30 April 2015

Robin Hood, May Day, and parish fund-raising

The evolution of stories interests me greatly, particularly the evolution of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. This morning I found myself reading an article discussing the interesting evolution of the stories concerning Robin Hood.

Among other things, I was surprised to learn that the first clear reference to Robin Hood that we have comes from 1377. This surprised me because King John died in 1216; consequently, I expected the stories to be earlier. The first stories of Robin Hood, though, are rather different from the stories we know today.

Robin did not rob from the rich to give to the poor and Maid Marion did not enter the stories until after the Reformation. He was not a noblemen, but a yeoman. Robin was particularly devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary, but the other personal characteristics of Robin varied significantly. While the first stories contain varied plots, the principle characters remain the same: Robin, Little John, the King [Edward, not John, who reigned until 1307], and the Monk. Because of this, Anthony J. Pollard, in his essay "Robin Hood, Sherwood Forest and the Sheriff of Nottingham" [Nottingham Medieval Studies (52) 113-130], suggests that "one might liken these stories to twentieth-century comics in which a whole series of adventures were hung on stock characters" (115).

All of this led me to ask what seems an obvious question: How is it that Robin Hood became associated with robbing the rich and giving to the poor? The answer might involve the use of the stories of Robin Hood by parishes in medieval England. As Pollard explains:
We have most evidence of [the stories] as parochial plays, linked to fund-raising activities during May Games. No texts, if were any, of parochial plays survive. The one surviving play text, which it has been compellingly argued was the text of a play to which John Paston III referred in 1473, is a version of Robin Hood and Guy of Guisborne. What happened is hard to tell, but one suspects that there was an element of festive 'ransoming' of people. And thus the 'rich' were robbed to pay, if not for the poor, then for a good cause. The Robin Hood stories were embedded in this specific parochial context. But it was not restricted to that world. Besides John Paston commissioning a plan, Henry VIII also participated in a Robin Hood interlude, re-enacting 'Robin and the King' in 1515 (116).
Talk about a fun parish fund-raiser! I think such a play put on today could be quite enjoyable and an opportunity for good banter, though I'm not sure what the response of people today would be (we tend to take offense far more easily than the medievals did, to our discredit).

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