The Robin Hood Tradition: Tensions and Bonds in The Early Modern Ballads

‘Were thou not my maister…/
thou shuldis by hit ful sore;/
get the a man wher thou wille,/
for thou getis me no more.’
-Robin Hood and The Monk, ll.59-62.

In the early modern ballads of the Robin Hood tradition, homosocial bonds are almost continually compromised by tensions surrounding masculinity and power. These tensions are seen throughout both Robin Hood and The Monk and Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne; such conflicts are most interestingly presented through the characters, and arguments, of Little John and Robin Hood respectively. In both ballads, Little John and Robin Hood’s friendship becomes compromised mainly by power struggles, as often instigated and challenged by Robin Hood himself. These struggles consequently lead to vulnerability and dissolution within the outlaw community.

In Robin Hood and The Monk, Robin instigates tensions between himself and Little John through his attempts to assert authoritarian control. Written in around 1450[1], the ballad is far removed from the later gentrification of Robin Hood, yet Robin still possesses an undeniable authority over the band of outlaws.[2] He declares that ‘Litull John shall beyre my bow, Til that me list to drawe’.[3] The use of the modal verb ‘shall’ accentuates his belief in his authority; in using a modal verb, which ‘expresses necessity or possibility’, Robin propounds Little John’s compliance as already accepted.[4] In this case, Little John is reduced to ‘a squire rather than a fellow’[5], a depreciating position that Little John clearly refutes. Little John declares ‘were thou not my maister…thou shuldis by hit ful sore; get the a man wher thou wille, for thou getis me no more’(l.59-62). As Bernard Lumpkin argues, ‘In his rebuke, Little John rejects the language of fellowship and substitutes for it the language of hierarchy…such words vividly convey his shame and bitterness over the demeaning role Robin Hood has made him play.’[6] This ‘language of hierarchy’ is exemplified by John’s use of ‘man’, which in turn suggests servant, as well as ‘maister’. In using these terms, Little John exemplifies his lower status to Robin. However, although defining himself as subordinate to Robin in this way, Little John refuses to remain in such a lowly position. Power, therefore, becomes the key area of contention between the two men, causing tension in the homosocial community.

Power tensions in the ballad also result from the archery competition between Robin Hood and Little John, which itself articulates the masculine aggression underpinning the outlaw community. In the early fifteenth-century, archery was seen as ‘the weapon of lesser men’[7]; it was often seen as the choice weapon of the yeomanry populace. However, archery competitions were often seen as a way of showcasing prowess and masculine dominance. In Robin and Little John partaking in a competition, masculine aggressions and tensions are thus underlined; it is with Little John’s success that Robin incites tension into the seemingly peaceful forest setting. Robin Hood ‘seid schortly nay’, ‘lyed Litus Jon’ and ‘smote hym with his hande’ (l.55-56); in denouncing Little John as a liar, Robin clearly refuses to admit his inferior position and the loss of the archery competition to one of his fellow, yet simultaneously ‘lower’, outlaws. Furthermore, in the active verb ‘smote’, defined archaically as the ‘a heavy blow or strike’[8], Robin appears to berate Little John for winning, verbally and physically attacking him and consequently blemishing his archery prowess over Robin himself. This berating arises once again in Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, where Robin Hood sets out to destroy any sense of superior prowess that Little John possesses. Robin remarks that ‘it is noe cunning a knave to ken’[9], suggesting that Little John has no more skill than Robin in deducing whether strangers be friend or foe. As remarked in the ballad itself, ‘often words they breeden bale, that parted Robin and John’ (l.43); as a result of this, both ballads become ‘a full statement of the danger of conflict within the band’[10], accentuating tensions of power and masculinity and the effect of this on the cohesive homosocial community.

