Robin Hood

Man or Myth?

I n the year 1225, according to a court record, a fugitive failed to appear before royal justices in York, a city in England.  The man's name was similar to Robin Hood, and York is very close to Robin's supposed stamping ground, Sherwood Forest.  But one court record is the only evidence suggesting that Robin Good ever existed.

The legend of Robin Hood has been around for a least 700 years, although there are many versions of his exploits.  But was the legendary Robin a real person, or did some storyteller make him up?

Despite the lack of written evidence, historians have long been trying to find an answer.  Here's what they know about Robin.

Robin in Song

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Lithe and lysten, gentylmen,
That be of frebore blode:
I shall tel you of a good yeman,
His name was Robyn Hode.

So begins "A Gest of Robyn Hode," none of the oldest stories about Robin exists.  (To make sense of the verse quoted to the left, read it aloud.)  Many scholars believe that the gest, an adventure story in verse, was first written down in the 1300s or early 1400s.  The tale may have existed, in story or song, as far back as the late 1100s.

In the opening verse, Robin is a "good yeman," or yeoman (YOH-man).  In the 1500s, a yeoman was someone who owned his land.

Yeomen didn't rank as high as knights or noblemen.  But they had the privilege of serving the king in various ways.  Some kept the king's records.   Others carried the king's bows and arrows at archery matches.  Many were foresters, men hired to oversee the vast tracts of wooded land that belonged to the ruling family.

The early songs about Robin called him both a yeoman and a forester.  Some also called him an "outlawe."  Bands of outlaws lived in the deepest parts of the forest.  They often robbed travelers who passed through the Royal Forest of Sherwood and other dangerous places.  So the ideas of a yeoman forester turned fugitive in Sherwood is not far-fetched.

Making Myths?

King Henry II and his sons, Richard and John, were actual
historical figures.  One after the other, they ruled England from 1154 to 1216.  During that time, historians tell us, many people were upset with them--especially with John, even before he became king.

Commoners couldn't attack the people in power.  But they could express unhappiness in other ways.  One way was by creating a myth, a story that presents fictional events as if they actually happened.

These byshoppes, and thyse archebyshoppes,
Ye shall them bete and bynde;
The hye sheryfe of Notynghame,
Hym holde your mynde.

robin hood1.jpg (3863 bytes)Commoners would have enjoyed hearing about a hero who outsmarts a king of his son--or the sheriff of Nothingham.

With the evidence they've uncovered so far, historians can't tell for sure whether Robin Hood was a real person or a myth.  Perhaps that fugitive mentioned in court records was really Robin.  Perhaps, as time went by, various storytellers just changed the circumstances around the figure in their retellings.

One thing is certain, though:  The character Robin Hood has survived for centuries, thanks to people who have passed his story down through the generations.

--adapted from Sept. 24, 1999 issue of 'Read magazine,'  by, Sarah Kizis

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