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A Gest of Robyn Hode: Introduction

The "most substantial and most ambitious" of the early Robin Hood texts (Gray, 1984, p. 22) was first recorded in printed form early in the first half of the sixteenth century, and its popularity is shown by the existence of "a dozen printed editions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries" (Fowler, 1980, p. 1769). There is no manuscript version, and the best text is a set of substantial fragments (formerly called the Lettersnijder edition), printed by Jan van Doesbroch in Antwerp around 1510, here called a (Fowler, 1980, p. 1769) and now in the National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh. The other early edition was by Wynkyn de Worde, which may have been in print before the Antwerp text. This was used as a basis by Ritson and Gutch, but Child and Dobson and Taylor used "Lettersnijder" and filled it out from Wynkyn, here called b. This choice appears correct, as Wynkyn has more errors and seems less close to their exemplar than the Antwerp text. Child consulted several other early fragments, some from a text printed by Richard Pynson about 1530 and some in the Douce collection (Bodleian Library, Oxford). These four texts are referred to in the notes as "early texts," while the popular edition by William Copland of about 1560 and its successor by Edward White (later sixteenth century) are referred to as "later texts" which sometimes cast light on how the earlier material was understood. The text printed here is derived from a new collation of the two earliest sources, Antwerp and Wynkyn, while consulting the early fragments and later editions for possible correction of the earlier sources (see notes for details of the sources used when the a text is not followed).

The date of the Gest is not clear; the often repeated idea of an origin about 1400 or even earlier is almost certainly wrong. When Child said there were "a number of Middle English forms" in the poem he meant linguistic forms, and he suggested they "may have been relics" of the ballads from which the poem was then held to be based, or, he went on, the poem itself "may have been put together as early as 1400, or before" (III, 40). This is a good deal more cautious than Gutch's confident statement that the poem dated "from the time of Chaucer or before" (1847, I, vii), which Child was implicitly criticizing. Nevertheless his words have been taken as confirmation of 1400 as a base date for the Gest, perhaps because of its resemblance in length and style to Gamelyn (undoubtedly of the Chaucerian period), and no doubt in part through a desire to find antiquity in the popular myth.

Various improbabilities are involved in the idea of an early date for the Gest. It would mean that this compilation had survived from half a century before the earliest of its components (Robin Hood and the Monk) and for a century before any others. It would also mean that a long text on this popular subject survived without trace in manuscript for a century and, when printed, was still in an unvaried and undamaged form. As Fowler comments, the poem "is unlikely to have had a long life before finding its way into print" (1980, p. 1769). These considerations as well as some linguistic evidence on the survival of Child's "Middle English forms" (see Knight, 1994, pp. 47-48) suggest a date in the mid-fifteenth century. Holt has recently suggested c. 1450 to be a "safer date" than 1400 (1995, p. 30).

If the date of the text itself is less than certain, equally obscure is the date of the events within it. Historians have often felt its legal, social, and military structures belong to the thirteenth century (Maddicott, 1978; for a summary discussion see Holt, 1989, pp. 75-81), but this overlooks the atemporal character of medieval narrative (Malory's text deals with trial by battle in quite ancient forms, not to mention its fantasies of feudality). Similarly fictional is the setting: the Gest operates in the Yorkshire Barnsdale, very clearly specified as such (see note to lines 69-70), and yet Little John can hurry from Nottingham, fifty miles distant, to rejoin his companions in less than a day: apparently they are in Sherwood, but that name is not used in the Gest. Child argues (III, 51) that two separate ballad cycles have been condensed, but the Robin Hood geography is usually general, even vague, in this way and the apparent problem is only created by the unusually specific reference to the Yorkshire Barnsdale in this text.

