The Legend

From the first time men spoke of him, Robin Hood was believed to have been a real person. Over the centuries there has been much speculation as to who he was, however his identity remains unknown. No one could provide authentic records of his activities, but five of the oldest surviving poems or ballads as they are now called, tell us much of what is known about the legend of this English outlaw. Robin Hood and the Monk, Robin Hood and the Potter, Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, Robin Hoode his Death, and A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode, existed in the fifteenth or early sixteenth centuries. The Gest, the longest of the ballads, is divided into eight sections or ‘fyttes’. There were eight printed editions before 1600; one of the earliest came from the press of Wynken de Word, printed between 1492 and 1534. Another edition is possibly from the press of Jan van Doesborch at Antwerp and is dated 1510-1515; it is simply titled the Gest of Robyn Hode. Yet another edition is from William Copland; this has the title of the Mery Geste of Robyn Hoode, and is dated around 1560. There is also an edition by Richard Pynson that has survived in fragments. The word ‘Gest’ meant a tale of exploits or a romantic story. This enigmatic tale could have been written down as early as 1400.

In a text of William Langland’s Piers Plowman, the character named Sloth says:

I do not know my paternoster perfectly as the priest sings it.

But I know rhymes of Robin Hood and Randolph Earl of Chester.

This was written about 1377, which proves there were ‘rhymes’ of Robin Hood in the fourteenth century.

The Gest begins with:

Lythe and listin gentilmen
That be of frebore blode
I shall you tel of a gode yeman
His name was Robyn Hode

The third fytte begins with:

Lyth and lystyn gentilmen
All that nowe be here
Of Litell Johnn that was the knightes man
Goode myrth ye shall here

Robin Hood and the Monk was originally described as the ‘talkyng of the munke and Robyn Hode’. These two ballads at least, were possibly written by minstrels who recited or read them to an audience.