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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

“Robin Hood”, by J. C. Holt

266 pages, Thames & Hudson, ISBN-13: 978-0500289358

In 1982 Sir James Clarke Holt, Professor of Medieval History, published what came to be acknowledged as the definitive work on Robin Hood, with a second edition appearing in 1988 incorporating significant new research. Thus, the first important point: make sure you get the later edition as it incorporates new material and corrections from the first. The second important point is that this new evidence – which pushed the first reference to Robin Hood a century further back in time – merited a complete rewrite; instead, Holt left the main text almost unaltered and discussed the new information in a postscript, while also giving this new info a brief mention in a preface. The result is that the reader is presented with much speculation about the origin of the legend which is largely invalidated in the postscript, a confusing way to write a book and the intellectual equivalent of having the rug pulled out from under your feet.

With all that said, Holt wrote an exhaustive (if exceedingly dry) study of Robin Hood, both the man (what little remains of him in the ballads) and the legend. He discussed the five earliest surviving ballads – A Gest of Robyn Hode, Robin Hood’s Death, Robin Hood and the Monk, Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, and Robin Hood and the Potter – and extrapolated from them details all that can be inferred of the original Hood and of the transmission of the legend in the 200 years before the songs were first written down. Even after they began to be preserved on paper new elements in the legend continued to emerge (for instance, Maid Marian and Friar Tuck only joined Robin’s Merry Men in the 15th Century). Although today we commonly think of Robin Hood as hanging around in Nottingham and Sherwood Forest (both to be found in Nottinghamshire), the early ballads most strongly connect him with Barnesdale, in South Yorkshire. Holt details the physical setting in which Robin Hood and his legend traversed, and also the type of people who were his original audience.

So just who was Robin Hood? Holt answers, “There were more than one”. Many outlaws later called themselves Hood, and some elements of the legends were possibly added on because a storyteller confused one Hood with our Robin Hood – this may explain why an actual march of Edward II’s in 1322 is incorporated into the life of a bandit who probably lived a hundred years earlier. Holt does think there was an original Robin Hood who inspired the legend and believes that he lived in the first half of the 13th Century. He is possibly identical with a certain outlaw named Robert Hod, aka Hobbehod, who is mentioned in records from 1225-26. Although there are many uncertainties, of all the suggested candidates for the “real” Robin Hood, based on the existing evidence Robert Hod is the most plausible. Holt also states that the reason there are so many buildings and places associated with Hood is that these are later confusions from people who mistook actors and performers who played the outlaw with the actual outlaw himself.

Robin Hood, for all its flaws, remains a fact-packed, authoritative guide to England’s unlikely national hero (well, a thief who may or may not have existed seems an unlikely hero to me). Holt points the reader toward the earliest ballads, and I strongly recommend that you read these in parallel with the earliest chapters of this book. If you can find a copy of the Child Ballads that would be best. These are a collection of 305 traditional ballads from England and Scotland and their American variants, collected by Francis James Child during the second half of the 19th Century. Their lyrics and Child’s studies of them were published as The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, a work of some 2500 pages. The tunes of most of the ballads were collected and published by Bertrand Harris Bronson in and around the 1960s. FYI.

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