Rotten Tomatoes [and Bread] - The Audience of Robin Hood
The investigation into whether there was a real Robin Hood isn't limited to the hunt for Robin and his men, the true sheriff or the identity of the 'comely king' from the earliest texts. Just as important is how these stories developed and how they were shared, who would perform them and listen to them, whether in taverns or in noble halls. For a legend to survive, it has to have an audience, and a merit, and a relevance. Why has Robin lived so long? Adventure, honour, justice, all these things kept him alive in the time of plays, novels and, now, films. But why did he stick around in the first place?
More important than the simple quantity and location of these stories is the culture in which they existed. The issue of class has always been around, and in England a simple but striking division occurred with the arrival of the Normans in 1066; the French had successfully occupied Britain and so anyone with an association with them were either an enemy or to be revered, depending what side of the fence you were on. French and Latin literature was, of course, rife between the occupation and the early 14th century, but it was around this later time that specific legislation was put in place for parliamentary proceedings to be conducted in English; so to was reading and writing to be taught to children in English. Wider public comprehension of French was already dwindling , so decrees to assist in the general education of the populace was more naturalistic and common sense than some great victory for the Saxons - this was a parliamentary move, after all.
As Holt points out, there is a great emphasis placed on Robin's sudden appearance in literature in 1377 being indicative that these stories were inspired in part by events in the very recent past. He also notes, however, that stories weren't blanket translated from French and Latin into English after this parliament decree, and so stories can very well have been lost to time. All this doesn't deem Robin's story to be older that it first seems, but it certainly opens the door to the possibility of a more indistinct oral tradition - that is, after all, how he made his name.
The earliest ballads of Robin Hood were spoken to the audience directly, rather than read by them, as the first lines of A Gest of Robyn Hode (c. 1450) indicate - "Lythe and listin, gentilmen, that be of frebore blode; I shall you tel of a gode yeman, his name was Robyn Hode." The Gest is broken into many segments, or fyttes, giving both the audience and the performer a chance to have a break; the implication here is that these stories were told by hearing and repeating the stories to others, which is then repeated further and further. The much-later event of writing these stories down is the point at which we get a 'canonical' version of events in the Robin Hood cycle - until then, it's entirely open to addition and revision.
The question then becomes, who was the audience? Minstrels travelled the country all-year-round, often coming under the employ of lords for months at a time. These minstrels were required to live under strict guidelines - only accepting x amount of pay a year, only requesting to work in the household of people of a certain class or below (or above) - but that's not to say they actually did. Realistically, anyone could claim to be a minstrel as long as they knew songs and stories and were good enough at reciting them to gather an audience and make a decent living. These stories were delivered to folk in taverns and prestigious households alike, such was the appeal of the minstrel to society.
With the deliverance of the stories as fluid as this, the content then has to come into question. The Gest has large portions centreing around Robin's helping a knight, Sir Richard at the Lea; he is struggling to pay off a debt to monks in York, and Robin lends him the money, Sir Richard vowing to pay the outlaws back in a year and a day. The tales of Robin Hood have long been considered to be for the wider public rather than catering for nobility, yet this story has an honest and wealthy knight as one of its main characters; moreover, Sir Richard is a character the audience has to sympathise with and root for, not to mention requiring them to have some understanding of the debtor system. (Sir Richard's debt relates to paying off a family after Richard's son killed the breadwinner - not an everyman's problem!) While Richard is a knight, the true hero of the story is Robin, a yeoman, and this is the important detail.
Through the Gest, the emphasis is placed on Robin and his band of yeoman. The exact
definition of the word 'yeoman' has changed considerably over the years, with multiple uses being utilised at any one time. Largely, the meaning is due to what is required in context. For example, in legal documents, you had to specifically state the occupation of someone you are making a complaint about. In some cases, 'yeoman' was used to indicate unspecified labour and therefore a lowly profession; in others, 'yeoman' was used to emphasise the good nature and trust placed on the man. In tales of Robin Hood, 'yeoman' is used to represent an ideal. Members of household yeomanry were entrusted with anything from protection (i.e. the best archers), bookkeeping, care of animals, etc. In the late 14th century, a new class of yeoman was starting to arise, associating all these traits with someone who was also a [minor] landowner. Naming Robin and his band as a yeomen is important because it instils all these coveted traits in them, making someone of a broad and cherished everyday occupation into the hero of the story. Yeoman Robin helps Sir Richard simply because he needs help, and the reason why almost solely lies in this label.
For this reason, it's easy to envision stories of Robin's exploits in taverns where the more common folk were to be found. But it is because of this nature that it's not impossible, even likely, that these stories were told just as often, by the same individuals, in the halls of nobility. The stories always frame Robin and the Merries not only as yeomen but specifically as good yeomen, ones who go above and beyond the ordinary call of duty that this varied household role has. Robin and John even exhibit the formal acts of the yeomanry in the Gest, taking a knee and exchanging gifts with Sir Richard upon meeting him; this behaviour is deeply engrained in them, indicating that the yeoman class is more than just a detail in the story - it's a lifestyle. Indeed, at the end of the Gest, when Robin is pardoned by the comely king, he is rewarded not with land of his own, but with a high[er] position within the king's court; Robin soon rejects this life and takes up the only other life available to him - life
in the greenwood. This limited avenue is also a key tell in the life of a household yeoman; no family and no land. Household yeoman were treated with great respect and dignity, and were paid comfortably, but it was very much a job for life.
It is for this reason that the stories of Robin Hood may have spread beyond the mouths of minstrels; yeoman had to travel far and wide around the country for their masters. Despite what the limited travel options granted, life existed very much beyond the walls of a household, each home closely interconnected with others through news, jokes and songs relayed by both touring minstrels and visiting staff of other households. Workers also came and went, temporary employment being rife either for financial reasons or in times of immediate need (either drought or harvest, debt, etc.). It's not a stretch to see how the popular stories of Robin Hood made their way across the country at such a quick pace. Soon, judges lightly referred to the outlaw, petitions against violence likened mob mentality with that of the Merry Men, and priests complained that their congregation would rather hear a song of Robin Hood than matins. As is still the case today, everyone knew about Robin, even if they couldn't pick exactly where they first heard his tale.
But what was it about these particular stories remained so popular with their audience? Tales of other outlaws like Adam Bell, Hereward the Wake and Clym of the Clough were popular too, but they have since died out to become almost peripheral footnotes in the history of oral-tradition ballads. Why was it that Robin Hood's story remained relevant? Was it because of his assignment to a particular class, the same class as his largest audience? Or was it because they were myths and legends of the exploits of a singular man in history, told and retold with greater embellishment and excitement? Or was it a reinforcing of the yeomanry, a way for nobles to reassure themselves that their household servants were of a good and kind nature, and so they cherished stories about 'good' outlaws righting wrongs on their behalf? A look into the lasting impact of the legend still to come...
What would you like to have discussed? A big movie, an obscure show, a weird knick-knack from a forgotten decade? Let me know in the comments or send a message!
Additional information from "Robin Hood" by James C. Holt, 1982.