One of the striking features of A Gest of Robyn Hode is the incongruity between Robin's social class -- yeomanry -- and his repeated display of knightly customs and etiquette, such as offering liveries and fees to newly recruited gang members; granting a boon to the wife of the bankrupt knight; not eating until an "unkouth gest" arrives; and hand-washing before meals. Despite this fact, Rodney Hilton and Maurice Keen argued that the yeomen in the early Robin Hood poems represent dissatisfied manorial peasants.1 And, although J.C. Holt sharply disagreed with Hilton and Keen -- causing Keen to later modify his position -- by identifying the yeomen with "the retainers and dependants of the crown, the aristocracy, and the landed gentry," he persisted in localizing the audience of the poems in the manorial halls of the countryside.2 But the argument for a manorial audience remains unconvincing because it does not adequately explain theGest-poet's transfer of knightly-chivalric virtues to members of a lower social and economic class. More recent criticism has noted, in fact, that landed interests play only a small role in the Gest.3 While it is true that the abbot of St Mary's attempted to dispossess Sir Richard of his property, the episode is simply the catalyst for the central, key narrative -- Robin's rescue of the distressed knight, Sir Richard at the Lee.
Moreover, Richard Tardif has convincingly argued that the social context for the early Robin Hood poems is urban rather than rural: "the town itself, almost invariably Nottingham, is the sole locus of social imagery--of occupation, trade, and political structures-- for the cycle."4 Tardif thus extends the meaning of "yeomen" to include journeymen tradesmen and locates the audience of the ballads in the urban lower class. These journeymen -- or covenant servants working for wages -- formed their own fraternities, frequently coming into conflict with not only the civil authorities but also with the master guilds into which they were refused admission. Tardif shows how the two contradictory images of criminal activity and the suppressed yeoman fraternities became fused in the Robin Hood poems. Even though his contribution adds considerably to our understanding of the Gest, it nevertheless fails to explain in a satisfactory way the presence of knightly-chivalric ideology in the early Robin Hood poems. Tardif attributes the latter to "ideology lag": that is, the poems express customs and manners "in the terms of an already-available value-system from the land." 5
Drawing upon Michael Nerlich's book, Ideology of Adventure, I will argue instead that the creators of the early Robin Hood poems deliberately cloaked them in courtly ideology, not because of "ideology lag" but because the poems themselves marked a stage in the dialectical process of transforming the hero from knightly adventurer to merchant adventurer.6 The poems thus reveal what Nerlich calls a "change of consciousness" from the courtly-knightly ideology of adventure to mercantile self-awareness and self-fashioning. The virtues celebrated in courtly romance--martial prowess, voluntary daring, quest for unpredictable risk, loyalty to a revered lady, solidarity of the group, and largesse--have been conserved, imitated, and appropriated by the urban merchant and artisan classes, who are the producers and consumers of the Robin Hood poems. The outlaw of Sherwood in this sense fulfills the need for a mercantile hero to replace the knightly hero of the aristocratic romances. Robin Hood's imitation of courtly behavior and forms in the Gest is not simple flattery but part of a complex dialectical process--imitation signifying appropriation, the end of which is domination.7
In tracking Nerlich's "change of consciousness" from the knightly-courtly ideology to the mercantile ideology in the Robin Hood ballads, I find it best to describe it as a three-stage process:
1. presenting the two ideologies as distinct, if not oppositional entities, with courtly ideology dominating. Most chivalric romances either ignore mercantile matters or treat them in a condescending, if not contemptuous manner. In the tail-rhyme romance Octavian, for instance, the Roman Emperor's son Florent is adopted and raised by the merchant Clement. Twice Florent is sent to town to conduct business, and twice he instinctively exchanges his goods and money for a falcon and a war-horse. Thus, Florent's inborn nobility conflicts with the bourgeois ethos of his adoptive father.8
2. yeomanry imitating courtly culture by having the yeoman hero act as if he were knightly. In Robin Hood and the Potter, Robin exchanges identities with a potter in order to court the wife of the sheriff by giving her five pots, a gold ring, and a white palfrey. He also uses the ruse of the incompetent potter, who sells his pots well below their true market value, in order to entice the sheriff into the forest where the latter is captured and robbed. While no doubt there is some comedy directed at unorthodox business practices in the poem, the selling of the pots at ridiculously low prices is the means by which Robin is able to humiliate the sheriff twice over.9
3. mercantile culture appropriating and dominating courtly culture--the knightly adventure is converted to mercantile adventure. This stage is best exemplified in A Gest of Robyn Hode when Robin is shown to be superior to the downtrodden and bankrupt knight, Sir Richard at the Lee.The main benefit of such a schema is that it allows us to assess the degree of ideological transformation in each of the early outlaw tales. Given limited space, however, I will focus the remainder of my remarks on A Gest of Robyn Hode.
