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People's Outlaw and Forest Hero a Graphic Guide
By Paul Buhle, Chris Hutchinson, Gary Dumm, Sharon Rudahl
PM Press Copyright © 2011 PM Press
All rights reserved.
Robin's Historical Contexts
152A.1 WHEN as the sheriff of Nottingham Was come, with mickle grief, He talkd no good of Robin Hood, That strong and sturdy thief. Fal lal dal de
152A.2 So unto London-road he past, His losses to unfold To King Richard, who did regard The tale that he had told.
152A.3 'Why,' quoth the king, 'what shall I do? Art thou not sheriff for me? The law is in force, go take thy course Of them that injure thee.'
— From the Childe Ballads
Robin Hood's continuing celebrity makes sense only as part of a very real social history and also a very real history of literature within a wider popular culture. The crises and conflicts of the early Middle Ages, recuperated by (among others) Victorian Britain's favorite socialist poet, William Morris, are still yielding fresh insights to researchers. These hints and details are, of course, most important to scholars and activists who seek to create anew the world that Robin mythically struggled to defend. By looking at the medievalism and its meanings, we can get a sense of how much the past, even a distant past when religion permeated daily life, continues to mean, and not only to the English.
According to some of today's scholars, Robin Hood has survived and prospered precisely because of his ambiguous character. William Morris, master designer and collaborator with the Pre-Raphaelites, father of British socialism and defender of the historic countryside, supplied a better explanation via a historical parable, in the form of a novella serialized in the weekly Commonweal, 1886–87. William Morris's time-traveler, leaping from the nineteenth to the fourteenth century in "The Dream of John Ball," thus comes across a friendly if hard-pressed group of yeomen. He has, he swiftly learns, entered the past during an era of great troubles.
John Ball and Dreams of Liberation
All leapt up and hurried to take their bows from wall and corner; and some had bucklers withal, circles of leather, boiled and then moulded into shape and hardened: these were some two hand-breadths across, with iron or brass bosses in the centre. Will Green went to the corner where the bills leaned against the wall and handed them round to the first -comers as far as they would go, and out we all went gravely and quietly into the village street and the fair sunlight of the calm afternoon, now beginning to turn towards evening. None had said anything since we first heard the new-come singing, save that as we went out of the door the ballad-singer clapped me on the shoulder and said: "Was it not sooth that I said, brother, that Robin Hood should bring us John Ball?"
Our time-traveler knows, of course, that John Ball is going to lead the uprising, and will be martyred for his effort, but also that his legacy will survive and take on new meanings with the passing of ages. He wants to explain to the assembled working men, ready to take up their cudgels, that they have a great mission ahead.
So such a tale I told them, long familiar to me; but as I told it the words seemed to quicken and grow, so that I knew not the sound of my own voice, and they ran almost into rhyme and measure as I told it; and when I had done there was silence awhile, till one man spake, but not loudly:
"Yea, in that land was the summer short and the winter long; but men lived both summer and winter; and if the trees grew ill and the corn throve not, yet did the plant called man thrive and do well. God send us such men even here."
"Nay," said another, "such men have been and will be, and belike are not far from this same door even now."
"Yea," said a third, "hearken a stave of Robin Hood; maybe that shall hasten the coming of one I wot of." And he fell to singing in a clear voice, for he was a young man, and to a sweet wild melody, one of those ballads which in an incomplete and degraded form you have read perhaps. My heart rose high as I heard him, for it was concerning the struggle against tyranny for the freedom of life, how that the wildwood and the heath, despite of wind and weather, were better for a free man than the court and the cheaping-town; of the taking from the rich to give to the poor; of the life of a man doing his own will and not the will of another man commanding him for the commandment's sake. The men all listened eagerly, and at whiles took up as a refrain a couplet at the end of a stanza with their strong and rough, but not unmusical voices. As they sang, a picture of the wild-woods passed by me, as they were indeed, no park-like dainty glades and lawns, but rough and tangled thicket and bare waste and heath, solemn under the morning sun, and dreary with the rising of the evening wind and the drift of the night-long rain.
When he had done, another began in something of the same strain, but singing more of a song than a story ballad; and thus much I remember of it:
The Sheriffis made a mighty lord,
Of goodly gold he hath enow,
And many a sergeant girt with sword;
But forth will we and bend the bow.
We shall bend the bow on the lily lea
Betwixt the thorn and the oaken tree.
With stone and lime is the burg wall built,
And pit and prison are stark and strong,
And many a true man there is spilt,
And many a right man doomed by wrong.
So forth shall we and bend the bow
And the king's writ never the road shall know.
