A People’s History of Robin Hood
“Man has an insatiable longing for justice. In his soul he rebels against a social order which denies it to him and whatever the world he lives in, he accuses either that social order or the entire material universe of injustice . . . And in addition he carries within himself the wish to have what he cannot have — if only in the form of a fairy tale.”
— Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits (1981)
In the late 1950s, a handful of peaceniks protested mandatory ROTC on a major U.S. university campus by carrying signs and wearing green buttons. Back when The Adventures of Robin Hood was a giant hit on television, most everybody knew that green was Robin Hood’s color and that Robin could not side with the king’s soldiers or future soldiers of any empire. Five decades later, the lead protagonist of a cult favorite American cable show, Leverage, announces at the beginning of each episode: “The rich and the powerful take what they want; we steal it back for you.”
It’s a fitting motto for heroes of the 21st century. Admittedly, resistance to injustice has not as yet returned to the level of the apprentices and craftsmen in Edinburgh, Scotland, who in 1561 chose to come together “efter the auld wikid maner of Robene Hude”: they elected a leader as “Lord of Inobedience” and stormed past the magistrates, through the city gates, up to Castle Hill where they displayed their unwillingness to accept current work-and-wage conditions. But as a global society, we are clearly still thinking about the need for Robin Hood.
After all, we live in something rapidly approaching a Robin Hood era. The rich and powerful now command almost every corner of the planet and, in order to maintain their control, threaten to despoil every natural resource to the point of exhaustion. Meanwhile, billions of people are impoverished below levels of decency maintained during centuries of subsistence living. In this historical moment, the organized forces of egalitarian resistance and even their ideologies seem to be reduced to near nonexistence, or turned against themselves in the name of supreme individualism. Robin’s Greenwood, the global forest, is disappearing chunks at a time. Yet resistance to authority, of one kind or another, continues, and, given worsening conditions, is likely to increase.
Robin Hood lives on as a figure of tomorrow, rather than just yesterday, in the streets of Cairo, Egypt, and Occupied sites worldwide. Today's Occupy Movement, in the U.S. and abroad, lifts up Robin's banner intuitively, reclaiming common space; but also literally, as folks dress in Robin Hood outfits and caps to demonstrate their sense of continuity for a better life.
No other medieval European saga has had the staying power of Robin Hood; no other is wrapped up simultaneously in class conflict (or something very much like class conflict), the rights of citizenship, and defense of ecological systems against devastation.
No wonder, then, that theater and poetry seized the subject early on, and that modern communications, from 19th-century penny newspapers and “yellow back” cheap novels, to modern-day comic books and assorted media have all had their Robin Hood characters. No wonder that the early Robin films set records for lavish production and box-office records for audience response. No wonder that television productions of Robin have pressed issues of civil liberties and that many of the later films, if distinctly mediocre, nevertheless seem to refresh the subject, offering a source of summer holiday distraction that never quite disguises darker themes within.
John Ball was no mythic figure, but a real leader of a major social rebellion, assassinated as the rebellion was crushed in 1381. Little is known about Ball otherwise: Like many an agitator, he was a lay preacher with working men and women as his street audience.
Ball was once thought to be the author of the totemic English poem of the time, "Piers Plowman." The authorship was otherwise, but the kinship is striking. Piers Plowman’s complaint and demands, naturally placed in theological terms during that time, nevertheless spoke to very real contemporary
developments. These included a failed (but hugely expensive) Crusade; the creation of the historic 1215 agreement between king and aristocracy known as the Magna Carta; the rise of religious dissent and in particular the spiritual rebels known as the Lollards; not to mention famine and plague, among other cataclysmic events of the time.
Behind these multiple crises, before the resulting disruption and attempted revolution of 1381, lay centuries of European village life, more specifically the creation of a sustainable ecosystem in which the village had collectively survived invasions, diseases, and all manner of earlier threats. Peter Linebaugh references Marc Bloch’s description of “grey, gnarled, lowbrowed, knock-kneed, bowed, bent, huge, strange, long-armed, deformed, hunchbacked, misshapen oakmen.” The ancient oaks, Linebaugh says, were not the growth of “wildwood,” dating back to the conditions formed by the Ice Age, but the consequence of a planned and cultivated wooded pasture.
This was a reality, but also a metaphor. The wooded pasture was nurtured by the villagers within a common—that is, an area commonly held—with practices like woodsmanship, so that the same stretches of land remained in use for their wood value and for the grazing of domestic animals. Ash and elm trees, capable of growing up from stumps, could be cut and used for rakes, scythes, and firewood, while trees like apple and cherry, arising out of root systems as “suckers,” grew rapidly out of reach of the livestock to provide other resources.