The audience of the poem has been a matter of dispute in recent years. Earlier commentators did not concern themselves with such mundane issues, assuming either that ballads served some antique organic community now lost in the mists of time, or that the author communicated directly to the present through what Child called, in an unusually vague moment, "the ballad-muse" (III, 42). A more historically attuned approach led to greater specificity: Rodney Hilton in particular argued strongly for a continuity between the Robin Hood ballads including the Gest and the dissident forces typified in the so-called Peasants' Revolt of 1381 (1958). This was supported by Maurice Keen in the first edition of his book on The Outlaws of Medieval Legend (1961). J. C. Holt attacked that generally radical affiliation in an article by asserting, with some reason, that rural and peasant issues are nowhere found within the texts, and proposing that the dissident audience was in fact the lower gentry, their hangers-on and higher servitors (1960). Dobson and Taylor largely accept this, but still claim that Robin Hood is "a yeoman hero for a yeoman audience" (1976, p. 34). Holt returns to the issue in his book, devoting a whole chapter to very full detail intended to prove the essentially conservative character of the audience and the texts, which are held to embody the anxiety of the lesser land-owning gentry and their affiliations (1989, pp. 109-58). This argument seems open to Holt's own techniques of rejection through lack of internal evidence, in that only the knight in the Gest has tenurial problems on his mind and the rest of the characters resist all kinds of service, unless to Robin Hood.

Recent arguments have sophisticated Hilton's original argument about the texts as providing for an audience interested in some form of political resistance. Peter Coss (1985) rests his case on the concept of "cultural diffusion" and Richard Tardif (1983) explored the mediation of contemporary conflict by relating the strains of the texts to urban problems, seeing the greenwood as a place of imagined freedom for displaced craftsmen. That, unlike the peasant or lower gentry argument, certainly meshes with the bookish character of the texts - in manuscript and printed form long before other ballads, and in their earliest occurrences not often obviously connected with tunes.

The audience remains unclear, but commentators seem now agreed that it was probably mixed. The story of the Gest links Robin and his varied band with a knight, a cook, and the king. Fictions of social harmony can hardly reach further, and they appear to be newly focused versions (focused in a more class-conscious and wide-ranging way) of the images of natural community that were at the core of the older Robin Hood plays and games. Audiences, like the politics and the themes of the ballads, appear to be flexible and multiple.

The only major source suggested for the Gest is the Robin Hood ballads themselves, and scholars have often pointed out how the rescue of the knight from Nottingham has resemblances to Robin Hood and the Monk, how John tricks the sheriff much as Robin does in Robin Hood and the Potter, and the final stanzas relate to The Death of Robin Hood in some way - although that is a later ballad, no one has agreed with D. C. Fowler that it was itself inspired by these stanzas in the Gest (1968, pp. 79-80). William Clawson (1909, pp. 125-27) provided a schema of how twelve ballads had been gathered into the Gest, but the argument was weakened by the fact that only four reasonably close contacts with existing ballads can be found; these links are explored in detail by Dobson and Taylor (1976, pp. 74-78). However, there are as many parallels, as noted by Child (III, 43) between episodes in the story and the outlaw legends of Fulk Fitzwarin and Eustace the Monk.

In addition to the ballad sources, Clawson convincingly demonstrates that a "miracle of the Virgin" must account for the lengthy episode of the impoverished knight, Sir Richard of the Lee, who offers the Virgin as his surety for the loan of four hundred pounds from Robin Hood (1909, pp. 25-41). While no exact source has been located, two Middle English versions of The Merchant's Surety, dating c. 1390 and c. 1450, provide some similarities in plot and diction: both the knight and the merchant Theodorus love the Virgin; both are impoverished (due to different circumstances); both are required to pledge security for a loan; both offer the Virgin as their borowe/ borwe; and both swear that they will repay the loan on a certain day. While these parallels are suggestive, there are major differences, particularly the ways in which the two loans are repaid. To explain these differences, Clawson suggests that the Gest poet drew his ending from an exemplum in which "the person [Robin] to whom the money is due takes it from a monk [the high cellarer of St. Mary's abbey] whom he regards as the earthly representative of the saint or deity [the Virgin] and as the instrument of the return of the loan" (p. 26). While elements of a "miracle" are certainly present, the positing of an unknown exemplum is not very convincing. If there is a lost source, it may be related to another group of miracles of the "knight and Virgin" type, seven prose examples of which were printed by Wynkyn de Worde in the late fifteenth-century The Myracles of Oure Lady. Here are enough similiarities to suggest that the Gest poet was familiar with this sub-genre. The eighth miracle in Peter Whiteford's edition describes: "How a knyght fyll to poverte, & by the devyll was made ryche, & by the merytes of his wyfe was, by our Lady, restored agayn to good and vertuouse lyvyng" (p. 49). Of interest too is the twenty-seventh miracle, which opens with the sentence: "In a wood was a certayn theef that robbed men & kylled them that came by" (p. 61). For additional parallels, see the Introduction to Robin Hood and the Monk.

