Early Editions of the Gest

The Gest is the longest ballad and one of the earliest surviving tales of Robin Hood. It has survived in printed form only, in several editions which contain variation in text. Presented below is a Gest of Robyn Hode, from the Chepman and Myllar prints in the National Library of Scotland, formally known as the Lettersnijder edition. Generally attributed to the press of Jan van Doesborch at Antwerp, it is dated to around 1510-1515. It contains verses 183.3, 118.4-123.4, 127.4133.2, 136.4-208.3, 314.2 – 349.3, of the total 456. The woodcut on the first page is the same as the one used by Richard Pynson in his edition of the Canterbury Tales, and also appears on the cover of the books by Maurice Keen and Graham Phillips (see Historical Books). Thomas Ohlgren has expressed doubts over Doesborch’s printing of the Gest, but does accept that it was printed in the Low Countries by a Dutch printer. He further believes that this edition is earlier, around 1500 or before, and that it is a copy of Pynson’s edition of the 1490’s, which would mean that Pynson’s is the earliest. A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode, printed by Wynkyn de Worde (Cambridge University Library Ms. Sel. 5. 18) was according to Child, printed between 1492 and 1534, the year of the printer’s death. It is now known that de Worde moved to Fleet Street at the end of the year 1500, which suggests the Lytell Geste should be placed between those dates. This is the only complete edition, save for two or three lines (7.1 and 339.1, and apparently 98.1). The edition by Richard Pynson (d. 1530) possibly the earliest, has survived in fragments: (1) A leaf, Inc. 4. J. 3. 6. in University Library, Cambridge, verses 220.1-227.3, 319.4-327.2. (2) The Penrose fragment, a leaf and a half, in the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington (PR 1400 13688) verses 327.3-335.1, 243.2-250.4, 312.4-319.3, 227.4-235.2. (3) Bodleian Library, Douce fragment f. 51 verses 435.4-443.2, 443.3-451.1. Pynson’s text originally contained 402 lines, and could have been printed around 1495. The early editions of the Gest may have been based on an even earlier written text that has not survived.                            

Other editions of the ‘Lettersnijder’ text are: (1) David Laing’s type-facsimile of 1827 which is not an exact reproduction of the original. (2) George Stevenson, Pieces from the Makculloch and the Gray MSS. Together with the Chepman and Myllar Prints. (The Scottish Text Society, Edinburgh/London, 1918).    

For other editions of the Gest and other ballads see The Rhymes of Robin Hood 9.




This page contains information found in Rymes of Robyn Hood, Dobson and Taylor, pp. 71, 72, 74; A Gest of Robyn Hode, poem(s) by Frank Sidgwick; Robin Hood; The Early Poems, 1465-1560, Texts, Contexts, and Ideology, Thomas H. Ohlgren, 2007.