I have long been fascinated by the myth of Robin Hood. Judging by the many movies and plays and books that have been written about his life, I am surely not the only one. All weekend I have been in the mood to watch the latest Robin Hood movie, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett. I was not disappointed—it was epic, it had a social conscience, and it was true to the gritty nature of the times. It was a very well done film that answered many of my own concerns about the Robin Hood legend as a historian, all while being an enjoyable spectacle of its own.
There is a contentious historical question as to whether Robin Hood is an actual historical figure. Like another of England’s great myths, that of King Arthur, by the time Robin Hood appears as a historical figure in ballads both tragic and comic, he already has the air of legend about him . The fact that he is said to have worn Lincoln green, been a yeoman, and had a certain anti-authoritarian and anti-clerical ring about him makes him even more intriguing of a figure. Again, like Arthur, many areas claim him as their own—both Yorkshire and Nottingham have good historical claims. There may have been several people who donned Robin Hood as an identity (Robert is not exactly a very uncommon name, and Robin is a very common diminuative of Robert in the high middle ages, when the stories of Robin Hood first appear).
I once deeply loved the Kevin Costner film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. It was the perfect sort of film for a plucky young film from the country to love, with its themes of loyalty, gentlemanly conduct, and vengeance. The endurance of the Robin Hood myth itself is testament to a deeply lurking hostility to abusive authority that exists within the English psyche, a hostility I share myself in spades. It is significant that the earliest stories about him showed him to be a yeoman, and that in the 16th century, when his stories first entered print, he was given an identity as a nobleman (this is where the totally spurious identity as Robert of Huntington comes from, an identity supported from one of my ex-roommates who fancied himself an aristocratic sort of fellow, largely because his father and uncle were, at the time, pastors in our church and imagined themselves to be elites).
I believe the class status of Robin Hood is particularly relevant to the views of the Robin Hood myth. After all, Robin Hood is someone who poaches the king’s deer, lives as an outlaw in the forest (and the forests are always where outlaws have gone—even those members of my family who as Cherokee sought to escape the U.S. Army that had come to deport them to Oklahoma hid out in the woods for generations). If Robin Hood was originally an aristocrat, and one holds to the (mistaken) belief that one’s dignity is dependent on one’s class status at birth, then once noble always noble. He steals from those who have stolen from him as an aristocrat, and people feel less offended. If, however, Robin Hood is a yeoman (as he was in both the Ridley Scott Robin Hood film and in the earliest ballads and stories about him), then his hostility to the abusive authorities (like the Sheriff of Nottingham) has their air of someone cheeky and not sufficiently deferential about him, someone who does not know and keep to their place.
A yeoman, after all, is the type of person many of us are. On the upper end of the spectrum, yeomen blended into the gentry through the professional “pseudogentry,” like ministers and lawyers and doctors, whose education and breeding set them apart from their peers, and who like my former roommate and his family affected airs of belonging to elite status. On the lower end, the yeomanry was made of petit bourgeoisie, storekeepers and millers, masons, freeholders of land, clerks and secretaries who were fiercely protective of their status and dignity as freemen but who were hostile to the airs of others whom they considered their equals. When one looks at it, I’m not all that different of a person from the Robin Hood of the ballads, and almost identical in my own political worldview to Crowe’s Robin Hood, a man of blunt honesty and fairly radical egalitarianism.
In many ways, we see Robin Hood as we are (or we think we are) not as he was or may have been. Robin Hood was hostile to selfish elites, and to be fond of Robin Hood is to make a claim to being a person of chivalry towards women, of religious devotion (though I would not approve of his Marianism, or the way in which his ballads became popular at the heathen and anarchic May Day festivals that later were tied to the Socialist Labor Days of Europe). If we prefer to think of Robin Hood as originally an aristocrat, it is because we believe aristocrat have a right to defend themselves and their interests that mere ambitious commoners do not. As an ambitious commoner myself, I prefer to see Robin Hood as someone like myself, hostile to an unjust social order and not inclined to steal from those who have nothing, but rather to see himself as an extralegal but no less moral defender of justice in an unjust and corrupt world. The fact that we still have Robin Hood’s story told and celebrated suggests that our own moral order is corrupt and in need of reformation. Are we heeding that warning, or will we fiddle and diddle while our cities burn?