Plays and the May Festivities 3

Alexander Barclay, a monk of Ely writing about 1513-14, in his version of Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, gives us the first literary allusion to Maid Marian: 

Yet would I gladly heare nowe some mery fit / Of maide Marian, or els of Robin Hoode

This could suggest the two characters were still alternatives rather than associates,(1) however expenses relating to Robin Hood, Maid Marian, Little John, the Friar (not called Tuck), along with other items, including Morris garments, are recorded in the church-wardens account book of Kingston-upon-Thames.(2) Stephen Knight has cast doubt on the notion that the May Festivities and the Morris dance were closely related, and that Marian and the friar of the Morris dance were transferred to the Robin Hood myth; he has suggested that the dances may have been a sixteenth-century introduction into English festival practices, where it would appear that the figure who became known as Marian was originally the ‘Murrian’ or ‘moorish one’ and usually had a black face; he further adds that ‘By the later sixteenth century the festal activities of the May Games had, in rapid social and cultural change, fallen together with Morris dances and were often regarded as interrelated, but they are clearly separate in more specifically reminiscent references like Warner’s which says in full: ‘At Pask began our Morris, and ere Pentecost our May’ (Albions England, 1589, p. 121)’.(3) He also states that ‘she was never called ‘Maid’ in the Morris, and to link the Morris and the May game is itself a doubtful connection’(4) It is by no means certain that at any time Robin Hood and his companions were constituent characters in the Morris dance. According to Holt ‘The queen of May and the friar were traditional participants in the morris dance. In origin they were quite independent of Robin’s legend and they were still represented separately in their role in the morris dance, entirely without Robin or anything to link them with his tale, in Tollet’s window executed for Betley Hall, Staffordshire, c. 1621’.(5)

Whether or not the friar of the Morris dance (almost always an anonymous, jovial, and buffoon-like character) was the original Friar Tuck, is impossible to say. He may have originated in Sussex in 1417; this ‘Frere Tuk’ whose real name was Robert Stafford, a chaplain and leader of an outlaw band, was possibly the ‘ffrere Tuke’ characterized in the play, the dramatic fragment of ‘Robin Hood and the Sheriff’ of c.1475; he may have been fused with the friar of the Morris dances. One thing is certain, Friar Tuck was associated with Maid Marian by 1559, as they are mentioned together in Henry Machyn’s description of the procession held in London on 24 June 1559: ‘a May-game … and sant John Sacerys, with a gyant (giant), and drumes and gunes … and then sant Gorge and the dragon, the mores dansse (morris dance), and after Robyn Hode and lytull John, and Maid Marian and frere Tuke, and they had spechys (speeches) rond a-bowt London’.(6) Friar Tuck (by that name), is actually only mentioned in two of the broadsides, Robin Hood and Queen Katherine and Robin Hood’s Golden Prize. It was not until the nineteenth century, that he became an indispensable character in the Robin Hood saga, particularly as a result of Sir Walter Scott’s portrait of the Clerk of Copmanhurst as Friar Tuck in Ivanhoe. On stage and in film he is usually represented as plump; Tuck has become synonymous with the ‘tuck- shop’ of public-school fiction, but the name probably refers to the shorter ‘tucked up’ gown of the friars – ‘curtal’ means ‘curtailed’ and ‘tuck’ has the same implication. The ballads Robin Hood and Friar Tuck and Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar both have a similar storyline. Unlike Friar Tuck, Maid Marion does not appear in the dramatic fragment, and clearly owes her association with Robin Hood to their joint participation in the May festivities of the sixteenth century. Marian’s literary beginnings remain controversial, but it is likely that by origin, she was the shepherdess Marion of the medieval French pastourelles, in which she is partnered by the shepherd Robin. Adam de la Halle’s Le Jeu de Robin et de Marion of c. 1283, possibly written for the Neapolitan court, is a dramatized version of such pastourelles (see Robin in Music and Literature); it is said to have been performed by the school-boys of Angiers, according to annual custom, in the year 1392.(7) In the French fetes du mai, Robin and Marion appear in a variety of rustic pastimes, and in between, there is the attempted seduction (of Marion) by a series of knights: it is likely that their names and functions were later passed on to the English May Games. In his Mirour de l’ omme of 1376-9, the Englishman John Gower mentions Robin and Marion as rustic figures; he condemned the revelry of monks with the comment that they obeyed the rule of Robin, rather than that of St Augustine (see Robin in Music and Literature). This suggests that Robin and Marion or Marian were associated with popular festivities from an early date, around the same time as Langland’s first reference to Robin Hood. In view of this, there is no mention of Marian in the earliest surviving tales of Robin Hood, which leads to the conclusion that two separate traditions developed side by side and independent of each other until they became entwined. Professor Holt states that ‘they had come together through Robin Hood and the Robin of the games being made one and the same. Marian was queen of May. Robin became her King. Together they presided over the May Games in the sixteenth century’.(8) Surprisingly, Maid Marian had little impact on the later popular tradition of Robin Hood broadsides and garlands, apart from the ballad Robin Hood and Maid Marian.

1. See Child, III, 46, 218; Rymes of Robyn Hood, Dobson and Taylor, p. 3, 41; Robin Hood, Holt, p. 160; Robin Hood:  A Complete Study of the English Outlaw, Knight, pp. 104-5, 270.

2. See also, D. Lysons, The Environs of London, Vol. I, The County of Surrey (London, 1792), pp. 226-9.

3. Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw, Knight, p. 104.

4. Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw, Knight, p. 102.

5. Robin Hood, Holt, p. 160.

6. The Diary of Henry Machyn, citizen and merchant-taylor of London, 1550-63 (Camden Society, Old Series, 42, 1848), p. 201.

7. The boys were deguisiez, says the old French record: and they had among them un Fillette desguisee. Carpent. ubi supr. V. Robinet. Pentecoste. Our old character of Mayd Marian may be hence illustrated. It seems to have been an early fashion in France for school-boys to  present these shews or plays. In an antient manuscript, under the year 1477, there is mentioned ‘Certaine Moralite, ou Farce, que les escolliers de Pontoise avoit fait, ainsi qu’il est de coustume.’ Carpent. ubi supr. V. Moralitas. The Mystery of the old and the new Testament is said to have been presented in 1424, by the boys of Paris placed like statues against a wall, without speech or motion, at the entry of the duke of Bedford, regent of France. See J. de Paris, p. 101. And Sauval, Ant. de Paris, ii. 101. (The History of English Poetry, Vol. IV, Thomas Warton, 1824)  

8. Robin Hood, Holt, p. 160.