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Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar: Introduction

This ballad appears in the Percy folio manuscript but more than half has been torn away. It also appears, in a slightly expanded form, in a number of seventeenth-century versions, and what appears to be the earliest of these, from the garland of 1663, is used here to fill out the gaps. Lines 1-4, 35-67, 109-43 are from the Percy folio, while the garland text provides the remainder, with the insertion of one stanza from the garland at lines 125-28 where the Percy folio appears to have lost a few lines by scribal error; the two versions fit together well, with the change of one rhyme word needed at line 68.

Though this is not one of the earlier ballads in terms of its recording, it appears to have a late medieval origin. Friars themselves became outdated with the reformation, and there seems to be some relation between this fighting friar and the similar figure found in the play dated around 1475 and also in the more humorous play found at the end of Copland's Gest of c. 1560. Munday's Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington also presents a comic friar, played by a fictitious version of Skelton the poet. There remains a question whether this well-known figure should be identified with Friar Tuck. Percy's folio calls the ballad Robin Hood and Fryer Tucke, but the ballad itself does not use that name, unlike the plays. Child feels there is a separate tradition about the fighting hermit of Fountains Abbey (III, 122), but this may separate too much the elements of a single but varied tradition, especially as there are some early references to a rebellious Friar Tuck: a play of 1537 called Thersites refers to someone being "as tall a man as Frier Tuck" and, more remarkably, in 1417 a chaplain of Lindfield in Sussex took up a career of robbery under the alias Friar Tuck.

Although this ballad basically has a "Robin Hood meets his match" structure and the friar agrees at the end to join the outlaw band, few ballads, early or late, show the friar in action with the outlaws (Robin Hood and Queen Catherin, Child no. 145, a literary ballad, is an exception; while Robin impersonates a friar in Robin Hood's Golden Prize, there is no connection with Tuck). That absence might have been caused by reformation anti-church feeling, but as Child appears to have sensed, the friar-based material seems in some way extrinsic to the central narrative in the ballad genre, as distinct from its centrality in the performance versions of the outlaw myth.

Child nevertheless felt this "is in a genuinely popular strain and was made to sing, not print" (III, 121). Though the word artillery (line 10) seems thoroughly contemporary and literary, this is not a bookish ballad: the rhymes are occasionally weak as in many early texts, and it is notable how much of the lyrical ballad technique of "repetition with variation" is found. If that suggests considerable antiquity it is also worth noting that the theme of the dogs that could match fighting men also seems to have quite ancient roots; the story is reminiscent of the encounter between Arthur's men and the ferocious ravens belonging to Owein in the medieval Welsh story Breuddwyd Ronabwy, "The Dream of Rhonabwy," found in the Mabinogion collection. While it is in many ways a comic and festal text, Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar also, with a holy warrior, mysteriously powerful dogs, and a conflict at what seems to be a ford, touches some of the deeper resources in the Robin Hood myth.

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