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22.03.07 Crook, Robin Hood

22.03.07 Crook, Robin Hood

In Robin Hood scholarship, there has always been a usually cordial divide between historians and literary critics. Prior to the twenty-first century, historians such as James C. Holt conducted painstaking archival research in an attempt to identify the real Robin Hood while there was less of an emphasis on purely literary analyses of Robin Hood texts. However, since the publication of literary critic Stephen Knight’s two monographs, Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw (1994) and Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (2003), archival research into the origins of England’s most famous medieval outlaw has gone by the wayside. Thankfully, David Crook’s new monograph titled Robin Hood: Legend and Reality (2020) reinjects a much-needed dose of reality into the academic study of the Robin Hood legend.

Crook’s central argument is that the origins of the Robin Hood legend can be located in archival material dating from the early 1200s. The outlaw’s origins lie in Yorkshire, in 1215, and begin with the career of Robert of Wetherby (it was not until the 1400s, thanks to literary texts, that Robin Hood became associated with Nottingham and Sherwood Forest). The county of York felt the brunt of King John’s repression and, at a time when public order and law enforcement were weak, a number of outlaws arose and infested the countryside. Hence there were men such as Nicholas of Stapleton who led a gang of fifteen men, clad in their own livery, who terrorised travellers on the lonelier roads. As well as Stapleton there were other brutes such as our Robert of Wetherby whose misdeeds were so bad that on 12 July 1225 the Sheriff of Yorkshire was authorised by royal writ to hunt down this “outlaw and evil doer of our land” (225). The sheriff, with a budget of £3 8s, employed one William Vinitor for the purpose of hunting down the malefactor. The operation was successful. Robert of Wetherby was captured and beheaded, and his body displayed at a prominent place on York’s city walls. Such was the ignominious end of the man whose life and career later gave birth to a legend.

The literary aspects of the legend that grew up later are now well known. A brief reference to “rymes of Robyn Hode” appears in Piers Plowman (c. 1377) and by the fifteenth century there were three Robin Hood poems: Robin Hood and the Monk (1465), Robin Hood and the Potter (1468), and A Gest of Robyn Hode (1495). By the early modern period there were two other texts that scholars know circulated in some form: Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne and Robin Hood’s Death. Crook spends a significant part of his monograph dispelling some of the myths that have emerged in the past four decades of Robin Hood scholarship. For example, Crook corrects certain misinterpretations of particular aspects of the early texts. In his discussion of Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, Crook rejects George Swan’s interpretation of Robin Hood’s use of an “Irish knife.” Swan argues that this is not a knife at all but a pun on the Old French irais, meaning “bad-tempered or wrathful,” and is symbolic of “the wrath [which] the two protagonists in the tale feel towards each other.” For Crook, this is an example of literary analysis that is “far removed from any objective record of fact.” The Irish knife, Crook reminds us, is simply the implement which happens to be used (30).

The aforementioned Stephen Knight comes in for the most criticism in Crook’s monograph and, while scholarly debate is to be welcomed, the tone could have been less combative (though I appreciate that Knight is not innocent in this regard either, as we shall see below). Some of Crook’s criticisms are justified while others could have benefitted from more contextualisation and a fuller summary. Knight’s Complete Study, Crook contends, “contained much interesting discussion and interpretation of the [Robin Hood] phenomenon but little new information about its origins” (121). If one is looking for the origins of Robin Hood in Knight’s works, then this is a not unjustified criticism. It must be said, however, that the aim of Knight’s 1994 monograph (and of his later 2003 and 2015 monographs) was not to investigate Robin Hood’s origins but to trace the development of a myth through the entire corpus of Robin Hood texts from the medieval period to twentieth century. Nevertheless, Crook contends that Knight has “a disturbing disregard for basic chronology and the careful evaluation of the surviving historical evidence” (183) and one of Knight’s arguments comes in for severe criticism. This is the idea that the forest of Barnsdale located in early Robin Hood texts was nowhere near Yorkshire but in Rutland. Knight has made much of this supposed “discovery” and in several places has accused “allegedly empirical historians” of “not do[ing] their work well enough, never bothering to look up Barnsdale properly.” Yet Crook counters this by pointing out that this criticism might “more appropriately have been applied to [Knight] himself” (134). The Rutland Barnsdale was not known as such, Crook states, because before the 1600s the place was known as Bernard’s Hill (133).

Of course, Knight’s argument about Rutland is much more complex, and a little more tentative, than Crook allows for in his summary. Knight did not argue that all medieval Robin Hood tales were set in Rutland. What Knight does argue is that Andrew of Wyntoun’s repositioning of the legend to c. 1283, a period of much lawlessness in the north of England and Scotland in the lead-up to Scottish wars of independence, potentially reframes Robin Hood as a figure who could potentially be read as sympathetic to the cause of Scottish independence. Furthermore, Wyntoun could have been aware of a place in Rutland named by locals as Barnsdale, which belonged to an Earl of Huntingdon, a title held by Scottish noblemen who were related to the Scottish royal family. I personally find Knight’s Rutland argument unconvincing, and Crook is right to criticise it, but it is important to be fair in a review as in this particular section of his book (132-34) Crook does not enter into these details but is rather dismissive.

Crook also has much criticism for the so-called “mythic school”--arguments that I have also debunked in the past--who argue that Robin was connected with some pagan “Green Man” figure (a thesis also debunked by several Victorian and modern historians but still quite bafflingly held by some modern scholars, particularly in the area of folklore studies). Another misconception that Crook has debunked is the idea that Robin Hood is solely an invention of late medieval poetry with no basis in historical fact. As Crook reminds readers, the Gest, arguably the most important among the early Robin Hood texts, tells us that Robin Hood was a historical figure because he “walked on ground” (21). To late medieval poetry writers, then, Robin was certainly a historical figure, and it behoves modern scholars to investigate his origins as well.

Crook’s monograph should be standard reading for any scholar who is interested in the origins of the historical Robin Hood. Interestingly, Crook’s monograph could quite well be a companion to Lesley Coote’s recent Storyworlds of Robin Hood (2020). Just as Crook identified the origins of the historical Robin Hood in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, so Coote identifies the beginning of the literary Robin Hood tradition in the early 1200s as well. The fact that both Crook’s and Coote’s books were published in the same year, and the authors never got to respond to each other’s findings, is to be regretted. However, after two decades of division between historians and literary critics over the nature and origin of the Robin Hood legend, then, perhaps Crook’s and Coote’s works in the 2020s might point the way to a consensus between the two camps: Robin Hood was a real person who lived in the early 1200s and the literary origins of his legend can also be found in this period.