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Robin Hood and the Friar and Robin Hood and the Potter: Introduction

The survival of Robin Hood and the Friar and Robin Hood and the Potter, our next earliest play script following the fragment of c. 1475, is due to printer William Copland's decision to append it to his edition of A Mery Geste of Robyn Hoode and of Hys Lyfe, dated somewhere between 1549 and 1569, but most likely printed in 1560 when he entered a Robin Hood play in the Stationers' Register. There are no extant manuscript versions. The appended text preserves two dramatic pieces: lines 1-122 in this edition contain the well-known account of Robin's initial confrontation with Friar Tuck, in which physical and verbal sparring of the two is followed by the cleric carrying Robin on his back through a stream before dropping him into the water. After further fighting Robin seeks help from his men and then offers Friar Tuck gold and "a lady" (a precursor to Maid Marian as bawd?) in exchange for service. Lines 123-203 recount a second example of "Robin meets his match," this time with a potter who refuses to pay road-toll, for which Robin breaks his pots and engages in a fencing duel.

Unlike Robyn Hod and the Shryff off Notyngham, which is linked with a particular gentleman's household in late fifteenth-century East Anglia, no specific auspices can be found for this drama, although Copland's introductory remark that it is "verye proper to be played in Maye Games" suggests that the two dramatic pieces were typical of the numerous Robin Hood plays sponsored by parishes and civic organizations all across Britain throughout the Tudor era. The lengthy festive season for May games often extended from May 1 through Whitsuntide (a holy day celebrated seven weeks after Easter) when towns and villages chose a May King and Queen (or Lord and Lady) to preside over various festivities, including dances around the Maypole, nights sleeping in the greenwood, sporting contests (e.g., wrestling and archery) and processions around town and to neighboring villages, often for the purpose of raising money for poor relief and church maintenance.

By the end of the fifteenth century, many villages and towns renamed their May king (also known as Summer Lord, Lord of Misrule, Abbot of Bon Accord) Robin Hood, and followed suit by calling the May Queen Maid Marian and their attendants, Friar Tuck, Little John, and the rest of the merry band of outlaws bearing pipes, tabors, and drums. In some towns the change of title is very deliberate and can be precisely dated, as in Aberdeen, Scotland, where an order of 17 November 1508 formally announces that the traditional procession through town will be led by "Robert huyd and litile Iohn" formally known as "Abbot and priour of Bonacord" (Mills, p. 135). E. K. Chambers and others speculate that Robin and Marian entered the May game via the old French pasteurella popularized in England by French minstrels (Medieval Stage, I, 160-81). This lyric poem is about a shepherdess called Marion who rejects the advances of a knight out of fidelity to another lover named Robe. However, this alone is not an adequate explanation. The already legendary home-grown hero's associations with nature and the forest, with physical prowess, generosity, camaraderie, as well as the subversive spirit of summer games themselves, made him the perfect choice as the fictional persona of the Summer Lord. Moreover, Robin Hood, Maid Marian, and their colorful entourage of outlaws gave an added theatrical dimension to the May revels. As David Mills asserts, "identification by costume was essential," indicated in the churchwarden's accounts of Kingston-on-Thames, 1507-29, which show "regular expenditure on the costumes and appurtenances ('banner,' 'cote,' 'gloves and shoes') of 'Robyn Hode,"' and other dress items displaying Maid Marian as the May Queen and the Friar as one of the morris dancers (Mills, p. 135). This is not to suggest that communities dispensed with the traditional generic role of the Summer Lord. At Wells in May 1607, for example, the "Lord of the May" led a procession which included Robin Hood and his men as one of ten such groups of characters (Lancashire, p. 280). By the latter part of the sixteenth century, the May-game Marian developed her own separate persona as a figure of sexual license, frequently presented as a conspicuously cross-dressed male, as illustrated in an anti-Marprelate play of the 1580s where Martin appears on stage as the "Maide marian," possibly to satirize puritan opposition to boys playing female roles (see Chambers, Elizabethan Stage, IV, 231).

Contemporary records indicate that civic and parish sponsored Robin Hood plays, like most of the other May games, took place outdoors, and indeed the first sequence involving Friar Tuck may have been performed next to a river or stream, for the dialogue has the Friar, with Robin on his back, wading into water before Robin is dropped in (Blackstone, pp. 6-7). A body of water, however, is not necessary for the action to be effective, and since local actors often took their productions to neighboring towns, little if any scenery and only a few properties (e.g., clubs and staves, a horn, and perhaps some musical instruments) would be expected. If the two dramatic pieces are performed together, a minimum of seven actors are required. Since one of the characters is "a lady," six men and one woman may have participated, but considering Tudor conventions of acting and of the depiction of Maide Marian at the time (noted above), the female character was likely impersonated by a cross-dressed male. An intriguing feature of Robin Hood and the Friar is the evident requirement of three dogs who accompany Friar Tuck when he enters ("these dogs all three"). Animals, in fact, were not infrequent participants in productions of the time (see White, p. 120 and p. 221 n. 67). However, whereas in the ballad version of the play the Friar's dogs fight Robin's men, in the play (where this might have been too dangerous to stage) they are replaced by the Friar's own men (albeit with canine names like Cut and Bause) who fight with staves and clubs (see Blackstone, p. 4).

