Robin Hood and the Monk

The ballad Robin Hood and the Monk is thought to be the oldest surviving tale of Robin Hood. It is preserved in Cambridge University Library (MS. Ff. 5. 48, fols. 128v-135v), and a fragment also survives in the Bagford Ballads which were in the British Museum, but are now in the British Library (see, The Rhymes of Robin Hood 10). The first printed edition where it was given its present title, appeared in Robert Jamieson’s Popular Ballads and Songs (see, The Rhymes of Robin Hood 6). It did not appear in Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood until the posthumous edition of 1832. The ‘Monk’ survives in a manuscript that has been described as ‘a clerical miscellany containing a mixture of catechetical, devotional, and didactic poems as well as poems of a decidedly secular nature’. It includes (among others) A Tale of King Edward and the Shepherd (fols. 48v-56v), The Turnament of Totenham (fols. 62r-66r), Dialogue between a Nightingale and a Clerk (fols. 57r-57v), Mercy or The Wounds of Christ as Remedies against the Deadly Sins (fols. 43v-44r), and The Tale of a Basyn (fols. 58r-61v). According to Thomas Ohlgren, the scribe-owner of the manuscript was a Gilbert Pilkington. In his Robin Hood: The Early Poems (2007), Ohlgren reveals that there were three men found with that name, but David Hepworth discovered a Gilbertus Pilkington, who was ordained as subdeacon, deacon, and secular priest over a two-year period from 1463 to 1465, in the diocese of Coventry and Lichfield – Ohlgren concluded that he was probably the person in question.* Hepworth also discovered that ‘John Armytage of Farnley Tyas, yeoman, had bought the mansion house or manor of Kyrklees with appurtenances on 26 October 1565 from Robert and Alice Pylkington, who had built the Tudor mansion house with stone from priory buildings’ (David Hepworth, ‘A Grave Tale,’ in Robin Hood: Medieval and Post-Medieval, Helen Phillips, Dublin, Four Courts Press, 2005, p. 106). See also, Robin Hood’s Grave. Gilbert Pilkington’s name appears in the inscription on folio 43r of the manuscript, and as Ohlgren points out ‘it is the colophon to an English translation of the Old French Passion, called the Passio Domini or Northern Passion’ (Early Poems, p. 33). Ohlgren continues: ‘The text ends with the colophon: ‘Explicit Passio Domini nostri ihesu Christi Quod Dominus Gilbertus Pylkyngton. Amen.’ [Here finishes The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ – the work that Master Gilbert Pilkington has written]”. Frances A. Foster in her 1916 edition of the Northern Passion, believed that the colophon indicated that Gilbert Pilkington was the scribe of the text. She dismisses an earlier claim that Pilkington was not only the author of the Northern Passion but also of The Turnament of Totenham (fols. 62r-66r) as well as the Robin Hood poem, correctly pointing out that the colophon is attached to the end of the Northern Passion on folio 43r and not at the end of the manuscript. The debate continued with Oscar Cargill in his 1926 PMLA article ‘The Authorship of the Secunda Pastorum.’ As well as claiming that Gilbert Pilkington was the author of not only the English translation of the Northern Passion, but also of the Turnament of Tottenham and the Second Shepherd’s Play in the Wakefield cycle of miracle plays. Frances A. Foster responded to Cargill’s claims in her 1928 PMLA article ‘Was Gilbert Pilkington Author of the Secunda Pastorum?’ – she disagrees with most of his claims. This all leads to uncertainty. Ohlgren finally reveals a probable scenario when referring to Robin Hood and the Monk, and Robin Hood and the Potter (Early Poems, p. 97): ‘both are clearly copies from other, now lost, manuscripts or oral sources’.

* The customary date assigned to the ‘Monk’ is usually c. 1450. Ohlgren believes that it was added to the Cambridge manuscript by Pilkington sometime after 1465.

A good assessment of some of Ohlgren’s claims is given by Melissa M. Furrow (Ten Bourdes, Tale of the Basin: Introduction, Medieval Institute Publications, 2013):

The Tale of the Basin is found in Cambridge University Library MS Ff.5.48, fols. 58 r–61 v. The King and the Shepherd, in the current collection, is also from this manuscript. CUL MS Ff.5.48 has been of interest to a number of scholars; it has been fully described by Manfred Görlach in Textual Tradition, pp. 126–27. Janay Y. Downing has edited the whole manuscript as a Ph.D. dissertation, “A Critical Edition of Cambridge University MS Ff.5.48.” My earlier edition, Ten Fifteenth-Century Comic Poems, describes the manuscript and lists its principal contents on pp. 45–49. Thomas Ohlgren analyzes it in his chapter “‘lewed peple loven tales olde:’ Robin Hood and the Monk and the Manuscript Context of Cambridge, University Library MS Ff.5.48,” in his Robin Hood: The Early Poems, pp. 28–67.

