Thursday, August 23, 2018

Part IV - Into the Dusty Tomes


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(New to this series of posts?  Click Here for Part I - My Secret)

One of the things about writing about a subject people know well is that you really have to fact check your stuff.  There is nothing worse than having some expert come around saying, "You messed this up!"  Man, it feels like a kick to the gut.

Unfortunately, the thing about Robin Hood is that the deeper you dig, the more you find.  It's like the Grand Canyon.

(amount of research to scale)

You could spend your entire life combing over every inch and cranny and still not discover everything, meanwhile, while your back was turned, the landscape you looked at before has totally shifted.


As I was talking to some publisher types about this project, the biggest question was, "How is this story different than every other story that's been written about Robin Hood?"

And it's a legit question.

But in order to find out how the story I was writing was different meant I needed to start figuring out what were the stories.

So, I started off with a simple search.  I asked the interwebs what the earliest written mention of Robin Hood was.  It turns out it was passing reference in Piers Plowman, published around 1377.

"I know not Paternoster as the priest it singeth, But I know rhymes of Robin Hood and Earl Randolph of Chester."

(don't worry about trying to read it.  The Robin Hood reference is actually on the page before, which does not seem to be scanned in.  But enjoy page 31!) 

That's it.  Robin's grand literary debut.

Piers Plowman is a dream poem written from the point of view of the seven deadly sins and Sloth says he can't remember any bible verses, but he can tell the stories of Robin Hood and the Earl of Chester.  

It seems just a passing comment, but it indicates that the Robin Hood ballads were popular and widespread enough by 1377 to deserve mention.  And not only mention, but chastised as lowbrow and the sort of egregious stuff those suffering from Sloth held dear.

And let's just talk about sloth for a moment here.  Sloth was considered not just a deadly sin, but the DEADLIEST of sins.  We now talk of sloth as laziness, but originally, sloth was despair and depression.

To translate: those suffering from despair and depression cling to the stories of Robin Hood as they hurtle towards their impending doom, but true hope and happiness is found in the church.

I should note at this point that two of the original surviving ballads of Robin Hood involve him 1) fighting a monk and 2) robbing the abbot of St. Mary's after discover the dude was up to some very un-Christian like financial behavior.

At which point, you may say, "But those are just stories!"

Eeeexcept...  as I was digging around the interweb, I discovered that in 1226, something happened at St. Mary's Abbey (the abbey mentioned in the ballad The Lyttle Geste of Robyn Hode) that made the Pope get himself out of his chair and mandate a semi-annual audit.  (And we'll get to that monk fight when I show you pictures from a recently discovered oubliette where Robin may have been held after the monk turned him in.)

"Okay!  Okay!" you may be saying.  "But was Robin Hood even alive in 1226?"


There are several real men who lived who went by the name of Robin Hood.  These men had lives that intersected with the ballads.  Some of the later ballads found in the Percy Folio seem to be describing Robin of Wakefield, who lived in 1322.  He lived in the forest.  There is a written record that the king took a shining to him and brought him into the court, and then Robin ran away and decided to go home.

But after looking through all the stuff I've seen, I'm inclined to believe that the first Robin Hood and the guy who started it all is a fellow known as Robin of Barnsdale.

"On 25th July 1225, the royal justices held an assize at York. When the penalties were recorded in the Michaelmas roll of the Exchequer, they included 32s. 6d. for the chattels of one Robert Hod, fugitive. The account was carried forward into the following year, when he had acquired the nickname of 'Hobbehod', and indicates that he had been a tenant of the archbishopric of York."

What does this all mean?  In 1225, a guy named Robin Hood shot a deer.  The royal justices took all his stuff (chattel) and charged him with a fine of 32 shillings and six pennies (d = Roman denarius, which became the penny).  He did not pay it.  He was called up three times to pay the fee and he never showed up.  And of all the Robin Hoods out there, he was the only one declared an official "outlaw."

Now, what does being an outlaw mean in 1225?  It meant you had to go live in a place outside of the rule of law... like a forest.  It is also where we get the term "beyond the pale."  A "pale" is the area in the forest where the king's deer hung out, and if you were an outlaw of grievous crimes, you were so badly banished that you had to live "beyond the pale."  You had to go live in the physical location beyond the pen where the deer were.

It is after this that "Robin Hood" became this name that starts showing up in the rolls.  It became a bit like a "John Doe."  An anonymous criminal would be recorded as a "Robin Hood."  But it also became this sort of "I am Spartacus" call among the lower classes.  Rather than saying their name when called to court, they would start saying they were "Robin Hood."

But that started leading me to the ballads.  The earliest ones are Robin Hood and the Monk and The Lyttle Geste of Robyn Hode (written down sometime in the 1400s, but thought to have been spoken in the 1200s and 1300s) which I have incorporated into Olde Robin Hood.

