This extended outlaw narrative was popular in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: five different printed versions are known, and there were many reprints of the later editions. But the existence of a saga about these three forester heroes of Cumberland appears to go back almost as far as that of Robin Hood himself. A 1432 Parliament Roll for Wiltshire adds to a list of local members, presumably in a spirit of satire, a sequence of outlaw names -- Robin Hood, Little John, Much, Scathelock and Reynold are there, but, remarkably in so southern an area, the list is led by "Adam Belle, Clim O'Cluw, Willyam Cloudesle." Presumably the first named is also the Allan Bell mentioned as a fine archer in Dunbar's poem Of Sir Thomas Norrey
, datable to the early sixteenth century at the latest.
It was under the name of Adam Bell that the poem was entered in the Stationers' Register in 1557-58, indicating it was a mainstream text by then, and this is confirmed by reference to the poem by Shakespeare, Much Ado
I.1 -- to Adam; Jonson, The Alchemist,
Act I -- to Clim; and Davenant, The Long Vacation in London
(see Dobson and Taylor, 1976, p. 259). This popularity led to a late and feeble second part of the ballad being produced, it seems, as early as 1586; in that year a "new" ballad with this title was claimed to exist, which could hardly be credible if it was the same as the one already printed at least four times, including the imprint by the well-known William Copland. This was added to Part I in the Percy Folio. The similarity to Robin Hood was no doubt part of the reason for the original ballad's success, and this also led to another piece of opportunism, a ballad which combined their stories, Robin Hood's Birth, Breeding, Valour and Marriage
Copland's text of the mid-sixteenth century is the earliest full version (C
) and provides the basis for modern editions. As Child showed, there are some earlier fragments which offer good readings when they are available: A
, from John Byddel's press from about 1536, provides only lines 452-506 and 642-80. Another fragment, B,
may have been printed by Wynkyn de Worde, and at least a little earlier than Byddell's; it offers some valuable readings from lines 211-446. These three are referred to in the notes as "earlier texts." Two "later texts" sometimes referred to are both printed by James Roberts in the very early seventeenth century; there is also a version in the Percy Folio which appears to have been copied from a text of the Roberts type, and has no value for textual purposes.
In its own terms Adam Bell
has many virtues. Gray described it as an "excellent long ballad" (1984, p. 11), and Dobson and Taylor found it "the most dramatically exciting of all English outlaw ballads" (1976, p. 258). Some of these qualities resemble patterns found in the Robin Hood myth. Adam Bell
is lucidly constructed in three discrete fitts (not unlike Robin Hood and the Potter
and, if it were all available, Robin Hood and the Monk
). As in those ballads, the first fitt sees one of the outlaws enter the town and encounter danger; in the second fitt there follows an exciting rescue not unlike that in the Gest
or Robin Hood and the Monk
; in the last fitt the outlaw heroes are forgiven by the king, despite the damage they have caused, as happens in the Gest
and is implicit in Robin Hood and the Monk
Other motifs that are shared with Robin Hood and the Monk
(and more generally with other texts) are the brisk but vivid nature opening (there seem to be verbal echoes with Robin Hood and the Monk
: the latter seems likely to be the source, as it is sharper-focussed in both language and imagery); a fellow outlaw's advice to avoid the town, which is ignored; the harsh treatment of the jailer; the use of a messenger; the hostile role of sheriff and justice; the use of a royal seal for entry into the town (forged in Adam Bell
, stolen in Robin Hood and the Monk
); the king's eventual and somewhat reluctant approval.
But Adam Bell
also has a range of original features of some importance. Whereas the Robin Hood texts explore pressures felt by outlawed men with no visible family, and Gamelyn
deals with a disinherited younger son, Adam Bell
concentrates on another type of distressed male, the husband and father separated from his family. While the social bandit, in Hobsbawm's definition, will be without dependants unless, like Jesse James, he was a historical figure actually in that situation, William of Cloudeslye, very much the hero of the ballad, is impelled to return to Carlisle to see his wife and children, and though after his rescue they play little part in the action, they are still included in the royal resolution at the end, when fatherhood is again central to the apple-splitting scene. The connection continues, as William's son is the focus of the sequel.
This stress on familial structures may also be related to the emphasis put on the role of women as well as the wife. William is betrayed by an "old wyfe" who has lived long in his house, and he and his outlaw colleagues are redeemed, from a position of great risk, by the generous queen who calls up a favor given her by the king at their wedding. Theorists of gender relations might well see in the three women who attend William a triad of wife, crone, and queen, projections of the male imagination (or anxiety) when dealing with the female. That feature is almost invisible in the rest of the outlaw ballads unless the Virgin Mary, the Prioress of Kirkley, and the shadowy future figure of Maid Marian were invoked to represent this triune form of the feminine.