The construction of the Gest has been considered by some to be clumsy and artificial (Holt, 1989 p. 17), while others have regarded it more favorably, ranging from Clawson's very general praise of its "admirable artistic skill" (1909, p. 128) to Gray's more measured sense that the text has "excellent scenes," that "the construction has been neatly done" and that "the 'loose ends' that have been noticed would not be as obvious in oral performance (of whatever kind) as they are to a reader of the printed page" (1984, p. 23).

As has often been observed, the overall structure is triune - "a three-ply web" as Child calls it (III, 50). Fitts 1 and 2 deal with the impoverished knight who is lent money by Robin to regain his lands from the rapacious church; in the later part of Fitt 4 the same knight returns to repay Robin. In the "interlaced" episode, Fitt 3 and the first part of Fitt 4, Little John, whom Robin has sent to serve and help the knight, is sought as a servitor by the sheriff: he leaves the sheriff's house disgruntled by his poor treatment, brings with him the Cook, and then traps the sheriff into entering the forest and losing his possessions. The second part of the Gest starts in Fitt 5 with the Sheriff's archery contest and trap, after which the outlaws take refuge with the knight of Fitt 1. He is then, Fitt 6, kidnapped by the sheriff and rescued by the outlaws, who kill the sheriff. As Dobson and Taylor note, the Gest is "not so much a single unified work as a weaving together of various tales" (1995, p. 37).

These three stories, interwoven as they are, involve adventures coming to and spreading out from Robin's forest base, much as knightly adventures do in Arthur's court, and the text seems aware of the connection, presenting as it does Robin's desire to have an adventure before he can feast, in a deliberate reference - perhaps, as Child suggests, a "humorous imitation" III, 51. Arthurian stories climax with royal praise for the hero, and this is also the case here, but for that to happen the king has to come to the forest; Fitts 7 and 8 offer a version of the well known "King and Subject" theme in which the King in disguise meets, then in some way conflicts with, one of his subjects, and the result is honor both to the king's flexibility and also the subject's deep-seated loyalty. In the Gest King Edward meets, engages with, and at least symbolically joins the forest outlaws. But different from Adam Bell, his offer for Robin to join his court is not successful, and the poem ends with Robin's return to the greenwood, unhappy with the inactive and expensive nature of court life. The last stanzas, more a palinode than a climax, sketch in the story of Robin's death. Like other heroes he is betrayed by someone close to him and leaves a shrine and a noble memory.

Those like Holt who find this episodic structure clumsy appear to be thinking of the neatly motive-oriented procedure of the conventional novel rather than the more open and situation-oriented pattern of medieval narrative: the poem's episodic structure actually operates very well to focus and dramatize its presentation of major points, such as the angry frustration of the abbot, the delayed fidelity of the knight, the sheriff's discomforting, the royal revelation. These set-pieces dramatize in almost ritual form the interplay of values within the text and construct a level of complexity different from, and in some senses reaching further than, the novel's concern with humanist individuality.

In terms of poetic form, the text is not complex, but has its own modes of persuasive force. The rhyme is generally steadier than in parallels like Robin Hood and the Potter and Adam Bell. Weak or half rhymes are few - 35 in all, of which 12 could be resolved by a dialectal variant. Only one stanza rhymes abab (lines 45-48), and one other does so by repetition (lines 101-04). Unlike the other early ballads, unduly long lines are very rare (lines 537 and 631) and weak lines are a good deal rarer than in the parallels - about 35 in the whole poem, with a curious clustering of them around line 1200, in the rescue of Sir Richard sequence (was a casually rhymed ballad perhaps being re-used?). The most striking feature of the rhyme scheme is the common retention of the rhyme sound from one stanza to another, in effect creating an eight line stanza. In fairly simple diction like that of this poem, the number of rhymes available is not enormous and so this repetition must sometimes occur by sheer chance, but over ten percent of the stanzas contribute to this laisse-like effect, so emphasizing the lyrical or performance quality of a text normally thought to be somewhat prosaic.

