Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Book - New Robin Hood book unravels fact from fiction

THE legend of Robin Hood began more than 700 years ago.

But Professor Sir James Holt, one of the world's leading medieval historians, believes the elusive character from Sherwood Forest – if he existed at all – lived even earlier.

In a definitive new book, based on 30 years' research, he unravels pure invention from real possibility.

He assesses the evidence for the historical Robin Hood and finds that the tale originated with the yeomen and hangers-on of the households of noblemen and gentry in the later Middle Ages.

Parts of the story that we now take for granted – Maid Marian, Friar Tuck and Robin as robber of the rich and giver to the poor – played little or no part in the original tales, and were added as the centuries passed and the legends grew.

Prof Holt, author of a standard work on the Magna Carta, says the legend of Robin Hood has enthralled people from the first ballads to contemporary movies.

In the first edition of his book, published in 1982, he suggested that the legend originated in the 13th century.
Prof Holts says: "This was well before the time of the most frequently advocated 'original' who lived in Wakefield in the first decades of the 14th century.

"The case really rested on the appearance of Robinhood surnames as early as 1296."

Now, in a new edition, Prof Holt says he is certain Robin was a 13th century figure.

"More such names have been found. They not only carry the legend back to 1261-62 but also show how it intermingled with the activities of real criminals and thereby provide a clue to the manner in which fact and legend were mixed in the mature tales of Robin Hood of the 15th century."

Prof Holt says practically all that is known of the medieval legend of Robin Hood is derived from five surviving poems or ballads and a fragment of a play.

He reconstructs the historical basis for the stories but never loses sight of the human imagination that sustained them. The book includes new illustrations and The Gest Of Robyn Hood, one of the oldest surviving tales.
He acknowledges the assistance of many experts as well library staff at various universities, including the University of Nottingham.

He says: "There is a quiverful of possible Robin Hoods. Even the likeliest is little better than a shot in the gloaming. To substantiate an identity, the earliest tales of Robin's doings have to be matched with information from other sources.

"This is scanty. Moreover, even in the earliest stories there is no sure way of sifting fact from fiction.

"At first appearance Robin was a yeoman. He then turned into a nobleman unjustly deprived of his inheritance, later into an Englishman protecting his native countrymen from the domination of the Normans. 

Finally he became a social rebel who, in the peasant's struggle against the grasping landlord, retaliates against the person and property of the oppressor.

"He is usually heroic, sometimes romantic, occasionally as a participant in rustic buffoonery, merely ridiculous, or even just a thief."

In the medieval stories, Robin Hood and his men roam through two different localities – Barnsdale in South Yorkshire and Sherwood in Notts.

Prof Holt says: "In some tales their adventures are confined exclusively to one or other of these settings. In others, Barnsdale, Sherwood and Nottingham are all confounded.

"Each locality contaminates the other, so that the Sheriff of Nottingham intrudes into Barnsdale, where he had no business to be and both he and the outlaws move from Barnsdale to Sherwood at a speed beyond the fleetest of horses.

"Of these locations the legendary Barnsdale is by far the most detailed and realistic."

Prof Holt says a ballad called Robin Hood And The Monk is the only surviving tale to retain the Notts end of the legend uncontaminated by other locations.

It goes on to relate how the outlaw came to worship at St Mary's Church in Nottingham and describes the walled town with a gaol and sheriff.

Prof Holt says that although the settings in Sherwood Forest tend to be vague, the Sherwood stories are important to the legend as a whole.

Robin Hood, by J C Holt, is published by Thames and Hudson at £12.95. (ISBN 13: 9780500289358 ISBN 10: 0500289352)

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