The Literature of Robin Hood


Although the legends of Robin Hood are usually associated with the twelfth century and the reigns of King Richard and King John, the first literary reference to the outlaw didn’t appear until the late fourteenth century.

Robin Hood is mentioned in a story called The Vision of Piers Plowman, which was written in c.1377 by William Langland. Within the tale, a priest is told off for knowing the stories of Robin Hood ‘better than his Pater Noster.’

It wasn’t until the fifteenth century, that the six main ballads featuring Robin were first written down, although they would have been told by balladeers for many years beforehand. These stories were The Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode (c.1492-1510), Robin Hood and the Monk (c.1450-1500), Robin Hood and the Potter (c.1460-1530), Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne (c.1450-1500), Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar (c.1500), and Robin Hood’s Death (c.1500).

The most important of these early Robin Hood tales was The Lytell Geste. This piece of literature combined eight different stories about the outlaw, and included the archery tournament in which Robin won the silver arrow, and Robin’s time in the service of the king.

The name of Robin Hood was certainly well known by c.1400. There are many documentary records to his tales, including one in ‘Dives and Paupers’, which is believed to have been written by a Franciscan monk between 1405 and 1410. Indeed, it seems that listening to balladeers singing about Robin Hood was so popular at this time, that many would rather have been entertained with his adventures than go to church to hear mass, judging by the line of text below.

 – “Gon levir to hetn a tale or a song of Robyn Hode or of sym rubardy than to heryn messe or matynes.”

Like the tales of King Arthur, the popularity of the Robin Hood stories has never died away. King Henry VIII loved the legend, and is known to have dressed as Robin during some of his masked balls and parties.

The legend has been reinterpreted many thousands of times since the fourteenth century, and worldwide a new version of the story is published in book form at least twice every year. One of the first popular silent movies was a Robin Hood film. Starring Douglas Fairbanks Junior, it led the way to many new Robin Hood films and television programmes, each of which has taken a different angle on the story. From Errol Flynn’s swashbuckling adventure to Richard Greene’s merry sagas, from Robin of Sherwood’s mysticism to Kevin Costner’s pantomime style adventure romance, and most recently, Russell Crowe’s outlandish interpretation, there is a Robin Hood for everyone.

See more by

Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.

Connect with Oxford Home Schooling