Wooded commons were often owned by the local lord or merchant, but used by all. If the owner commanded the soil and exacted a percentage of crops, grazing rights nevertheless usually remained with commoners, and the trees belonged to neither. Thus, as the cattle grazed, towns were physically organized through the extensive use of wood in cottages, churches, and for the making of bowls, tables, stools, and wheels.
The Norman Conquest in 1066, a couple of centuries before Robin’s supposed time, did much to throw these old rules of the forest into chaos. Changes brought new laws, new populations (including French and Jewish), and even new animals for game including certain kinds of deer not earlier seen in these lands. The forest, as Linebaugh says, was now as much a legal as a physical presence.
Other elements of change likewise pressing upon villagers further complicated the picture. As Marxist scholar Rodney Hilton explained in his classic, Bond Men Made Free: Medieval Peasant Movements and the English Rising of 1381, serfdom expanded as the centers of power grew stronger and more successfully exploited the advancing sources of wealth, even as large numbers of “free tenants” remained protected to some degree against the seizure of all surplus through government and lordly dues and payments of one kind and another. In many cases, farmers closer to markets were growing more prosperous, but they were also the very farmers with dues-collectors closer at hand.
For centuries ahead, the collective resistance across Europe, but perhaps especially in England, coincided with the sense of better days somewhere in the past, and this real and mythic memory continued to give ballast to class resentments and radical hopes alike.
In all this, the forest was a unique status symbol and a domain of kingship, both symbolic and actual. Royalty needed wood for all the familiar reasons of building and sustaining a palace life, as well as supporting the lives of merchants and nobility in league with the king. For holidays, they demanded sumptuous banquet food, including all manner of forest animal life, as well as fish that swam in the forest’s rivers, and deer that were forbidden to be trapped, killed, and eaten by anyone else. Pickpockets, abundant at public events (including hangings), were more likely to be shown mercy
than deer poachers, even with the animals in evident abundance.
Cash was also necessary, in part to meet the authorities’ demands upon the villages and forests to make possible the latest forms of military escalation and associated expenses for the king’s army. Royalty itself sold off forest privileges in order to pay the cost of mounted knights with or without
armor. Not surprisingly, then, one main demand in the Magna Carta was to take back the forests, or at least limit their expropriation by the powerful.
The Magna Carta was hardly written by common people, and it hardly ended oppression and exploitation. Like the later arrival of Protestantism, it often contributed to new conditions for heightened exploitation. But struggles against royalty and the established church offered symbols of popular resistance and occasional victory, symbols also used in the Robin Hood narratives. These helped make it seem possible to fight back, in small and mainly local ways; they made it seem possible, sometimes, to win back ancient rights that were in the process of being lost.
Thus it happened that the main ingredients of the Robin story became established in ballads, sung and written roughly between 1400 and 1500, with a handful of basic narratives starring the now familiar characters. From the beginning, their defense of villagers along with deer hunting, archery contests, cunning disguises, daring rescues, and crypto-romances were full of social and ecological implications, and always rich in symbolism.
Robin Hood, the saga, emerged in England at a time of bitter social conflict and was reshaped continually by the modernizing forces of order and production. The medieval barons who ordered playlets performed by singers and actors would not, of course, wish Robin to be a social bandit—a romantic bandit certainly, but not one with a social cause. Nor would most of the playwrights have wished to pursue such themes.
The Robin Hood ballads could not, however, have been created without the rebellious legends with their anti-establishment emphasis casually reinforced in musical entertainments as carnival-like games, and without the presence of the very real social unrest sometimes taking place alongside
these presumably innocent activities.
From the 18th century onward, readers began to encounter Robin in cheap anthologies. These “chapbooks,” or crudely printed little volumes, could run as long as 80 pages, but more often were 24 pages long and included illustrations especially profuse in somewhat more pricey editions.
But who bought them? Because broadsides, and then chapbooks, sold more briskly in towns and cities than rural zones, their audience was likely to be the urban lower classes, perhaps recent migrants from the countryside seeking jobs and, for many, freedom from the old bonds of rural life.
Sometimes, they would have been men and women driven from the villages by the ongoing enclosures. These readers in particular wanted entertainment but they also nurtured the legacy of rebellion, and probably their own sense of nostalgia for the beauty and quiet of the rural scene.
The pure glory of Robin spilled out into the work of Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs and Ballads, now extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw: To Which are Affixed Historical Anecdotes of His Life, published first in 1795. Ritson himself was a literary rebel, a wild enthusiast for the French Revolution (and unlike some of England’s leading poets, never willing afterward to repudiate its legacies), and a bitter critic of the Roman Church as well as its English counterpart. Ritson was above all a collector and an early archivist, and a highly intelligent one at that.