Equally unpoetic, in terms of usual expectation, is the diction and the type of imagery offered. The language is limited in vocabulary and range, and most striking of all, there are very few images or even descriptions in the whole poem. But what might seem uninspired and unimaginative from a Shakespearean viewpoint can also have a curious potency. Gray speaks of the "constant repetition of stereotypical value words" in the poem (1984, p. 25) and a set of strong and generalized positions is created through recurrent evaluative descriptions. The sheriff is consistently proude (23 times), the knight is recurrently described as gentyll (19 times), while Robin and sometimes his men are gode (17 times), though the men are also manly, wight (7 times) and occasionally mery (3 cases). Robin is only once curteys and gentyll, suggesting limits to his social aspirations and those of the poem (a point against Holt's interpretation of audience). Interestingly, he is once given the sheriff's epithet prowde, right at the beginning of the poem when his component values are being established. Another, perhaps more casually, shared adjective is dere - used once of Mary, God, and Robin as Little John's master.

These terms lay out, almost allegorically, the forces at work: bureaucratic pride versus a yeoman goodness which supports enfeebled gentility. The stereotypical adjectives very noticeably cluster twice, first when Robin lays down his rules for engagement with the world (lines 3-24) and then again when he finally returns to the forest (lines 1777-96). Framing the narrative as they do, these evaluative summaries construct a striking social triangle of the proud, the genteel, and the good, with the wight power of the outlaws resolving the conflict in the favor of the last two.

Some have felt the text also benefits from an ironic touch. Both Child and Gray find the Arthur references light-hearted (III, 51; 1984, pp. 26-27), and Gray also sees irony in the play on Mary as a faithful guarantor, as well as more direct comedy in Little John's buffoonish cloth measuring (lines 290-97) and his cartoon adventures both against and with the sheriff's cook (1984, pp. 27-29). Irony is certainly one of the poem's weapons, especially in the humiliation of abbott and sheriff, yet Robin as a trickster seems more fully figured in other texts (Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar and Robin Hood and Allin a Dale, for example), and the overall tone of the poem seems earnest, relieved occasionally by some sardonic irony, not unlike other texts of this kind, from Gamelyn to Chevy Chase.

Bessinger described the poem as "class conscious" and "anti-ecclesiastical" like other major late medieval texts from the pens of Chaucer, Langland and Gower (1974, p. 364). Its relation with the ballads often tends to obscure that weighty and valid connection. The poem certainly has a strong and recurrent satirical force; Kaeuper said it was "a running commentary on the corrupt power of the sheriff in local society, and it provides a visit by a corrupt chief justice from Westminster as well" (1988, pp. 335-36). But the Gest is not only a social commentary; as Keen, a historian who has strongly elucidated the political aspect of the poem, has observed, it also has a "wide variation of mood" (1961, p. 116), and this mobile character is both part of its quality and a sign of its direct relation to the multivalent outlaw myth. The poem is at times almost mystical in its creation of the greenwood and its value, at other times a knockabout comic morality. In that variety it shares the dual thrust of the local and ritual Robin Hood plays. But it also expresses in some detail a sense of the wrongs imposed by the alienated authorities of church, town, and state, and in that sense it connects with fully developed strains of the period and the tensions basic to the outlaw myth.

In terms of the Robin Hood texts, the Gest does not raise any themes which are not touched elsewhere, but it raises them at length, in coherent relation with each other, and with a confident narrative and poetic technique. Child, in his characteristic mode, both scholarly and appreciative, remarked that the Gest at one point appeared to be deploying a theme found in Fulk Fitzwarin and other outlaw analogues: but, he added, "the story is incomparably better here than elsewhere" (III, 53). Gray speaks persuasively of the effectiveness of the poem in its performative context, and also of its capacity to touch the mythic potential of the Robin Hood tradition (1984, p. 38). Different from the ballads as it is, the Gest is nevertheless not unfaithful to their tradition or their style, in both form and content. While its elaborated narrative and interlocking events must in some sense lack the pared-down mystery of the sparer and starker of the ballads, the Gest gives full weight to just what makes this elusive hero so gode. The author of the Gest shares with that other fifteenth-century compiler, Sir Thomas Malory, the ability to combine and develop materials of high potency and complexity into a generically new whole of great future impact, which manages to convey and even enhance the source materials' innate values and power.

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Select Bibliography


Child, F. J., ed. The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. 5 vols. Rpt. New York: Dover, 1965. Vol. III, no. 117.

