The 1300s and Me|
The Sherwood Robin Hood Festival Holds High the Lamp of Liberty in Oregon.
by Clyde Ray List
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The lady screams, but the crowd only reacts with laughter and applause as the victim is being carried off on the shoulders of three leathery masked men. Now the maiden stands all alone above the crowd, reaching through the bars of her cage for someone, anyone, to rescue her. Where is Robin Hood? How can he not be more alert to the crime that has just been committed against his girlfriend!? If not for the children of Sherwood, our greenwood hero would be lost somewhere in the crowd. Only after a great deal of prodding and pleading from the little people, Robin Hood climbs to his feet and shoves his way through the crowd, shouting and waving his sword, as only he can do. A not very convincing sword fight takes place. Maid Marian is rescued. Once again. The crowd applauds their dunder-head of a champion while he makes his way back to the Bingo table or any of the other booths that have met his fancy up and down First Street and Washington Street. It is the year 1955 and no crowd could be having more fun.
The "Wild West" was never so exciting as it appears to be in Hollywood movies. True enough. But thanks to the Legend of Robin Hood, Sherwood Oregon U.S.A. always had a brighter side to explore, even in the darkest of times. Other frontier towns might claim Billy the Kid or Jesse James as their signature outlaw. Our outlaw was the world's most famous good guy, Robin Hood. The dividing line between Good and Evil was never so sharp as during Robin Hood Festivals I remember as a kid. The Sheriff of Nottingham and his henchmen (the bad guys) romped down the street as boldly and merrily as Robin Hood and His Merry Men (the good guys). You could tell them apart by their costumes. The crowd only needed to encourage things along by shouting "Rob from the rich. Give to the poor," but it wasn't about money.
The most uncanny moment of the Festival always came when you were suddenly asking yourself: Why don't good people and bad people act like this all the time? Why do the good and the bad disguise themselves every day of the year except on Robin Hood's day? The illusion did a neat flip-flop and became the moral clarity that we all yearn for in any age, medieval or modern.
So Who Is Robin Hood!?
Holt's conclusion leaves us at an intolerable crossroad. We are grownup enough to face the fact that there was more than one Robin Hood-- perhaps hundreds of them-- in the historical record. We will just have to face the fact that there were many outlaws in England who resembled Robin Hood in everything but name. "The Anglo-Saxon Earl Godwin and Hereward the Wake, the French Eustache the Monk and the Anglo-Norman Fouke fitz Waryn are among the many ancestors of Robin Hood...." (Ohlgren, Medieval Outlaws). But what is it about the one we know least about-- the outlaw called Robin Hood-- that would cause a small Oregon town to celebrate his memory for over a century?
Robin Hood and His Shady Past
It's a small wonder that scholars spend so much time searching for some historical figure that is looming behind the Robin Hood legend. The Robin Hood we meet in the old ballads is just too wiley and unpredictable-- too human-- to be a mere folk hero. In one 14th Century ballad, Robin Hood murders a defenseless begger just to steal his clothes. Disguised as the same begger, he marches into town and frees some equally defenseless peasants from the Sheriff's noose. Go figure. What do you make of such a hero? Fill the background with starvation (severe enough to make people think about hunting each other for food), cold (enough to kill someone for nothing more than the clothes on their back), and plague and the message of the song gets even more gritty. To be sure, the Robin Hood we meet in Robin Hood and the Monk, the earliest surviving Robin Hood ballad, is a man with problems that are of the every day kind. We can sympathize with him in his difficult relationship with Mother Church.
A monk keeps trying to throw him in the slammer. You would expect Robin Hood to shout "Sanctuary" but he does not. The concept was well established in Robin's day, but it was controversial. My favorite author on the Middle Ages offers a clue as to why Sanctuary might be denied a man who goes to church with a hood over his face: "Constantly we catch, in the Middle Ages, hints of an undercurrent, of a yearning after the pagan past...." (Colton, Medieval Panorama, Pg. 116)
An easily missed passage from Shakespeare draws a very clear connection between outlawry and heresy:
FALSTAFF - "let us be Diana's foresters, gentlemen of the shade, minions of the moon; and let men say we be men of good government, being governed, as the sea is, by our noble and chaste mistress the moon, under whose countenance we steal."
