There are few legends more ingrained in the public consciousness then Robin Hood; be it the recent Hollywood film staring Russell Crowe or the popular BBC television series, it seems that the noble outlaw remains as popular ever. Indeed the origins of the legend can be traced to a medieval form of mass media; ballads. However, there is much historical debate regarding just who these ballads were originally intended for and what they represented to this original audience.
Man of the people?
The Robin Hood legend as we know it is largely the result of a number of ballads generally dated to the 14th century (they can be found here) and although they have been heavily adapted over the centuries they still provide the foundations for much of the story. But who were they originally intended for? At first the answer would seem obvious, Robin Hood is famous for stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, thus surely the ballads were intended for the oppressed peasant masses?
Marxist historian Rodney Hilton advocated such a view in his 1958 article “The Origins of Robin Hood” claiming that Robin was the medieval equivalent of a terrorist, waging war against the established authority.
Such a view certainly fits with the historical context of the ballads as the 14th century was marked by tension between peasant and lord, culminating in the Peasants Revolt of 1381 and one can only imagine how the rebels would have enjoyed hearing tales of Robin outwitting the corrupt and avaricious nobility. What’s more, Robin Hood play games were a popular summertime activity within rural peasant communities.
An upper class outlaw?
However this view has been questioned by James Holt in his 1961 article “The Origins and Audience of the Ballads of Robin Hood”. Holt argues that Robin Hood was in fact a character intended for the aristocracy, claiming that ballads were primarily performed in the halls and castles of the social elite and thus the legend was most likely intended for noble ears.
He supports this claim by pointing to the fact the only surviving copy of a Robin Hood play was in the possession of the noble Sir John Paston. Thus might Robin have been little more then a character designed for the amusement of the social order he supposedly opposed?
One final argument suggests that Robin may have been representative of a newly emerging middling social group. Richard Dobson and John Taylor in their book ‘Rhymes of Robin Hood: an introduction to the English Outlaw’ focus on the ballads extensive use of the term ‘yeoman’ to suggest that the legends audience was a new social class sitting somewhere between the peasantry and nobility, and there is some evidence to support this view.
The Black Death of 1348 lead to growing differentiation amongst the peasantry and the term ‘yeoman’ increasingly referred to wealthy landowning members of the peasantry. Thus it is plausible that Robin may have represented a yeoman hero for a newly emerging yeoman audience.
An outlaw for everyone?
So just which audience were the original Robin Hood tales intended for? To be quite frank, we just don’t know, the three conflicting arguments above being proof of that. However, what is clear is that the ballads were popular with all levels of medieval society, be it the play games in rural villages, the interests of nobles such as Sir John Paston or the references to yeomen.
Thus it would appear that the appeal of Robin Hood could transcend all social differences and arguably this is of greater relevance then which specific audience the ballads were created for. Indeed it is this universal appeal which may explain why the legend has endured to this day.