Such dangers are accentuated through Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne; In the ballad, the tensions are more seriously positioned. Dissolution within the outlaw gang becomes marked by death and extreme violence. As Stephen Knight argues, this makes the ballad ‘a partner piece to Robin Hood and the Monk’[11]; Just like the previous ballad, Little John and Robin are left fundamentally more vulnerable after parting company. Once again, it is Robin who instigates the disbanding, taking offence at Little John’s attempts to protect him. From the opening stanza’s of the ballad, it becomes apparent that Robin’s characterisation has been elevated further than in Robin Hood and The Monk; his dream, in which he is ‘beete and binde’ (l.9) by ‘two wight yeoman’ (l.7), aligns Robin with the Medieval Romance genre, in which the heroes find themselves indulging in dream-like prophecies.[12] This elevation in characterisation is made further apparent through Robin’s overt awareness of his masculinity; Robin sees Little John’s remarks to be attacks upon his position as lead outlaw. He declares ‘A, John, by me thou setts noe store’, ‘how offt send I my men beffore, and tarry myselfe behinde?’ (l.37-38). In this, it is clear Robin takes Little John’s words as an accusation of cowardice, rather than ones of protection and allegiance. In the use of the prepositions ‘behinde’ and ‘beffore’, Robin, like Little John, ‘rejects the language of fellowship’ for ‘the language of hierarchy’[13]. Robin repudiates the notion of being one who delays the action, as ‘tarry’ suggests, refusing to be seen in any way as subordinate in masculinity to John. Moreover, in the use of ‘my men’, Robin once again compounds the notion of Little John’s inferiority; in his rebuke, Robin reduces Little John once more to a servant as opposed to his fellow, an action reminiscent of Robin’s similar treatment of Little John in Robin Hood and the Monk.

Robin’s preoccupation with cowardice highlights the multi-faceted nature of power dynamics amongst the outlaws; preoccupations with masculinity and courage become the focal point of tension in the homosocial community. It is this that fundamentally weakens the group, leaving the community vulnerable to attack from false foresters, as embodied by Guy of Gisborne, and the corrupting force of the Sheriff. As Lumpkin argues, ‘The medieval ballads thus reveal Robin Hood’s band as a dynamic community’, in which ‘the limits of individual power are continually negotiated’ and ‘the potential for the tyranny of one man is lessened by others who act, as it were, as checks and balances.’[14] It is apparent, then, that tensions arise from Robin’s supposed superiority over the group; it is up to characters, such as Little John, to advise and placate Robin, reminding him continually of his place amongst his fellow yeomen.

References
Featured Image:
Illustration of Robin Hood and The Guy of Gisborne.

[1] Although the exact dating of The Monk is unclear, this essay will take 1450 as its contextual basis for analysis.

[2] Robin, although possessing certain levels of elevation in character, does not become gentrified until The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntington, written by Anthony Munday and produced by the Admiral’s Men in 1599. See Anthony Munday, ‘The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntington’ in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, ed. Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1997), pp.303-402

[3] ‘Robin Hood and the Monk’ in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, ed. Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren (Kalamzoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1997), pp.31-57, p.38, l.37-38. All further references to this edition and are given parenthetically in the text.

[4] Oxford Dictionary Online. Available at https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/shall [Accessed 28/02/2017]

[5] Bernard Lumpkin, ‘The Ties that Bind: Outlaw and Community in the Robin Hood Ballads and the Romance of Eustace the Monk’ in Robin Hood in Popular Culture, ed. Thomas Hahn (Boydell & Brewer: Cambridge, 2000), pp.141-151, p.146.

[6] Lumpkin, ‘The Ties that Bind: Outlaw and Community in the Robin Hood Ballads and the Romance of Eustace the Monk’ in Robin Hood in Popular Culture, p.146.

[7] Jim Bradbury, The Medieval Archer (Boydell & Brewer: Suffolk, 1985), p.1

[8] Oxford Dictionary Online. Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/smite [Accessed 26/02/2017]

[9] ‘Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne’ in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, ed. Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren (Kalamzoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1997),pp.169-184, p.174, l.39. All further references to this edition and are given parenthetically in the text.

[10] ‘Introduction to Robin Hood and the Monk’ in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, ed. Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren (Kalamzoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1997),pp.31-36, p.33.

[11] ‘Introduction to Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne’ in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, ed. Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren (Kalamzoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1997), pp.169-172, p.171.

[12] In the Medieval Romance genre, heroes experiencing prophecies and dreams was a common trope which elevated the position of the heroic characters. Such elevation can be seen in Medieval romances such as Guigemar, who receives a prophecy from an ambisexual stag after fatally wounding the animal with an arrow. See Marie De France, ‘Guigemar’ in The Lais of Marie De France, trans. Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby (London: Penguin, 1986),pp.43-55.

[13] Lumpkin, ‘The Ties that Bind: Outlaw and Community in the Robin Hood Ballads and the Romance of Eustace the Monk’ in Robin Hood in Popular Culture, p.146.

[14] Lumpkin, ‘The Ties that Bind: Outlaw and Community in the Robin Hood Ballads and the Romance of Eustace the Monk’ in Robin Hood in Popular Culture, p.147.

Written by Steph Reeves.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

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