Now yeomen walk ye warily,
And heed ye the houses where ye go,
For as fair and as fine as they may be,
Lest behind your heels the door clap to.
Fare forth with the bow to the lily lea
Betwixt the thorn and the oaken tree.
William Morris devoted great energy to the accuracy of details in setting and language. He wanted his mostly socialist readers to know just how the working people of long ago had lived, talked and (as far as possible to understand centuries later) thought. Akin to his designs of wallpaper recuperating "Celtic" themes, Morris's literary effort was to recreate a history that had been virtually lost and turned into a succession of kings and their sycophants.
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 during that time in theological terms, 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 those spiritual rebels, the Lollards; not to mention famine and plague, among other cataclysmic events of the time.
Behind this multiple crisis, 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 quotes 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 properly known as woods-manship, so that the same stretches of land remained in use for their value as wood and for the grazing of their domestic animals. Ash and elm trees, capable of growing up from stumps, could be cut and used for rakes and scythes, not to mention firewood, while trees like apple and cherry, arising out of root systems as "suckers," grew rapidly out of reach of the livestock and would 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 keenly, 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 ever closer at hand. For centuries ahead, the collective resistance across Europe, but perhaps especially for the English, 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 king-ship, 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.
We will see below that a real or mythic Robin Hood might play one large important role here by supplying villagers with desperately needed protein. Protein on the hoof, obvious in the presence of deer yet forbidden on penalty of death, caused real-life situations of a father watching his wife and children suffering. He could hardly resist the impulse to take bow in hand.
If not deer, then cash. Robbery and even murder (to eliminate witnesses) along forest lanes became common as merchant goods and funds, not to mention tax collectors, were seen as the suitable for plunder by the bold or reckless.
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. Predator missiles of the day, the armored men were intended to bring terror to the enemy (the enemy, that is, in distant parts of England to France and beyond, often enough consisting of stubborn but barely armed villagers rather than some other army) and at least equality of battle from kings and their knights on the other side of the Channel. 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 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, E.P. Thompson, and William Morris
Why was Robin Hood fascinating to William Morris, arguably the finest utopian writer of the nineteenth century? Why was Morris, in turn, so very important to the greatest of British historians, E.P. Thompson (charismatic leader of the European peace movement during the 1980s and orator of the mass marches in Britain against the preparations for nuclear war since the 1950s), that he chose the great socialist as the subject for an inspiring, massive study?
William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, Thompson's deeply emphatic biography, originally published in 1955, vindicated Morris as political radical, poet, and the father of the Arts and Crafts Movement, also as the extraordinary defender of "Older Days." Beloved among socialists across the earth, Morris believed in the "community" that had been achieved among ordinary people centuries earlier, despite unequal social classes and the brutal power of the Church.
This is a crucial point, often misunderstood by radicals and liberals, for generations optimistic about supermechanistic societies of the future. European socialist movements contemporary to Morris especially the German socialist movement enlisting such wide sectors of the working class by the 1880s and '90s that collective confidence in socialism's future seemed secure, nevertheless appeared to close observers to contain a strangely millennialist appeal. That is, Marxist ideas popularized for the masses were translated into holidays, costumes, marching, songs, and the deep-seated belief that capitalism was an interruption in history. The most popular explanatory socialist text of the day in Germany, the supposed home of socialism, was August Bebel's Die Frau und der Sozialismus, and the most popular chapter in that book a recollection of the "Golden Day" before the rise of class society. If a kind of socialistic, egalitarian society had indeed once existed, then it could arise again, but this time on a technically proficient level, with the good, healthy, abundant life for all.
The founding fathers of Marxism were plainly uneasy with some of the implications. If Friedrich Engels provided a splendid account of medieval peasant uprisings, there was still a sense in his writing that medievalism of any kind extended into the present-day mind was dangerously unscientific, potentially utopian. William Morris was also considered to be a bit of an anarchist, short decades after Marx had treated anarchist Mikhail Bakunin as a blood enemy, and regarded heterodox socialists (like the Spiritualists and Free Lovers in the United States who had, in the years shortly after the Civil War, vastly popular appeal than the German-born Marxist faithful) as insufficiently proletarian as well as unscientific.
Much as those founding fathers enjoyed novels (and not especially radical novels or novelists; Balzac the royalist was Marx's own favorite), the role of creative art of any kind remained uncertain in the struggle for socialism. Should the socialist artist, novelist, playwright, or painter rouse the workers through realistic depiction of their suffering? Was maudlin treatment of their plight, seen through the misery of some beaten-down protagonist, mere sentimentalism?
Excerpted from Robin Hood by Paul Buhle, Chris Hutchinson, Gary Dumm, Sharon Rudahl. Copyright © 2011 PM Press. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
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