Dobson, R. B., and J. Taylor. Rymes of Robyn Hode. London: Heinemann, 1976. Pp. 71-112.

Fragments of an early printed version, perhaps by Wynkyn de Worde, of the Gest. [Now in the Douce Collection, Bodleian Library, Oxford.]

A Gest of Robyn Hode ("Lettersnijder" edn.). Antwerp: Van Doesbroch, c. 1510. [Now in National Library of Scotland.]

Gutch, J. M., ed. A Lytelle Gest of Robin Hood and other Auncient and Modern Ballads and Songs Relating to the Celebrated Yeoman. 2 vols. London: Longman, 1847. I, 139-219.

A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode. London: Wynkyn de Worde, ?1506-10. [Now in Cambridge University Library.]

A Mery Geste of Robyn Hoode. London: Copland, c. 1560. [Now in the British Library.]

A Merry Iest of Robin Hood. London: Edward White, late sixteenth century. [Now in the Bodleian Library, another copy in the British Library.]

Ritson, Joseph, ed. Robin Hood, A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads Now extant Relative to the Celebrated English Outlaw. 2 vols. London: Egerton and Johnson, 1795. I, 1-80.

Whiteford, Peter, ed. The Myracles of Oure Lady. Middle English Texts 23. Heidel-berg: Carl Winter, 1990. [Includes a miracle of a knight and the Virgin (no. 8), and a miracle of "a certayne thefe" (no. 27).]

Commentary and Criticism

Bellamy, John. Crime and Public Order in England in the Later Middle Ages. London: Routledge, 1973.

Bellamy, John. Robin Hood: An Historical Inquiry. London: Croom Helm, 1985.

Bessenger, J. B., Jr. "The Gest of Robin Hood Revisited." In The Learned and the Lewed: Studies in Chaucer and Medieval Literature. Ed. Larry D. Benson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974. Pp. 355-69.

Carpenter, Kevin. Robin Hood: The Many Faces of that Celebrated English Outlaw. Oldenburg: Bibliotteks- und Enformationssystem der Universität Oldenburg, 1995

Child, F. J., pp. 39-56.

Clawson, William H. The Gest of Robin Hood. Toronto: University of Toronto Library, 1909.

Coss, Peter R. "Aspects of Cultural Diffusion in Medieval England: The Early Romances, Local Society and Robin Hood." Past and Present 108 (1985), 35-79.

Dobson, R. B., and J. Taylor. "'Rhymes of Robin Hood': The Early Ballads and the Gest." In Carpenter, 1995. Pp. 35-44. See also Dobson and Taylor (1976), especially pp. 71-79.

Fowler, D. C. A Literary History of the Popular Ballad. Durham: Duke University Press, 1968.

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Gray, Douglas. "The Robin Hood Poems." Poetica 18 (1984), 1-39.

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Holt, J. C. "The Origins and Audience of the Ballads of Robin Hood." Past and Present 18 (1960), 89-110; rpt. in Hilton, pp. 236-57.

---. Robin Hood. Second ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 1989.

---. "Robin Hood: The Origins of the Legend." In Carpenter, 1995. Pp. 27-34.

Hunter, Joseph. "The Great Hero of the Ancient Minstrelsy of England: Robin Hood, his Period, Real Character, etc. Investigated." Critical and Historical Tracts 4 (London: Smith, 1852), 28-38.

Kaeuper, Richard W. War, Justice and Public Order. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.

Keen, Maurice. The Outlaws of Medieval Legend. London: Routledge, 1961. [The second edition of 1977 reprints the previous book with no new material, although a preface indicates Keen's new position on audience.]

---. "Robin Hood: Peasant or Gentleman?" Past and Present 19 (1961), 7-15. Rpt. in Hilton, 1976, see above. Pp. 258-66. [With a short afterword indicating that he now agrees with Holt on audience.]

Knight, Stephen. Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.

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Powicke, M. Military Obligation in Medieval England. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962.

Tardif, Richard. "The 'Mistery' of Robin Hood: A New Social Context for the Texts." In Worlds and Words: Studies in the Social Role of Verbal Culture. Eds. Stephen Knight and S. N. Mukherjee. Sydney: Sydney Association for Studies in Society and Culture, 1983. Pp. 130-45.