Robin Hood: Die vielen Gesichter des edlen Raubers/The Many Faces of the Celebrated English Outlaw. – Review

Robin Hood: Die vielen Gesichter des edlen Raubers/The Many Faces of the Celebrated English Outlaw. – Review – book reviews

Malcolm Jones

Robin Hood: Die vielen Gesichter des edlen Raubers/The Many Faces of the Celebrated English Outlaw. Edited by Kevin Carpenter. Oldenburg: Bibliotheks- und Informationsystem der Universitat Oldenburg, 1995. 303pp. ISBN 3 8142 0528 6

This is the generously illustrated German/English catalogue of an exhibition which opened in Oldenburg in November 1995, toured various European cities (including York, for a month in 1996), and closed in August 1997. The catalogue proper is divided into nine sections but preceded by a series of fourteen essays on all aspects of the hero and his legend.

Since Ritson’s pioneering application of rigorous historical method to the hero and his legend at the end of the eighteenth century, one of the most hotly discussed topics in Robin Hood studies has been his very historicity–was there a real, historical, flesh-and-blood original, or is he merely a hero of story, an embodiment of wishful thinking, a sort of Marxist brigand who, as the popular formula puts it, “stole from the rich and gave to the poor”?

The editor has been fortunate in securing the very best available contemporary scholarship–at least, as far as those essays treating the early history of the legend are concerned. In a mere seven pages Professor Holt discusses–reprising the Postscript to the 1988 reprint of his Robin Hood–The Origins of the Legend, and crucially, David Crook’s important discovery (first published in 1984) of a Berkshire fugitive named William Robehod in 1262, the same man being earlier referred to as William son of Robert le Fevere, proving beyond peradventure that Robehod was in use as an appropriate nickname for a robber by that date. Any “original” Robin Hood must have lived at least a generation or two before 1262 in order to have become sufficiently notorious for his name to be attached in this jocular generic fashion to some other robber not so named. In fact, Robinhood as a nickname/surname has now been found a further six times before the end of the thirteenth century, two from Huntingdonshire, two from Hampshire, one from Suffolk and one from Essex (Holt 1988, 187) and “in a high proportion of these cases” (in fact, five out of eight) the men so named were “suspected or outlawed criminals.”

It has always seemed strange to me that scholars do not seem to have troubled themselves much with wondering what such a nickname might mean: was it Robin Hood, i.e. first and second names, or Robehod, i.e., a single nickname? I am not aware that Dr Henry Summerson’s collection of criminal nicknames of this period, which Professor Holt acknowledges in his second edition, and which might provide useful typological parallels, has ever been published.

For a hero whose exploits enjoyed such popularity, it is curious that Robin Hood makes such a very late appearance in art; the Yeoman woodcut from Pynson’s Canterbury Tales (1492; not “1491” as is given on p. 180 of the present work) was pressed into service in one of the earliest prints of the Gest–a common enough practice in book illustration at this date, of course–but it makes this earliest extant “portrait” anomalous in depicting “Robin” on horseback. De Worde’s slightly later edition of the Gest (15067 not “c. 1515” as given on p. 180 of the present work) is similarly unoriginal in using a factotum block of a youth holding his sword by its tip over his shoulder (he carries no longbow!) to serve for Robin. The second edition of the Short Title Catalogue now lists no fewer than five English editions of the Gest published in the years 1500-15 (one of them in Antwerp), and then no more until c. 1560. At least the broadsides of the later seventeenth century are illustrated with what was probably a custom-made archer. All these, though, are text-bound images.

For early free-standing images–though not mentioned in the present work–we have to turn to the evidence of inventories, where we learn of two “painted cloths” (the poor man’s tapestries in which images were literally painted on to canvas, and of which very few survive): hanging in his parlour in 1492, at least as early as any of the unoriginal woodcut images, Robert Rychardes of Dursley had just such “a paynted cloth of Robyn hod,” while a century later, in late Elizabethan Essex, Thomas Shouncke of Havering had a Robin Hood cloth hanging in his hall.

In their Rymes of Robin Hood (1976) Professors Dobson and Taylor gave us one of the best, succinct and authoritative discussions of what could be known about the development of the Robin Hood legend before Holt’s 1982 book, but their contribution to the present book is more than a little disappointing–it is sloppy! Apart from the absurdly vague dating of the de Worde edition of the Gest (“some time between 1492 and 1534” p. 38)–for which there can be no excuse–they refer to Priscilla Bawcutt’s excellent recent edition of Dunbar as by “Priscilla Barrett” (p. 42), and mention the identification “not previously noted” of the wyld Robein under bewch [= wild Robin under bough], horribly garbled in their transcription as Rubeinwender betwch (p. 42), in the poem “Of Sir Thomas Nomy” (which they do not specify) with Robin Hood–though this identification is hardly new, and has certainly been available since at least 1932 in W. Mackay Mackenzie’s edition. It would also have been helpful to have some vague dating for this allusion (Dunbar probably died shortly after 1513). On the same page they mention the famous Toilet window, absurdly said to have been “executed at Minsterley in Shropshire.” In fact, for a period from 1922 the window was installed in the staircase of Leigh Manor, near Minsterley, having been previously installed at Betley Old Hall (Staffordshire), but is currently preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum, its place of manufacture is unknown. They are prepared to entertain the possibility that it might include a “medieval representation” of Robin Hood (p. 43). Not only does it not feature a Robin Hood, but on the selfsame page two quarries from the window are rightly dated “c. 1621”!

But what does our own century have to offer in terms of the visualisation of the Hero? Under the somewhat desperate heading, “Miscellany,” the catalogue lists some fifty-odd (some of them very odd) items of modern Robin Hood bric-a-brac [Hoodiana?] including, teapots, chess-sets, jigsaw puzzles, card-games and thimbles–nothing but sad tat.

The Catalogue essays soon leave off discussion of the earliest period and move on to consider Robin Hood as children’s literature by Dieter Petzold; American interpretations of this surely quintessentially English folk-hero by Jill P. May and Klaus H. Kohring; inevitably, “Robin Hood on the Screen” by Jeffrey Richards (and let us not forget Kevin von Locksley by Bergisch Gladbach, which, however English and Romantic it sounds to the German ear of author Wolfgang Hohlbein, as “Kevin of Locksley” just sounds silly to an English one). The book ends with a useful up-to-date bibliography, for some reason called “Secondary Literature,” and a list of Robin Hood films, for some reason–it pains me to have to write it–called a “Filmography.”

Malcolm Jones, National Centre for English Cultural Tradition, University of Sheffield

COPYRIGHT 1999 Folklore Society

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group