Ritson established Robin’s qualities through an almost psychological study of the available folkish documents: “Just, generous, benevolent, faithful and believed or revered by his followers or adherents for his excellent and amiable qualities.” Ritson also argued for the historical existence of a nonfiction Robin Hood, an Earl of Huntingdon who “in a barbarous age, and under a complicated tyranny, displayed a spirit of freedom and independence which has endeared him to the common people” against all the efforts of “titled ruffian and sainted idiots, to suppress” his true story. This was quite a claim, and not one easily heard in an England where defeat of the French and anxiety about “revolution” became predominant sentiments. After 1815, as economic crisis merged with imperial crisis, Ritson’s Robin Hood emerged as the accepted classic version, along with folkloric inclusion of Robin stories in the Childe Ballads collected and published during the last two decades of the 19th century.
Howard Pyle’s Merry Adventures of Robin Hood of Great Renown in Nottinghamshire (1883) was a genuine innovation, albeit in form more than content. Robin material had only begun to appear in the United States at this time, and Pyle had a growing reputation for his illustrated children’s books. It has been suggested that the author’s native rural Delaware bore a resemblance to Sherwood Forest, and his Quakerism contained a dissenting sensibility (not, however, much of a pacifist limitation).
Williams Morris’s fascination with Pyle’s Merry Adventures makes good sense because it was close to Morris’s own spirit, and in line with the heavy praise that Pyle’s book received in the literary circles of 1880s London. One can almost feel the Morrisian medievalism, romantic poetry and all, in Pyle’s prose: "Five score or more good stout yeomen joined themselves to him, and chose him to be their leader and chief. Then they vowed that even as they themselves had been despoiled they would despoil their oppressors, whether baron, abbot, knight, or squire, and that from each they would take that which had been wrung from the poor by unjust taxes, or land rents, or in wrongful fines . . . to many a poor family, they came to praise Robin and his merry men, and to tell many tales of him and of his doings in Sherwood Forest, for they felt him to be one of themselves."
Pyle wanted to send his young readers into a place that only their imagination could carry them. No small part of this was Pyle’s sense of nature lore: In the “merry morn” of the forest, where “all the birds were singing blithely among the leaves,” Robin finds adventure, and the natural setting is never far from sight. It is also, or can be seen to be, all part of the grand saga of England, Robin a necessary outlaw but a friend to the Good King Richard, defender of the proper throne. This was schoolboy stuff, as Pyle himself might have calculated, but schoolboy stuff of a superior sort. The book has been in and out of print, mostly in print, for every generation after its writing.
Robin Hood as cinematic hero took the field at least twice in the 1910s, but in full force with Douglas Fairbanks in 1922. The Fairbanks version, true to the tale of the nobleman assisting the oppressed, but also pledging himself to King Richard, was also important in at least one other narrative respect: romance. Filmmakers had already grasped the significance of the female lead, especially for the sake of women in the movie audience. In this version, Marian is determinedly virginal and panic-stricken at her worse-than-death potential loss. Everything about Marian depends upon Robin: no innovation here. But there is more to be said, if only because of the film’s continuing cinematic importance. Robin Hood became and still remains a Hollywood phenomenon as the social rebel beloved of the ticket-buying masses.
Robin Hood of El Dorado (1936), one of the most spectacular anti-racist films of a film era in which these were rare and mostly limited to sympathetic treatment of individual Indians. A highly fictionalized biography of Joaquin Murieta, the famed social bandit who took to the hills to fight the invading Anglo land-grabbers, finds the “yankees” looting and robbing the poor Mexicans in mid-19th-century California. His encampment, a center of merriment, dancing, and singing, as well as military training for a guerilla army, was the best update of the Sherwood Forest guerillas in modern cinema to the time. He first aims to rob the rich Mexicans who have treated his own family so badly, and then learns that they, too, have been expropriated. A daughter of that class takes up arms with him as a lover and co-fighter, but as the guerillas plan to escape to Mexico and safety, they are gunned down to the last member by ruthless, murdering Anglo creeps.
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), costarring a heart-rending Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marian, amplified a wealth-redistributionist Robin Hood generally absent from the Fairbanks version. Leading man Errol Flynn, reputed to be an early 1930s pro-Fascist (but always more interested in chasing women and boozing), was soon to become the anti-Fascist screen hero several times over. Before the end of his life (at 50), Flynn pronounced himself, on prime-time television, to be a drinking buddy of Fidel Castro’s.
Meanwhile, playing Maid Marian, de Havilland was perfection. The noblewoman, at first resentful and politically conservative, is won from her aristocratic beliefs by Robin’s showing her the misery wrought by the Norman occupiers. She follows her heart and her political growth step by step into romance and partisanship. Very much her own person, this Maid Marian is on her way toward a crypto-feminism of self-assertion.