The language of the manuscript has been analyzed by the editors of LALME, who find that the manuscript has two “hands” (though Hand A, the relevant one to us, is described as having similar, but not identical, language in different places, and it is my belief that there are two principal hands included in this section, A1 for 2 r–56 v, 58 r–66 r, and 93 r–112 r; A2 for 67 r–78 v, and 112 v–the end). Hand A is said in LALME to be responsible for fols. 1 r–78 v, and 93 r–135 v, including the signature of the scribe, Gilbert Pylkyngton, on folio 43 r (1:67). The language of Hand A is said to be from Derbyshire. Lister Matheson has done a further analysis of the language of Robin Hood and the Monk from fols. 128 v–135 v of the manuscript, using the methodology of LALME, and finds the scribal language to be more specifically from West Derbyshire, near the Cheshire or Staffordshire borders. His analysis is part of an appendix to Ohlgren’s Robin Hood: The Early Poems, “The Dialects and Language of Selected Robin Hood Poems,” that seeks to bolster Ohlgren’s claim that Gilbert Pilkington was “Hand A”; that he was the Gilbert Pilkington ordained as a sub­deacon, then deacon, then priest in 1463–65 in the diocese of Coventry and Lichfield; and that he may have belonged to a family of Pilkingtons from Mellor, Derbyshire (see pp. 194–200). The detective work on Pilkington’s identity is convincing and of great interest. That Pilkington was the scribe for the whole manuscript is not probable. Ohlgren himself sees “two main scribal hands: Scribe A (fols. 2r to 78v) and Scribe B (fols. 95r to 135v)”; by implication, at least one more hand is involved in fols. 79r to 92v, before the missing fols. 93 and 94. I would argue that there are three principal hands and a couple of minor ones, but I accept as likely that Pilkington was involved with only a small group of people in its planning and production.

It is not surprising that The Tale of the Basin should have survived in a manuscript associated with a parish priest. Like other bourdes, it has a morally corrective conclusion, and the hero of the story, the one who sets matters to rights, is himself a good parish priest, even if the transgressor in the story is also a priest. The tale is lively and amusing enough to have served as attractive sermon material.

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Robin Hood and the Monk is the only early surviving ballad that names Sherwood (there is no mention of Barnsdale), and in the last stanza it is described as ‘the talkyng of the munke and Robyn Hode’. It contains some 2,700 words and Dobson and Taylor see it as ‘the supreme example in medieval English literature of the genre of ‘yeoman minstrelsy’’ – the ‘traditional English ballad’ at the very point of birth’ – and ‘a tale of Robin Hood which audiences of the late fifteenth century must have actually heard’ (Rymes of Robyn Hood, London, 1976, pp. 113-15). Like the Gest, the ‘Monk’ has the theme of Robin’s devotion to the Virgin Mary, but in the ‘Monk’ Robin’s relationship with Little John is more intense, and there is a fair amount of violence – Robin kills twelve of the sheriff’s men in a pitched battle, and Little John and Much the Miller’s son are vicious – John beheads the monk, and Much does the same to his page (boy servant). See also, The Early Ballads.

In reference to the manuscript containing the ‘Monk’, Dobson and Taylor write: ‘Of the two somewhat different explanations of the collection put forward by Professor Fowler – that the manuscript ‘served primarily as a priest’s source book’ and that ‘the man behind the collection may well have been one of that class of minstrel that the author of Piers the Plowman praises for having holy writ ay in his mouth’ – the latter seems the more probable’ (Rymes of Robyn Hood, p. 114). On the other hand, Thomas Ohlgren writes: ‘While the evidence presented so far is admittedly circumstantial, the Lichfield Gilbert Pilkington appears to have been the original scribe-owner of the Cambridge manuscript. In addition to the identical spelling of his Latinized name in both the colophon and the ordination record, the contents of his clerical miscellany are exactly what we would expect a secular priest to collect and copy for his own pastoral and personal uses’. (Robin Hood: The Early Poems, p. 39).

Other Editions: C. H. Hartshorne, Ancient Metrical Tales, 1829, pp. 179-97; J. Ritson, Robin Hood: A collection of all the ancient poems, songs, and ballads, 1832, vol. 2, pp. 221-36; J. M. Gutch, A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode, 1847, vol. 2, pp. 7-20; F. J. Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 1888, vol. 3, pp. 97-101; A. Quiller-Couch, The Oxford Book of Ballads, 1910, pp. 585-600; MacEdward Leach, The Ballad Book, 1955, pp. 340-9; Faber Book of Ballads, 1965, pp. 81-93; Oxford Book of Ballads, 1969, pp. 405-19; R. B. Dobson and J. Taylor, Rymes of Robyn Hood, 1976, pp. 115-22; S. Knight and T. Ohlgren, Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, Medieval Institute Publications, 1997; T. Ohlgren and L. Matheson, Early Rymes of Robyn Hood: An Edition of the Texts, ca. 1425 to ca. 1600, Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 2013.

There are some points that should be mentioned:

1. In the ‘Monk’, Robin goes to Nottingham, he prays ‘to God and myld Mary’ (stanza 17) then attends mass in St. Mary’s Church (stanza 18).

The Gest tells us that Robin would hear mass three times every day before dining:

The one in the worship of the Fader
And another of the Holy Ghost
The thirde of Our dere Lady
That he loved allther moste (stanza 9)


Walter Bower recites part of a tale of Robin Hood in his Scotichronicon; Robin is hearing mass in a secluded woodland spot in Barnsdale (see, Scotichronicon).

2. The ‘Monk’ begins with the stanza:

In somer, when the shawes be sheyne
And leves be large and long
Hit is full mery in feyre foreste
To here the foulys song


This is similar to the opening stanza of Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne:

When shales beene sheene, and shradds full fayre
And leeves both large and longe
Itt us merry, walking in the fayre fforrest
To heare the small birds singe


3. Robin’s quarrel with Little John in the ‘Monk’ (stanzas 13, 14, 15, 16) is similar to Robin’s quarrel with Little John in Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne (stanzas 9, 10, 11).

4. In the Gest, Robin takes more than eight hundred pound from a monk, the ‘hye selerer’ of St. Mary’s Abbey (stanzas 232-250).* There may be an allusion to this in the ‘Monk’ – Robin has taken one hundred pound from the monk of St. Mary’s Church (stanza 23).**

* In stanza 91 he is described as ‘a fat heded monke’.

** In stanza 19 he is described as ‘a gret-hedid munke’.