Another notable feature of this ballad is the fully resolved nature of its ending. Most Robin Hood ballads end with the outlaw band returning to the stasis that was disturbed by the original incursion into the greenwood of a stranger, or concluding with a renewed delicate balance where the hostile forces are still implicitly alive. Some have a tragic ending: the Gest
, The Death of Robin Hood, The True Tale of Robin Hood;
and a few later and gentrified ones have a blissfully resolved sense of future security. It is this last unproblematically happy ending that Adam Bell
provides, which seems strange in an early, violent, and quite realistic ballad. The end has none of what Gray calls the "open" quality of the last part of Robin Hood and the Monk
(1984, p. 17), where the king's ironic appreciation of the outlaws' loyalty (John's tough fidelity in particular) both threatens and validates their state of independence. At the end of Adam Bell
William is a court gentleman, his colleagues are yeomen, William's wife a queen's gentlewoman, and promises of advancement are even made to William's son. Medieval literature usually brings such court happiness to rapid misery, but here all that follows is an equally neat verbal resolution, tying up the theme of archery with that of salvation, wishing for all good archers that of heven they may never mysse
Redolent of heroic simplicity rather than the more uneasy world of the usual outlaw ballads, this ending does of course follow on from this ballad's single element most unlike Robin Hood adventures, the climactic moment where William proves his skill and his nerve -- and perhaps his inherently unparental character -- by shooting an apple from his son's head. At long distance, with a difficult and deadly weapon (the heavier broad arrow, not the light "bearing arrow" with which he has previously shown his skill) William performs a feat that as Child shows at some length (III, 16-22), is a recurrent motif in international heroic story, not merely the pièce de resistance
of William Tell. One scholar localizes this event; the closest version of the story, known as early as Wright's commentary as "a Northern story" (1846, II, 208), might, Holt suggests, belong to the Carlisle region through its close contact with Norse culture (1989, p. 71). That may well be so: it is also one of the elements by which this long ballad is stagey in a way avoided by most of the Robin Hood ballads, whose dramatic interchanges are those of immediate street theater, direct fights, simple disguises, rather than this lengthy, masque-like sequence of activity, more elaborate than the recurrent but usually brief archery contest.
A similar level of elaboration is embodied in the narrative methodology of the ballad, though as it is a feature that realism has handed down as "natural," commentators fail to observe it as a specific technique. Adam Bell
is very notable for a narrative which moves briskly and neatly stanza by stanza: each quatrain brings a new event, a new explanation of the way it derives from the previous events. The narrative of Adam Bell
tends to explain everything: the sequence where Adam and Clim trick their way into Carlisle has an almost positivist note in the way it gives all relevant details and actions (e.g., the porter cannot read and so is tricked by the forged seals, line 220). The mimesis is insistently realistic and rationalized, even when, or perhaps especially when, the narrative is improbable (as in the carefully outlined apple-shooting episode). The overall tone is lucid, steady, metronomic narrative, most unlike the mildly mysterious stop-start movement of the popular and lyric ballad, and much more like the measured tread of the sixteenth-century historicist poems Chevy Chase
or The Battle of Otterburn
, and indeed not in this respect unlike the Gest
itself, in this as in its compilation status a somewhat bookish text. However, to recognize the unusually realistic mode of the poem does not necessarily lead to a narrow historicism like Joseph Hunter's notion (1845, p. 245) that Adam Bell really existed. Child is more generously dismissive in this case than in dealing with Hunter's equally positivist approach to the Gest
(III, 21-22), while Dobson and Taylor simply call Hunter's arguments "extraordinarily unconvincing" (1976, p. 260, n.2).
In terms of stylistic character Adam Bell
is of limited interest. Its vocabulary is unremarkable either for imaginative variety or meaningless repetition. There are not many poor rhymes (lines 74/6, 78/80, 122/4, 154/6, 210/2, 226/8 stress, 246/8, 278/80, 445/7, 453/5, 593/5, 609/11, 673/5) and in terms of stanza form, as in many other ballads, the author appears to have been happy with abab
when it came to hand easily (lines 109-12, 129-32, 161-64, 452-55, 464-67, 468-71, 492-95, 536-39, 564-67, 632-35, 636-39, 640-63). There seems to be a trace of grouping here, especially in the stanzas relating the apple-splitting episode. In the exciting sequence when William is rescued from Carlisle, the author appears to have adopted the abab
stanza as his basic mode (see lines 205-387, and especially 314-87) and he appears to have got so much into the swing of full rhyming that he produced a five-line stanza in the process (lines 293-97).
In these ways, in terms of style, action, and temperament, the ballad of Adam Bell
is a little less pointed and vivid than the earlier Robin Hood ballads; and yet in comparison with the feebly literary late-sixteenth-century broadside, it seems to have in full measure the robust and daring directness of the true outlaw ballad. Adam, Clim, and William are indeed examples of the "good yeomen" archetype, realizing both the sturdy values and anxious projections of the other early outlaw texts. It is both a measure of the inherent quality of the story and of the massive pull of the major outlaw myth, that their story has become so closely linked to the tradition of Robin Hood himself.
Go To Adam Bell, Clim of the Clough, and William of Cloudesley