There is also a ballad called Robin and the Potter, but when you read it, it makes more sense that it was perhaps a play someone wrote down after watching it at the May Games.  It is filled with physical action and opportunities for slapstick.  I could be wrong and the real Robin did fight a potter and then dressed up as the guy and went into town to sell all his pots super cheap, thus getting the Sheriff of Nottingham's wife to invite him to dinner, where Robin and the Sheriff have an archery tournament and then Robin tricks the Sheriff into going into the woods, and Robin makes him camp out overnight, and promise never to hunt Robin Hood again.

But it seems a bit of a stretch.

There is also the Percy Folio in the 1600s, which consists of ballads thought to be spoken around the 1400s.  Most of them I dismissed:  Robin Hoode his Death - it's about Robin lying on his deathbed after being bled to death by a prioress.  He shoots an arrow out the window and tells Little John to bury him wherever the arrow falls.  There is a grave for Robin Hood outside of a place where a prioress would have lived, but it was created by the Victorians.  There is some evidence that there was an older grave beneath it, but it is too far from the building for any arrow to fly, so I decided not to include this story.  (There is also some evidence that the grave was created by the church as a way to assure travelers that Robin was dead.)  There is Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar.  It is believed this is a story from the May Games plays where Robin Hood carries Friar Tuck across a river.  We know the real Friar Tuck lived in the 1400s, so I skipped that one, too.  

But then we come to Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne.  It is believed to be one of the oldest ballads (perhaps even older than Robin Hood and the Monk), but just not published until this later collection.  There was something to that ballad and it mirrored some of the action in The Lyttle Geste of Robyn Hode, so I decided to draw upon that one in Olde Robin Hood, too.

I also realized that there are so many different stories of Robin Hood, maybe it would behoove me to pick up some older books to read what folks were writing about the guy 100 years ago and 200 years ago.  I'll be honest, they are pretty much just retellings of Mundy's and Sir Walter Scott's stories.  But the pictures are gorgeous!

Until I came to a little book of Scottish Ballads.

There is a thought that after Robin and Little John did whatever they did, and then around about 1260, they headed up to Scotland to help out with some fights up there.  There's a couple ballads about them in this book.  Mainly romantic tales of them hooking up with the ladies.

But I found this little historical note on something that went down in Scotland that just tickled me as something I had never heard before.

It reads:  "The game of Robin Hood was celebrated in the month of May.  The populace assembled previous to the celebration of this festival, and chose some respectable member of the corporation to officiate in the character of Robin Hood, and another in that of Little John, his squire....As numerous meetings for disorderly mirth are apt to engender tumult, it was found necessary to repress the game of Robin Hood by public statue. The populace were by no means willing to relinquish their favorite amusement....In the year 1561, the mob were so enraged in being disappointed in making a Robin Hood, that they rose in mutiny, seized on the city gates, committed robberies upon strangers; and one of the ringleaders, being condemned by the magistrate to be hanged, the mob forced open the jail, set at liberty the criminal and all the prisoners, and broke in pieces the gibbet erected at the cross for executing the malefactor.  They next assaulted the magistrates, who were sitting in the council chamber, and who fled to the tollbooth for shelter, where the mob attacked them, battering the doors, and pouring stones through the windows.  Application was made to the deacons for the corporations to appease the tumult.  Remaining, however, unconcerned spectators, they made this answer:  They will be magistrates alone; let them rule the multitude alone.   The magistrates were kept in confinement till they made proclamation be published, offering indemnity to the rioters upon laying down their arms.  Still, however, so late as the year 1592, we find the General Assembly complaining of the profanation of the Sabbath, by making of Robin Hood Plays."

You don't hear often about the Robin Hood Riots of 1561.


As time was passing, though, I realized that I was stumbling with the whole "Write What You Know."  I was generally creating a world from some hard-to-read maps and bastardizing a story from some old tales passed down.  But what did the world look like?  What did Sherwood Forest smell like?  How does the light fall down from the sky?  How is Nottingham laid out?  What stuff was there that I couldn't find in a book?  What is the truth of that city?

It was at this moment I was also stumbling into the wonderful world of radio drama.  There's a radio project I've been working on that I'll get into later -BUT- I saw that there was this organization called Arvon and the brilliant head of BBC Radio North, Susan Roberts, and the brilliant poet Simon Armitage were teaching a week long writing retreat which focused on how to write radio plays.

The country house where the retreat was taking place was really only accessible by car.

And one of the reasons I had never been up to Nottingham or Sherwood Forest was that you really need a car to get around.

And for those playing at home, in England, the wheel is on the right-hand side and they drive on the left side of the road.

I remembered the one and only time I tried to learn how to downhill ski, I realized I should have been doing it ten years before, that I was going to kill myself as an adult trying to learn.

And I realized that driving on the wrong side of the road was not going to get any easier as the years passed.  If I was going to do thing?  It was never going to get any easier, I was never going to be any sharper that I was at that very moment.


I bought my plane ticket, booked my hotels and rental car, and got ready for my trip to Nottingham!

Next up!  Part V - Into the Woods!  It's Time to Go!  My journey to Sherwood Forest

Complete List
Part I - My Secret
Part VI - Not in Nottingham
Part VII - Castles in the Sky

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