In other words, it seems that Shakespeare's 17th Century audience felt quite at home with the idea that an English King would feel quite at home among robbers and that he and his robber band would have felt equally at home among that ancient fraternity of pagans described so entertainingly in Chapter 19 of The Acts of the Apostles. (Shakespeare does not mention Robin Hood by name, but it is obvious --at least to me --that that is who Falstaff is trying to be in Henry IV.)
We can only have kind regards for Pope Gregory the Great (c. 540-604) who made the crime of heresy so difficult to pin on an Englishman. Gregory was the church father who advised his missionaries not to destroy the pagan centers in Britain. Rather, he told them to "Destroy the idols; purify the buildings with holy water; set relics there; and let them become temples of the living God. Thus the people will have no need to change their places of concourse..." (Coulton, Page 607)
Thus all things set in order, then have they their hobby-horses, their dragons and other antiques, togither with their baudie pipers, and thundering drummers, to strike up the Devils Daunce withall; then martch this heathen company towards the church and church-yarde their pypers pypying, thier drummers thundering, their stumpes dauncing, their belles iyngling, their handkercheefes fluttering about their heades like madde men, their hobbie horses, and other monsters skirmishing amongst the throng : and in this sorte they goe to the church (though the minister be at prayer or preaching) dauncing and swinging their handkerchiefes over their heades in the church like Devils incarnate, with such a confused noise, that no man can heareRobin Hood was often presented as the "King of Misrule" in these rituals. Every village had its own tradition. A popular Bishop reports:
I came once myself to a place, riding on a journey homeward from London. I sent word overnight into the town, that I would preach there in the morning. It was a holiday [May Day] and methought it was a holiday's work. The church stood in my way and I took my horse and my company and went thither. I thought I should have found a great company in the church. When I came there the church door was locked fast. I tarried there half an hour or more. At last the key was found and one of the parish comes to me and says, 'Sir, this is a busy day with us. We cannot hear you. It is Robin Hood's Day. The parish are gone abroad to gather [money] for Robin Hood. I pray you let them off.'
I was fain to give place to Robin Hood. I thought my rochet would have been more highly regarded, though I were not; but it would not serve. I was fain to give place to Robin Hood's men. A heavy matter. A heavy matter, under the pretense of gathering for Robin Hood, a traitor and a thief....
--Bishop Hugh Latimer, April 12, 1549.
Latimer's words were taken down by a scribe who was on the scene. The increasingly brief utterances that the Bishop makes suggest a disruptive audience. Like the Monk in Robin Hood and the Monk, the good Bishop risks being hooted out of his own church.
A Special Kind of Thief
It hath ben often seen in England that iii or iv thiefes, for povertie, hath sett upon vii or viii true men and robbed them al. But it hath not been seen in Fraunce... they have no hertys to do so terryble an acte. There be therefor mo men hangyd in England, in a yere, for robberye and manslaughter, than ther be hangid in Fraunce for such cause of crime in vii yers.
How did you become one of these vastly admired sort of Englishmen? The following passage from C.G.Coulton provides a clue.
In 1311 William of Wellington, a clergyman(!) by trade, confessed to murder. He was found guilty and he was given a choice. Either he could hang or he could leave the country ("abjure the realm"). The second choice seemed the best, but not by much!
