Flavin's Corner
7-23-99

Merry Men

Knight:           Robyn Hode, ffayre and fre,
                      Undre this lynde shote we.
Robin Hood:  With the shote Y wyll
                      Alle thy lustes to full-fyll.
Knight:      Have at the pryke.
Robin Hood:  And Y cleve the styke.
[They shoot at the target, and Robin wins]
...from a late 15th century play.  Click  here  for more.

     Last week, from July 14th through the 18th in Nottingham, England, "Robin
Hood: Past and Present, Local and Global (The Second International
Conference of Robin Hood Studies)" was scheduled to be just another staid
conference on the semi-mythological hero/criminal.  It was supposed to be,
anyway, and would surely have escaped the notice of the media, if not for the
pre-conference outing of Robin by Prof. Stephen Knight, head of the English
Literature department at Cardiff University in Wales. [Read a brief story on it
here.] Yup, Knight claims Robin liked his men merry and in tights!  Ouch...  I
guess this means Mel Brooks was right!

     The popularity of the fellow who has been referred to as the "Prince of
thieves" and was renowned for "stealing from the rich, to give to the poor," is
well represented by extant ballads and plays from the fifteenth century, some of
which may go back to the fourteenth century, as there is a 1377 passing
reference to the "rymes of Robyn Hood" in Piers Plowman. [Click  here, scroll
down and click on Passus 5, then scroll down to 5.396.] In these surviving
mss. we discover the kindly criminal and noble outlaw elements already firmly in
place, though Rob is sometimes associated with Barnsdale forest, as opposed
to Sherwood, and there is no mention of Maid Marian (the 1280 French
romance, Jeu de Robin et Marion, being the tale of a different couple).  Also,
and rather troubling to scholars, is the historical period being described, as the
king seems to change from Edward I (ruled 1272-1307), to Edward II
(1307-1327), and then back to the time of Richard I (1189-1199).  John
(1199-1216) seems to be a popular guess today, but such speculation centers
on a historical person behind the folk-hero, ...and speculation as such is a game
with vague rules.

 
1226 assize role with a "Rob Hod." Click pic for more.

     While the existence of an actual fellow named Rob, of who these tall tales
of yore tell, is not beyond all conjecture, a much richer field of inquiry is to be
had in the genre of the outlaw and its usage in the May Day celebrations.  The
outlaw romance grew out of family chronicles popular in the 12th to 14th
centuries and usually featured an exiled founder of a family or a dispossessed
heir.  The c.1325-40 Fouke le Fitz Waryn features three episodes which some
believe were derived from the same narrative sources used to compose the first
Robin Hood ballads. [Click here for more.]  The entertaining outlaw romances,
commissioned and privately appreciated works, somehow became known to
the public and directly influenced the development of the early ballads and
plays about Rob.  Allen Wright has an excellent webpage which deals with the
May Day celebrations (as well as much more Rob material). [Click here to go
to Allen's page.]

     Now, contrary to the announcement "Robin Hood was gay," Prof. Knight
doesn't mean to argue that the hypothetical individual who served as the basis
for the later Robin Hood legends was homosexual; this is just poor reporting.
Such a statement, if made, would need supportive evidence and no one can
even prove the existence of a real Rob, let alone his sexual preferences.  What
Prof. Knight is claiming, however, is that those who wrote the early ballads
and plays chose to depict a homosexual Rob, or at the very least, used such
erotic imagery and sexually ambiguous terms as to pop the cod-pieces from
any gay knaves in the audience.

     This model describes a homosexual Rob which continues the challenge of
the outlaw motif, demonstrates conflict with the Church, and is a medieval
example of theater as a counter-cultural influence.  The homophobia let loose
by certain individuals and groups upon hearing of Prof. Knight's thesis is a sad
waste of calories.  Likewise, the gays which have shown their support seem to
be reacting to the media reports and not to a serious study by a literature
professor.  The model has less to do with Rob and more to do with theater.
And, of course, the belief that everyone involved in the theater is gay is another
mistake.  They're acting!

     So, what are we to make of all of this?  Mel Brooks is a prophet?  Medieval
scholars need to get a life?  Revisionism is replacing history?  Yes, no, and
maybe, of course...  The recent discoveries of the amorous dalliances of
Jefferson and Washington reveal passionate and open-minded sides to two of
our Founding Fathers, and most Americans appear unchanged in their respect.
The allegations that Abe Lincoln was a homosexual is another matter entirely,
which seems presented with the barest of evidence by an agenda-driven gay
activist (click  here for more), but even if somehow proven, probably won't
change anyone's feelings about our 16th president.  We have problems aplenty
today and still more tomorrow, and most don't have the time (or the desire) to
fret about the past.  If history wants to change, let it...

     The counter-cultural and often revolutionary nature of theater is attested to
in ancient times, found everywhere today, and shouldn't be a surprise when
demonstrated in medieval times.  Who knows, perhaps lads watched a play
about Rob and decided they preferred the company of merry men over women.
As long as they were happy, that's what's important.

Prof. Knight may be reached at:
+44(0)1222-874505
or KnightS2@cf.ac.uk

wondering if my tights still fit,
Rick

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