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Robin Hood and the Monk: Introduction

Robin Hood and the Monk is preserved in Cambridge University manuscript Ff.5.48. The manuscript is damaged by stains and hard to read and was, it seems, not known to Percy or Ritson, unlike all the other major Robin Hood ballads. It was first printed and given this title by Robert Jamieson in his Popular Ballads and Songs of 1806 (II, 54-72). The edition itself was quite heavily edited and erroneous, and a better text appeared in C. H. Hartshorne's Ancient Metrical Tales in 1829. Nevertheless, Sir Frederick Madden wrote, in a slip preserved in his copy in the British Library, that this was "the worst edited text" he had come across, and he re-collated the whole edition; his version of this ballad then appeared in an appendix in the second edition of Ritson's Robin Hood in 1832 as Robin Hood and the Monk. Although this title, like that of other early ballads, only refers to the initial enemy, not the sheriff who is the ultimate threat, it still seems better than "A Tale of Robin Hood" used by Hartshorne and Gutch.

The Cambridge manuscript (here called a) is written in a "very clear cursive hand" (Dobson and Taylor, 1976, p. 115) and dated some time after 1450. The reference in line 331 to oure cumly kyng (also found in the Gest, see note on line 1412) has been taken as referring to the notably handsome Edward IV, which would date the ballad in this form as after 1461; this is by no means impossible, but the phrase was certainly used of Edward III, and the error in copying could well support an earlier text that has been transmitted several times. There is also a single manuscript leaf preserved in The Bagford Ballads in the Printed Books collection in the British Library (here called b) which also appears to be of the later fifteenth century, and although a is obviously the only source for the poem as a whole, it is held in this edition that b provides a few preferred readings.

The date is important. Though some have thought the Gest is earlier, it is at base a literary compilation, and so Robin Hood and the Monk is the oldest extant example of the "rymes of Robin Hood" referred to by Langland in the 1370s, implied by Andrew of Wyntoun in the 1420s, and both described and exemplified by Walter Bower in the 1440s. Bower's Latin summary of a Robin Hood story is the nearest contemporary to this ballad as a narrative, and the two texts share a sense of Robin's deep religious faith as well as suspicion and hostility towards royal officials: both also lack the lighthearted tone that is found in Robin Hood and the Potter and the Gest, and that characterized most of the later tradition.

Although no direct sources have been proposed, Robin's devotion to the Virgin may provide a clue. In spite of the obvious dangers, Robin is determined to attend Mass in Nottingham "With the myght of mylde Marye" (line 28). After angrily separating from Little John, he goes on to town alone and prays "to God and myld Mary / To bryng hym out save agayn" (lines 69-70). Once in town he enters "Seynt Mary chirch" and "knelyd down before the rode" (lines 71-72). Arousing the suspicions of a "gret-hedid munke," he is captured by the sheriff and cast into prison. Having learned that Robin has been captured, Little John rallies the spirits of the outlaws by reassuring them that since Robin has "servyd Oure Lady many a day . . . No wyckud deth shal he dye" (lines 133-36). Little John then promises that with the "myght of mylde Mary" he will take care of the treacherous monk and rescue Robin. While Child notes Robin's devotion to the Virgin (III, 96), he does not cite a "miracle of the Virgin" as a potential source. The episodes just summarized closely resemble a type of miracle known as the "knight and the Virgin," of which seven examples were printed by Wynkyn de Worde in the late fifteenth century The Myracles of Oure Lady. Two of these short prose miracles (numbers four and six in Peter Whiteford's edition) relate how two knights, captured and imprisoned by their enemies, are delivered out of prison by the intercession of the Virgin.

In spite of its early existence, Robin Hood and the Monk did not have a strong influence on the following centuries, though perhaps it inspired the Gest's account of robbing a "fat-heded monke" (line 364). There were no broadside versions of this ballad and it is absent from the many garlands of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but this story of Robin's arrest in Nottingham and his rescue by Little John and Much has been accepted by all readers as a classic.

Child welcomed Robin Hood and the Monk as "very perfection in its kind" (III, 95) and Dobson and Taylor assert that it has "held pride of place as the most distinguished and artistically accomplished of all the Robin Hood ballads" (1976, p. 113). This view appears to stem in part from a sense of antiquity (Child prints it next but one after the Gest _ Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne intervenes, see p. 168 on its dating), but clearly also from his idea of its originary excellence, especially his admiration of the arresting opening stanzas. This high valuation is tolerant of the fact that the ballad clearly lacks some material: commentators all agree that a substantial passage is missing after line 120, and that this has been caused by the loss of a leaf in the original of this manuscript. The lacuna in the manuscript, like the pages torn from Percy's Folio manuscript, may itself have appeared attractively Gothick in its antique incompletion.

A dissenting voice on the ballad is that of Holt, who calls it "a blood and thunder adventure" and feels that after the return to Sherwood "the remnant of the tale is crude moral comment": overall it is "a shallow tale, but one well and crisply told" (1989, pp. 28-30). More literary-minded commentators usually agree with Gray that this is "an excellent piece of vivid narrative" and, however it was delivered, would be a "splendid performance" (1984, p. 13). In terms of the recurrent motifs found in the outlaw myth, this ballad offers an excellent example of the natural setting which has an implied value, a full statement of the danger of conflict within the band and the consequent dangers of isolation, a strongly developed representation of Robin's devotion to our lady, the hostility between the outlaws and the established church, a brief statement of the dangers of the town (reduced by the loss of material), a mission in disguise (John and Much), the involvement of the king, the frustration of the sheriff, the re-forming of the outlaw band, the establishment of the true values held by the band and their recognition by the king (John's fidelity in particular).