....Coming to the gate of the church or churchyard, he swore solemnly before the assembled crowd: "Oyez, oyez, oyez! Coroner and other good folk: I, William of Wellington, for the crime of manslaughter which I have committed, will quit this land of England nevermore to return, except by leave of the Kings of England or their heirs: so help me God and His saints!" The coroner then assigned him a port, and a reasonable time for the journey; from Yelvertoft to Dover it would have been about a week. His bearing during this week was minutely prescribed: never to stray from the high-road, or spend two nights in the same place; to make straight for his port, and to embark without delay. If at Dover he found no vessel ready to sail, then he was bound daily to walk into the sea up to his knees- or, according to stricter authorities, up to his neck- and to take his rest only on the shore, in proof that he was ready in spirit to leave this land which by his crimes he had forfeited. His dress meanwhile was that of a felon condemned to death- a long, loose white tunic, bare feet, and a wooden cross in his hand to mark that he was under protection of Holy Church. English law was glad to have thus rid itself of a villain, and troubled no further; but the records leave us skeptical whether any very large proportion of these unwilling pilgrims actually found their way across the sea. (Medieval Panorama, Coulton, Pages 374-5)
In William of Wellington and all the other Robin Hood-types we see a demonstration of the quest for "practical freedom" among the English people so admired by Churchill. Orlando Patterson argues that this quest for freedom is not so wide-spread as people would like to think it is (especially in countries where the natural environment is so hostile that any idea of running away from home and hiding in the wilderness is unthinkable). Where did such a deeply held and particularly western conviction take root? Patterson traces this peculiarly Western concept straight back to the Year One! He points out that Rome was the first world class empire to adopt "...individual freedom as a social goal." Under Roman Slave Law, every faithful slave was entitled to full Roman citizenship before his life was over. No wonder Roman slaves were eager to follow Saint Paul's advice to be faithful to their masters (Ephesians 6:5). In fact: "By the end of the republic and throughout the empire, the vast majority of Romans were of slave ancestry." (Freedom: Volume One, Page 101) In the New Testament we join an audience that has no problem believing that Liberty is a force more powerful than Death itself.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now.... [and that] ...the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.
The air snaps, crackles and pops with Liberty on that day when Paul meets the philosophical ancestors of Robin Hood (and King Henry V and Sir John Falstaff) in the City of Ephesus. The novelty of one particular type of Liberty-- Freedom of Assembly-- causes them to forget everything else they're doing!
Soon the whole city was in an uproar. The people seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul's traveling companions from Macedonia, and rushed as one man into the theater. Paul wanted to appear before the crowd, but the disciples would not let him. Even some of the officials of the province, friends of Paul, sent him a message begging him not to venture into the theater. The assembly was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there....
Patterson identifies Paul as the first known professor of Liberty-- although it seems to me that the words of the Jewish sage, Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C.E.-50 C.E.) are just as passionate on the subject: "Now, when we are alive, we are so though our soul is dead and buried in our body, as if in a tomb. But if it were to die, then our soul would live according to its proper life being set free from the evil and dead body to which it is bound. "--Op. 67-69; LA 1.108. Philo was a contemporary of Jesus Christ, who leaves an audience dumbstruck by the mere mention of the word "Liberty" in Luke 4:18.
Unfortunately, the Christian Church proved to be a lot less tolerant than the rascals Paul enjoys debating with so much in the City of Ephesus. Diana's faithful remnant winds up in the deepest shadows of a Shakespeare play instead.
The Lamp of Liberty
The history of the West is the story of how the lamp of Individual Liberty is nearly extinguished time and time again only to blaze forth with increased intensity each time it is rekindled. The Robin Hood Legend expresses a yearning for Liberty that alludes to more than political oppression. The natural environment is also a major player in the story.
In America the concept of Liberty, as governor Winthrop noted in his writings, was quickly wrapped up in the concept of private ownership of land. Today, all around me, I see the land owning class being converted into a class of tenants and service workers. It's happening all over again. The rich are becoming a separate species from the poor. The wealthy take shelter inside gated communities, allow entry only to a few carefully selected poor, and do their shopping in faux towns (e.g. Bridgeport Village) where it is not possible for a beggar to play his guitar on what looks like a public street.
The question raised by the Robin Hood Legend and the Sherwood Oregon USA Robin Hood Festival becomes more urgent than ever before. Namely, as the Sherwood Robin Hood Festival crowds together within an ever diminishing space of publically shared land: How long is it possible for Individual Liberty to remain America's most important social goal?
