The first clear reference to ‘rhymes of Robin Hood’ is from the alliterative poem Piers Plowman, thought to have been composed in the 1370s, but the earliest surviving copies of the narrative ballads that tell his story date to the second half of the 15th century, or the first decade of the 16th century. In these early accounts, Robin Hood’s partisanship of the lower classes, his Marianism and associated special regard for women, his outstanding skill as an archer, his anti-clericalism, and his particular animosity towards the Sheriff of Nottingham are already clear. Little John, Much the Miller’s Son and Will Scarlet (as Will ‘Scarlok’ or ‘Scathelocke’) all appear, although not yet Maid Marian or Friar Tuck. The latter has been part of the legend since at least the later 15th century, when he is mentioned in a Robin Hood play script.
In modern popular culture, Robin Hood is typically seen as a contemporary and supporter of the late-12th-century king Richard the Lionheart, Robin being driven to outlawry during the misrule of Richard’s brother John while Richard was away at the Third Crusade. This view first gained currency in the 16th century. It is not supported by the earliest ballads. The early compilation, A Gest of Robyn Hode, names the king as ‘Edward’; and while it does show Robin Hood accepting the King’s pardon, he later repudiates it and returns to the greenwood.
The oldest surviving ballad, Robin Hood and the Monk, gives even less support to the picture of Robin Hood as a partisan of the true king. The setting of the early ballads is usually attributed by scholars to either the 13th century or the 14th, although it is recognised they are not necessarily historically consistent.
The early ballads are also quite clear on Robin Hood’s social status: he is a yeoman. While the precise meaning of this term changed over time, including free retainers of an aristocrat and small landholders, it always referred to commoners. The essence of it in the present context was ‘neither a knight nor a peasant or “husbonde” but something in between’.Artisans (such as millers) were among those regarded as ‘yeomen’ in the 14th century. From the 16th century on, there were attempts to elevate Robin Hood to the nobility and in two extremely influential plays, Anthony Munday presented him at the very end of the 16th century as the Earl of Huntingdon, as he is still commonly presented in modern times.
As well as ballads, the legend was also transmitted by ‘Robin Hood games’ or plays that were an important part of the late medieval and early modern May Day festivities. The first record of a Robin Hood game was in 1426 in Exeter, but the reference does not indicate how old or widespread this custom was at the time. The Robin Hood games are known to have flourished in the later 15th and 16th centuries. It is commonly stated as fact that Maid Marian and a jolly friar (at least partly identifiable with Friar Tuck) entered the legend through the May Games.
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