These central motifs, also found in the Gest in one form or another and recurrent right through the tradition down to the present, find brisk and memorable realization in Robin Hood and the Monk, giving it a stronger social meaning than Child or Dobson and Taylor appreciate, and a much weightier sub-text than Holt envisages. But Holt's point about melodrama has its force. Though the sheriff is not killed in this ballad (as he is in the Gest and in Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne), the jailer is summarily executed in line 278. This is very like (including some verbal echoes) the rescue of William of Cloudeslye in Adam Bell, and also like the rescue of Johnie Armstrong in the border ballad of that name. Jailers, as Child remarks a little ironically, receive short shrift in these narratives (III, 95, footnote). But here even brusquer treatment appears when John and Much catch up with the Monk who has (legally enough) caused the arrest of Robin Hood. After a preliminary sequence of pretence, claiming they too are victims of an outlaw, with ferocious vengeance they simply pull down and kill not only the monk but also his boy, a potential witness. This savagery accords with the killing of Guy and the Sheriff in Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne and of the sheriff towards the end of the Gest _ yet they were established villains. There is a casualness about the monk's killing that may seem unsettling, especially when the sheriff is merely humiliated, not killed in the same ballad. This "blood and thunder" element is also found in Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne and in Robin Hood's Progress to Nottingham and may be traced to the social bandit tradition.

Against such ferocity, though, is set the innately valuable natural world "in feyre foreste" and "under the grene wode tre," realized in two stanzas of a "fine lyrical introduction" (Gray, 1984, p. 11). The forest setting seems a state of harmony to which the outlaws return after urban disruptions. But just as violence enters this Edenic world, the communal calm of the outlaw band is disrupted by conflict, and the argument between John and Robin is the most fully worked out instance of this important theme in the tradition, which here is finally resolved in a specific debate over who should lead the band.

Their dispute focusses, as it tends to do elsewhere, on gambling. As in trades where coin is exchanged for goods (potter or butcher for example), and as with carrying large amounts of money through the forest, the exchange of money through a contest seems to be a threat to harmony in the world of the Robin Hood ballads. This little noted but insistent feature supports the idea of a "natural" economy under threat by some early form of cash nexus.

In social terms, Robin here, as in other early texts, is clearly himself a yeoman, whose leadership of the band is by consent. That is tested and reaffirmed in this ballad, so constructing a dream of yeomanly community and self-protection, a set of values that mesh with the realization of a fully natural world, where towns, cash, letters, royal seals and the institutions of religion and commerce are all to be judged as threatening and, in fiction at least, can be successfully confronted. This appears to relate to the question of audience, discussed in the General Introduction, pp. 7-8.

Robin Hood and the Monk has a consistent and well-managed rhyming pattern, based on the abcb stanza, with an unusually small number of poor rhymes (38/40, 48/50, 56/8, 300/302, 332/4) and only rare variation of the rhyme scheme to abab (13-16, 151-54 and, by repetition, 39-42, 315-18). If the rhyming is at a high standard, the diction is somewhat less vigorous than some commentators suggest: cliché or near cliché can be found at 14, 30, 67, 186 and the weak line The sothe [or For] as I you say is found no less than six times at 108, 188, 236, 248, 260, 308.

Simple and often direct as it is, the style of Robin Hood and the Monk emphasizes the ballad's power, poetic and thematic. Gray draws attention to what he calls the "open ending" of this ballad (1984, p. 17), that is the way in which the king admires the values of the foresters, without either incorporating them (as in Adam Bell) or ensuring their defeat (as in A True Tale of Robin Hood). This earliest of the surviving ballads, with its fine opening, its speed and directness, its condensed and highly suggestive plot moving between the forest retreat and the threatening outside world, presents in strong form the social challenge of the outlaw myth that has, in various reconstructions, survived to the present.

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Select Bibliography


Cambridge University Manuscript Ff 5.48.

Manuscript leaf in The Bagford Ballads, British Library Printed Books Collection C40.m.9-11.

Child, F. J., ed. English and Scottish Popular Ballads. 5 vol. Rpt. New York: Dover, 1995. Vol. III, no. 119. Pp. 94-101.

Dobson, R. J., and J. Taylor, eds. Rymes of Robin Hood. London: Heinemann, 1976. Pp. 113-22.

Gutch, J. M., ed. A Lytelle Gest of Robin Hood with other Auncient and Modern Ballads and Songs Relating to the Celebrated Yeoman. 2 vols. London: Longman, 1847.
Vol. II, 1-20. [Titled "A Tale of Robin Hood."]

Hartshorne, C. H., ed. Ancient Metrical Tales. London: Pickering, 1829. Pp. 179-97. [Titled "A Tale of Robin Hood." One copy in British Library includes re-collation by Sir Frederick Madden.]

Jamieson, Robert, ed. Popular Ballads and Songs, From Traditions, Manuscripts, and Scarce Editions with Translations of Similar Pieces from the Ancient Danish Language, and a Few Originals by the Editor. 2 vols. Edinburgh: Constable, 1806. Vol. II, 54-72.

Ritson, Joseph, ed. Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs and Ballads Relative to the Celebrated English Outlaw. 2 vols. Second edition. London: Pickering, 1832. Appendix VIII, pp. 221-36.

Whiteford, Peter, ed. The Myracles of Oure Lady. Middle English Texts 23. Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1990. [Includes miracles of a knight and the Virgin.]

Commentary and Criticism

Child, F. J., pp. 94-96.

Dobson, R. J., and J. Taylor, pp. 113-15.

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

Holt, J. C. Robin Hood. Second ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 1989.