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Robin Hood and the Bishop: Introduction

This ballad is found in seventeenth-century broadsides and early garland collections, and while there is no clear sign it existed before that, the incidents have an air of familiarity, being, as Child said (III, 191), "variations on a theme" of disguise found through many of the ballads (and in the story of Eustace); they also express the hostility to the established church found in the Gest and Robin Hood and the Monk. This story is told in the Forresters manuscript under the title Robin Hood and the Old Wife, with the sheriff playing the role of villain. While it is conceivable this was the original structure, and a hostile bishop introduced after the Reformation, this is probably a ballad originally starring the bishop, adapted by the highly inventive Forresters compiler, drawing here, as elsewhere, on the Gest as a source for the sheriff as villain.

The action contains some unusual features in that the bishop appears to be acting as the sheriff normally does, hunting the outlaws. This is not inherently unrealistic, as bishops were frequently of aristocratic class and perfectly capable of military actions, but the real source may be, as in Parker's A True Tale of Robin Hood, the post-Reformation tendency to make the church the major enemy of the outlaw. The final treatment of the bishop, tied back to front on his horse, has medieval carnival features but also serves a distinctly seventeenth-century anti-Catholic purpose.

In form this appears to be a characteristic commercial ballad, with the "Come all ye" opening, the internal rhyme in the third line and a distinctly literary feel to some of the language (lines 5-6, 39-40, 54). But it also has some clearly colloquial material (lines 33-36, 69-72), and the diction is fairly straightforward. By no means all of the third lines have internal rhyme, and this feature tends to grow rarer towards the end. That might suggest that an earlier ballad has been reworked for the commercial style 3/4 if the two opening stanzas and some stylistic titivation were removed this could be a plain ballad of the sixteenth century, though still literary in mode because it lacks the rhetorical repetition characteristic of the orally oriented early material. It is a swiftly told and tricksterish tale, reworking in basically comic form the aggressiveness of the early social bandit. Stallybrass has argued that the ending embodies a distinctly radical form of carnival (1985, p. 119), but while that might be the case if these events actually happened, as in a sense they did in Edinburgh in 1561, the tone of this enduringly popular ballad is basically comic.

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