-turner. And that, significantly, underscores the value of this book, as the modern reader can sense how anticipation must have informed the reading practices of early print culture.
The introduction to the volume provides a very brief overview of the strengths and weaknesses of other recent editions of the Robin Hood ballads, including Ohlgren's own version, Robin Hood: The Early Poems, 1465-1560: Texts, Contexts and Ideology (2007), as well as an earlier volume he co-edited with Stephen Knight, Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Poems (1997). Ohlgren and Matheson further point to the usefulness of those editions for their intended audiences, especially students and general readers who are looking for a more accessible and metrically consistent version of the rhymes. In this volume the editors attempt something different, however, with more attention to the experience of the silent reader than the listening audience. Their transcriptions thus resist the temptation to divide the poems into stanzas for greater readability or in any other way alter the original layouts of the early editions. Instead, they preserve irregular rhymes, noting that "the eye is less likely to notice an irregular rhyme" (xxii) than the ear of the listener might be. This volume thus invites readers to think about the culture of early printing and recognize how the "so-called irregularities and errors offer valuable insights into both scribal and typesetting practices" (xxii).
Four manuscript sources are included in the volume: Robin Hood and The Monk (ca. 1465) and Robin Hood and the Potter (ca. 1468), both from the Cambridge University Library collection; another small, previously unpublished fragment of Robin Hood and the Monk from the Bagford Ballads in the British Library; and a one-page schematic text, essentially an outline for improvisation, for a Robin Hood play from Trinity College, Cambridge (ca. 1475-1476). The last of these is of especially telling provenance as it was originally part of the collection of Paston letters. The editors' brief description of the manuscript's original ownership, and the specific mention of the play in a letter from John Paston II complaining about an AWOL servant, off to Barnesdale like Robin in some early legal references to the outlaw (39), succinctly captures the way these manuscripts, doodlings and all, were used and enjoyed by their owners.
The Pynson (ca. 1495?), the Lettersnijdner (ca. 1500-1515?), and the Wynkyn de Worde (1506?) print editions of A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode are transcribed here along with two printed fragments of the Geste, one probably printed in York by Hugo Goes and the other attributed to Julian Notary's print shop in London. The inclusion of William Copland's A Mery geste of Robyn Hoode and of hys lyfe, with a newe playe for to be played in Maye games very plesaunt and full of pastyme (ca. 1560?), based on Wynkyn de Worde's earlier edition, together with a later (ca. 1565?) fragment from the same printer, let us consider how both Robin Hood and print culture entered the next generation. By the time of the printing of the latest edition included in the volume, Edward White's edition of A Merry Iest of Robin Hood (ca.1594), we indeed can trace the development of new spellings and punctuation. Illustrations from each of the manuscript and printed sources further invite consideration of those changes. More importantly, the faithful transcriptions of each source, together with the illustrations, should fuel thoughtful questions on the nature of the reading experience in early print culture.
Ohlgren and Matheson bring to these transcriptions a masterful combination of experience with the texts and attention to detail. As well as they know these texts from their previous work, they put them under new scrutiny to achieve the level of precision evidenced in this edition for scholars of early printing and linguistics. Their short introductions for each text are packed with information on provenance and print shops and thus quickly let the reader enter the context and relate to the particular readership of each edition. Their notes explain the irregularities of the early print versions of Robin's rhymes without drawing the modern reader's attention away from the pace and pleasure of the narrative. Although the volume is intended for scholars, and the first-time reader of Robin Hood might well prefer an edition that strives for consistency, gleaning Ohlgren and Matheson's new edition of the rhymes will be an absolute pleasure for anyone interested in how the outlaw and the greenwood captured the imaginations of both printers and early readers.