Britain until 1688 by Maurice Ashley
The Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman, 1973
Encyclopedia Britannica, 1957. This ancient edition has detailed articles on no less than eight people with the family name "Hood." (not counting Robin Hood). They all seem to be related to one another. All but two of them were military men from the 18th and 19th centuries. Mt. Hood, in my home state of Oregon, is named after one of them. One of the nonmilitary Hoods, Thomas Hood, wrote The Song of the Shirt, a poem protesting working conditions during the Industrial Revolution. Britain's largest naval vessel during the outbreak of World War II was the H.M.S. Hood.
The English and Scottish Popular Ballads by Francis James Child.
English Life in Chaucer's Day by Roger Hart.
English Social History by G. H. Trevelyan, Longman, London and New York, 1978.
Freedom in the Making of Western Culture, by Orlando Patterson, Basic Books--Harper Collins, 1991. "The basic argument of this work is that freedom [as a shared vision] was generated from the experience of slavery." --Preface.
The Gallic War, by Julius Caesar. A new translation by Carolyn Hammond, Oxford World Classics, 1996.
The Germans by George Bailey. A detailed Huedekin anecdote is found in this book. Huedekin's English cousin Hodekin is often suggested as the origin of the name "Robin Hood."
The History of the English Speaking Peoples, The Birth of Britain, by Winston S. Churchill, Bantam, N.Y., 1963.
Inventing the Middle Ages by Norman F. Cantor. This book gossips about the politics of academia. Cantor regrets the lack of fresh air in the great universities, and rejoices over the fact that the highly acclaimed Barbara Tuchman holds no more than a Bachelors Degree.
On the Laws and Governance of England by Sir John Fortecue. This is a delightfully readable document, in spite of its 15th Century origins. Sir John's most lasting contribution to English/American jurisprudence is that it is better for a Jury to release a guilty person than to punish one who is innocent.
Measuring America by Andro Linklater. The importance of owning land and the difficulty of measuring land is described. Penguin Group, London, 2002.
Medieval Outlaws by Thomas H. Ohlgren, Sutton, U.K., 1998. Ohlgren rejects Holt's argument that the popularity of Robin Hood ballads is owed to "... the household retainers and dependents of the northern aristocracy and landed gentry." In a landmark essay, Ohlgren sees the legend as the property of an aggressive middle class that appeared after the demographic upheavals of the 14th Century.
Medieval Panorama: The English Scene from Conquest to Reformation by G. G. Coulton, Meridian Books, N.Y. 1966. "Constantly we catch, in the Middle Ages, hints of an undercurrent, of a yearning after the pagan past...." Pg. 116
The Quest for Robin Hood by Jim Lees, Temple Nostalgia, Nottingham England, 1987. "A good May Game Robin Hood would be retained for years; his home would be pointed out; the places where the games were celebrated would bear Robin's name, hence landmarks, wells, trees, caves, hills, crosses, stones, and other objects bearing the name 'Robin Hood' must be regarded with some suspicion." Page 45.
The Politics of Carnival by Chris Humphrey, Manchester University Press, 2001. Humphrey challenges the notion that the Ritual of Misrule was merely a means of letting off steam. As in similar rituals today such as Jury duty and the general election, there could be a great deal of premeditation and grim determination involved.
Rioting in America by Paul A. Gilje, Indiana University Press, 1996.
Robin Hood by J. C. Holt, Thames and Hudson, 1982, 1989. "No sane man goes in search of 'Robinhood' or any other unusual surnames through unprinted and unindexed government records." Holt complains. Some of us geniuses could go out and help him of course.
Robin Hood: An Anthology of Scholarship and Criticism, Stephen Knight (ed), D. S. Brewer, Cambridge, 1999
Robin Hood: The Shaping of the Legend, Jeffrey Singman. Explains the significant differences between Robin Hood plays and morality plays.
Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study, by Orlando Patterson, Harvard University Press, 1982.
War of the Roses, by Robin Neillands, Brockhampton Press, London, 1999.
The University of Rochester. The complete Francis Child ballads of Robin Hood may be found here.