The relationships of the two dramatic texts to their narrative and visual sources are problematic. The first play antedates its corresponding ballad, Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar, by at least one hundred years. A late medieval ballad probably existed because a fighting friar appears in the Paston fragment of c. 1475. The play's anti-fraternal satire recall's Chaucer's depiction of Frere Huberd, who was himself strong "as a champioun," and yet it is also representative of Protestant ballads and plays of the mid-sixteenth century in which the boasting, lecherous, and merrymaking mendicant is widely featured and often conflated with the comic Vice (see, for example, John Bale's anti-Catholic plays). It's worth noting that Francis Child omitted the eight-line bawdy speech of the Friar near the end in his truncated version of the play, and by so doing destroyed the continuing anti-clerical satire and carnivalesque atmosphere of the May games in which social conventions were mocked or inverted. The Friar's remark Here is an huckle duckle/An inch above the buckle (lines 115-16) suggests he may have sported an artificial phallus to signify sexual virility like that of comic figures in the folk drama (for example, Robin Goodfellow appeared with horns, goat-feet and a phallus [see White, pp. 31-32 and fig. 4]). Child's omission also deprives the play of the dramatic resolution inherent in the dance in which Friar Tuck joins with "the lady." A stained glass window in Betley Hall, Staffordshire, pictures Friar Tuck participating in a morris dance with a lady who appears to be Maide Marian, but whether the play's female figure is Marian is questionable, even if she does suggest the licentious Marian of the May games (see Blackstone, p. 13 and fig. 3). In the case of the second play text, the ballad, Robin Hood and the Potter, antedates the play by about sixty years. We may be witnessing, as Dobson and Taylor claim, the "transformation from recited tale to dramatic version" (p. 215). Two pairs of lines are virtually identical:



Ne was never so corteys a man
On peney of pawage to pay(lines 19-20)

Yet was he never so curteyse a potter
As one peny passage to paye (lines 132-33)

Yend potter well steffeley stonde (line 66)

And I wyll styfly by you stande (line 199)
However, if the play were a dramatized version of the first fitt of the ballad, one would expect to find many more borrowings, such as the amount of the bet -- forty shillings versus twenty pound in the play. Also, Jack the potter's boy is not found in the ballad. If the play script was adapted from the longer and more complex ballad, one would also expect a minor character to be omitted rather than added. There is no question that the play is based upon the story of the potter, but it is probably not the exact one that survives.

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Select Bibliography

Early Printed Texts

Copland, William. A Mery Geste of Robyn Hoode and of Hys Lyfe. Printed at Three Cranes Wharf, London, c. 1560. British Library copy, press-mark C.21.C.63.

White, Edward. A Merry Jest of Robin Hood. Printed at London, c. 1590. Bodleian Library copy, 2.3 Art, Seld.


Blackstone, Mary A., ed. Robin Hood and the Friar. PLS Performance Text 3. Toronto: Poculi Ludique Societas, 1981.

Dobson, R. B., and J. Taylor, eds. Rymes of Robyn Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw. London: William Heinemann, 1976.

Farmer, John S., ed. Robin Hood c. 1561-9. Amersham: Tudor Facsimile Texts 102, 1914.

Greg, W. W., ed. "A Play of Robin Hood for May-games from the Edition by William Copland, c. 1560." Collections Part II. The Malone Society. Oxford, 1908.

Manly, John Matthews, ed. Specimens of the Pre-Shakspearean Drama. 2 vols. Boston: Ginn and Company, 1897. I, 281-88.

Commentary and Criticism

Blackstone, Mary A., pp. 1-24.

Chambers, E. K. The Elizabethan Stage. 4 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1923.

------. The Medieval Stage, 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1903.

Dobson, R. B., and J. Taylor, pp. 210-14, 216-19.

Jones, William Powell. The Pasteurella: A Study of the Origins and Tradition of a Lyric Type. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1931.

Knight, Stephen. Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994. Pp. 100-01.

Lancashire, Ian. Dramatic Texts and Records of Britain: A Chronological Topography to 1558. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984.

Mills, David. "Drama and Folk-Ritual." In The Revels History of Drama in English, Volume I: Medieval Drama. London: Methuen, 1983. Pp. 122-51.

Wiles, David. The Early Plays of Robin Hood. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1981. Pp. 39-40.

White, Paul Whitfield. Theatre and Reformation: Protestantism, Patronage, and Playing in Tudor England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.