What else had made this iconic version a huge and lasting hit? Apart from Robin and Marian, there is the notable camaraderie of the Merry Men, but also notable is the stark evil of the authorities. The Sheriff of Nottingham, as played by Basil Rathbone, means to wipe out all opposition. He is a Fascist, whatever he happens to call himself. As darkness swept over contemporary Europe, it was easy to identify those like him in charge of the threat to decency, and their connections with the powerful ruling groups of various nations.
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1955–59) was created and shot in Britain, likely the only place that it could have been done. Its producer was American Hannah Weinstein, a former theatrical lawyer (and organizer of major events for the doomed Henry Wallace/Progressive Party campaign of 1948) who saw the writing on the wall and, like many of the victims of the Hollywood blacklist, made up her mind to create a career abroad. In Britain as in France, the blacklistees were welcomed as heroes, notwithstanding the British government’s slavish acceptance of U.S. foreign policies and military and intelligence operations across the planet.
Weinstein easily made contact with blacklisted screenwriters living in New York, Hollywood, and Paris. The most important, by a long stretch, was Ring Lardner, Jr., who, until the witch hunt, had been regarded as one of the film colony’s brightest young talent (as well as Katharine Hepburn’s personal favorite). Lardner, Jr., and his longtime film collaborator Ian McLellan Hunter were set to work with young script editor Albert Ruben in London, devising a system—prompted by blacklistees’ inability to obtain passports—by which he traded story ideas and scripts across the Atlantic. This resulted in some of the best, wittiest, and most political writing on television in an era of live drama and other experimentation rarely seen again until film and cable competition drove networks onward to risks political and sexual alike.
The Adventures of Robin Hood set the small screen afire. It quickly attracted 32 million viewers on both sides of the Atlantic. It also drew upon the knowledge and insight of historical scholars—in this case British scholars—offering examples of the use of existing laws in the High Medieval Ages to protect commoners against the worst abuses that aristocrats sought to hand out. With the careful oversight of Ruben, it made for consistently clever, sometime hilarious viewing: The dialogue was snappy and socially conscious (especially from Maid Marian) and the bad guys were bad enough but also capable, now and then, of doing the right thing, as when a forest fire or a psychopathic baron brought the foes together in common cause. More often, Robin and his Men, joined by Marian, typically protected an old woman accused of being a witch (i.e., the ongoing witch hunt in the United States); conducted a secret mission to France and joined hands with the French Underground (shades of anti-Nazi activities); provided aid to Friar Tuck, who was being a people’s priest in resisting pope and sheriff; or frustrated the tax-man or the hangman, for the nth time in the series.
It was also an unforgettable slap in the face of the repressive 1950s. More, it represented the struggle to get beyond them. Together, these shows offered history as a way of learning, and as mass culture created with a skimpy budget afterwards unimaginable.
The struggle for common space and decision-making—whether rural, metropolitan, or global—can be traced back, in one part of the world, to the changes forced upon royalty in the Magna Carta. They can carry us forward to our opposition against privatization of formerly public goods and space toward a society of a different—and more sustainable—kind. Many millions of farms, urban neighborhoods, and software programs can be or in many cases are already being operated on some basis of sharing. The editors of An Architektur dub this process of struggle for position “commoning.” Thus commoning is the opposite of the imperial mode, right down to the struggle against dams being constructed on rivers in or outside forests all around the world.
If the “primitive accumulation” (Marx’s own phrase) of capitalism was effected through enclosures—the privatization of previously common lands for the purpose of successful wool production a couple of centuries after Robin’s appearance—then he and the Merry Men (not forgetting Maid Marian) had been seeking to nip the process in the bud. Marx erred, writing in the middle of the 19th century, not by failing to see the utter misery introduced to move primitive accumulation forward, but by not seeing that primitive accumulation as a permanent process.
With so little of the planet not yet completely exploited, the process nevertheless accelerates. We need Robin more than ever.
We need Robin because rebellion against deteriorating conditions is inevitable. Without clear-headed Robins, however—without hundreds of thousands or millions of them seeing clearly—the impulse to rebel will surely be lost in internecine struggle and crime, organized and unorganized, the mirror of class society at its destructive extreme. We need them more now than ever before. No existing political model, Marxist, Social Democratic, Leninist, anarchist, or other is suitable for what lies ahead.
Paul Buhle adapted this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions, from his book Robin Hood: People's Outlaw and Forest Hero (PM Press, 2011). Paul is the founder-editor of the new left journal Radical America and edits radical comic art books in Wisconsin.
Timeline graphic by Michelle Ney.
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