Introduction to the Robin Hood Ballads

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Robin Hood Ballads. Child 117-154, A Summary by Steve Gardham.

Here we present a general summary of the Robin Hood ballads, the majority of which can be dealt with en bloc as there is little or no evidence that they were ever part of oral tradition as we know it. Most of them first appeared on garlands as a collection in the seventeenth century. Whilst they were obviously intended to be sung, having designated tunes, this does not mean they were being sung on the streets like their equivalents of the nineteenth century. Many of the earlier Robin Hood ballads of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were written to be part of the romantic May-Day pageants that took place at court and at the homes of the nobility. Many of the others were written specifically for the garland market, for those who could afford them and in fact read them.

Whilst there is scant evidence of these individual ballads being sung in oral tradition, prior to the sixteenth century there are plenty of general references to the influence of Robin Hood stories and ballads, but there is no evidence to suggest that these were the same ballads as were being printed in the garlands. In fact the use of the term ‘rude rhymes’ would perhaps suggest shorter pieces.

The handful of RH ballads found in manuscripts prior to the garland printings again do not necessarily stand as evidence of oral tradition. All these tell us is that these few ballads existed then and were written down by a literate scribe. These earlier ballads are mostly based upon earlier outlaw legends such as those of Fulk Fitzwarren. The Gest (Child 117) is generally accepted by RH scholars as a compilation of several separate ballads, and the content surely bears this out.

Whilst there is a lack of evidence of oral tradition prior to the nineteenth century the ballads have a tradition all of their own, but this is predominantly a print tradition. They mostly have a recognized style of their own; many of their plots are similar; they employ the same opening stanza, and they often share a designated tune. However this apart they do have much in common with other ballads of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Despite all of the above it is difficult to see how Child could have left them out of his canon, and therefore for the sake of completeness and his inclusive policy he decided to include all of them. He must have wrestled with this decision, however, because of his great distaste of the broadside ballad in general. Their inclusion could perhaps be justified by their relationships with other ballads of the period and the fact that some of them are closely related to folk tales. However this relationship could quite easily be the folk tales having been generated by the ballad plots in most cases.

A number of RH ballads have been found in oral tradition in the late nineteenth century and the twentieth century, but it would appear all of these can be traced to nineteenth century broadside printings. Surely this alone would not qualify them for inclusion in an ‘exclusive’ version of the Child canon. If so it would put them on a par with numerous other ballads from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that Child did not include.

There are plenty of excellent publications in print today that deal with the RH stories and these often include the likely origins and evolution of the individual ballads. A useful and cheap introduction is ‘Rymes of Robin Hood, An Introduction to the English Outlaw’ R B Dobson & J Taylor, Alan Sutton 1989 ISBN 0-86299-610-4 pbk. A more detailed look at individual ballads is ‘Robin Hood, The Forresters Manuscript’ Stephen Knight, D S Brewer 1998, ISBN 0 85991 436 4 An excellent study of the Robin Hood legends is ‘Robin Hood, People’s Hero or Lawless Marauder’ J C Holt, Thames and Hudson 1984, ISBN 0-500-27308-1 pbk.

Much time and energy has been expended in trying to identify RH as an individual character who actually existed. Several theories have been explored with no real conclusions arrived at. Modern scholarship has clearly demonstrated that the legendary character was a romantic production. Child himself states ‘RH is absolutely a creation of the ballad-muse. The earliest mention we have of him is as the subject of ballads.’ (ESPB Vol 3, p42). There have probably been many ‘robbing hoods’ particularly along the Great North Road where it passes through heavily forested areas, but the philanthropic dispossessed nobleman described in the stories is a product of romantic wishful thinking aimed at the early novella market that was the seventeenth century broadside. The reality, as with most outlaw legends where the character actually existed, is that these robbing hoods were desperate cut-throats with no saving graces whatever. Three facts point to the RH legends being based on several characters:-

  • 1) Some of the stories are based on earlier legends of other outlaws.
  • 2) The period during which RH is supposed to have lived spans at least a couple of centuries.
  • 3) His exploits take place over a wide geographical area, the two main ones being around Wentbridge in Barnesdale near Barnsley in Yorkshire, and Sherwood Forest near Nottingham, some fifty miles distant from each other, not much by modern standards but on foot in the thirteenth century a considerable journey.

Whilst there are many references in literature and manuscripts to RH stories and rhymes, Child in his introduction to The Gest (117), ESPB Vol 3, p41, gives the first evidence of the widespread vogue of RH ballads amongst the lower orders as the middle of the fifteenth century. A book printed in 1521 states that by then the RH ballads were in vogue over all Britain. Again though, none of this can be used as evidence for specific ballads in oral tradition.

In conclusion here I present two useful quotes from Child: ‘A considerable part of the RH poetry looks like char-work done for the petty press and should be judged as such’. ‘The earliest of these ballads, on the other hand, are among the best of all ballads. Perhaps none in English please so many and please so long.’ Still we must remember that this opinion was expressed by a hater of the ‘petty press’ and a professor of literature. However, having read many of the books on the origin and evolution of the RH ballads as brilliant as they are, I can still recommend Child’s introduction to the Gest (117) ESPB Vol 3, pp39-56, as a good clear introduction to the subject.

Bronson and the Tunes

Some useful quotes from 'The Traditional Tunes of the Child ballads' Volume 3,
Bertrand H Bronson, Princeton University Press, 1966.

'The record of the tunes for the Robin Hood ballads is disappointingly meagre and uncertain. Rimbault's appendix of musical illustrations in Gutch's Robin Hood, 1847, contains fifteen tunes, of which five are unconnected by him with any ballad. Research has, so far as I know, been unable to supplement his collection of early tunes by more than one; but later collectors have been able to add nearly a dozen and a half to the total, mostly from twentieth century traditional sources. About half of these were recovered on the western side of the Atlantic, from Nova Scotia, New England, and the Appalachian region. Scotland, Lincolnshire, Derbyshire, Sussex, Hampshire, and Somerset have contributed the rest. 'Rimbault's attributions will be discussed in connection with particular ballads; it is enough to say here that several are open to question.'

He then goes on to describe the tentative histories of the earliest alleged tunes. In short there are plenty of early tunes relating in some way to RH, but their relationship to ballads is most unlikely. In fact Bronson demonstrates that the earliest RH balad tunes start to appear in the seventeenth century and even then only sparsely. He concludes, 'It cannot be claimed that in the aggregate any very rich musical inheritance has survived in this province. Perhaps that was hardly to be expected, in view of the fact that the muse of Robin Hood was so thoroughly involved with print in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Nevertheless, the broadside press probably kept the outlaw alive--though fallen and changed--a good deal longer than he could have survived without its inky transfusions. It is lamentable that we have no hint of what his proper music was like when he was in his prime.'