As I have already mentioned, Robin Hood, who is clearly identified as a yeoman, imitates knightly behavior by giving liveries and fees to his retained men; by acting in a courteous manner (the word "curteyse" is used seventeen times); by refusing to eat until he is visited by an unknown guest (like King Arthur in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight); by showing respect to his social superiors in lowering his hood and kneeling; and by granting a boon to the wife of Sir Richard at the Lee, the impoverished knight. Indeed, Robin exhibits all of the courtly virtues enumerated by Nerlich, but he also personifies the concomitant commercial values of the guildsman or merchant, which reveal that the poem has already undergone significant ideological transformation. While Tardif makes a compelling case for the presence of commercial elements in the Gest, he over restricts the audience to journeymen and apprentices---the "have nots" of the guild system---not fully realizing that the organization, officers, and activities of Robin's "guild" or "fellowship" are derived from the policies and practices of the urban guilds, including the master guilds or Great Livery Companies. There were some six hundred merchant and craft guilds scattered throughout England at this time, and many records, dating from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, survive in the form of royal charters, statutes, licenses, by-laws, ordinances, and writs.10 The parallels between guild policies and practices and specific scenes in the Gest are compelling, offering convincing evidence that the poem was composed for an audience who would not only recognize the mercantile allusions but also appreciate the yeoman hero's proving himself superior to a member of the knightly class.
Who can forget the famous recognition scene in the 1938 film, The Adventures of Robin Hood, when Errol Flynn recognizes King Richard the Lion Heart (played by Ian Hunter). We have a similar scene at the end of the Gest when Robin meets King Edward, disguised as a monk, in the forest. As soon as the monk displays the king's seal, claiming to be his messenger, Robin drops to his knees and exclaims "I love no man in all the worlde/ So well as I do my kynge" (ll. 1541-42).13 And later when Robin recognizes King Edward, he and the outlaws "kneled downe in that place" (l. 1640). It is clear then that Robin's outlawry is not directed at the king himself but at corrupt civil and religious officials, such as the sheriff and the abbot of St Mary's.
Every day or he wold dyneThe Virgin also plays a major role in one of the central episodes in the Gest: Robin's loan of £400 to the bankrupt knight, Sir Richard at the Lee, and its miraculous repayment by a monk from the Virgin's abbey in York.15
Thre messis wolde he here.
The one in the worship of the Fader,
And another of the Holy Gost,
The thirde of Our dere Lady,
That he loved allther moste.
Robyn loved Oure dere Lady. (ll.31-7)
'I make myn avowe to God,' sayde Litell Johnn,Another example occurs at the beginning of the third fitt when Little John, disguised as the yeoman archer Reynolde Grenlef, is himself recruited by the sheriff after winning the archery contest. Upon being offered the annual fee of twenty marks, Little John responds that the sheriff must first get "leve" or permission from his master, Sir Richard at the Lee, to whom he is bound (ll. 597-604). Had he not done so, the sheriff would have violated both civil law governing apprenticeship contracts and guild ordinances that prohibited the enticement of another's apprentice.18
'And by my true lewté,
Thou art one of the best swordemen
That ever yit sawe I me.
'Cowdest thou shote as well in a bowe,
To grene wode thou shuldest with me,
And two times in the yere thy clothinge
Chaunged shulde be,
'And every yere of Robyn Hode
Twenty merke to thy fe.'
'Put up thy swerde,' saide the coke,
'And felowes woll we be. (ll. 673-84)
'Make glade chere,' sayde Robyn Hode,Robin's references to "our ordre" and to a one-year training period resonate with allusions to guild policies and practices regarding the relations between masters and apprentices -- the occasion is marked by a meal (l. 761) and the presentation of a livery (l. 775); the master promises to supply him with room, board, and clothing for a specified period of time (l. 793); the apprentice pays an enrollment fee in the amount of £300 (the amount taken by Little John); and he swears to do his master no injury (ll. 805-13).
'Sheref, for charité,
For this is our ordre iwys,
Under the grene wode tree."
'This is harder order,' sayde the sherief,
'Than any ankir or frere;
For all the golde in mery Englonde
I wolde nat longe dwell her.'
'All this twelve monthes,' sayde Robyn,
'Thou shalt dwell with me;
I shall the teche, proude sherif,
An outlawe for to be.' (ll. 785-96)
In the Gest the giving and receiving of liveries play a central role, marking the recruitment of a new member into the band of outlaws. After the sheriff's cook fights Little John to a draw in the third fitt, Little John invites him to return with him to the greenwood, offering him two changes of clothing annually and twenty marks as his fee (ll. 676-82). In the first fitt, Robin outfits the threadbare knight in a livery of deeply-dyed scarlet, which in essence makes the knight his man (ll. 277-82). Similarly, when the Sheriff of Nottingham is captured in the forest, he is stripped of his hose, shoes, kirtell, and fur-lined coat and dressed in a "grene mantle." Robin then offers to teach the sheriff how to be an outlaw, effectively recruiting him as an apprentice. Finally, when in the eighth fitt Robin meets King Edward, he sells him thirty-three yards of Lincoln green cloth in which he and his knights dress as they ride towards Nottingham. The fact that the guildsmen and the outlaws both wear distinctively colored liveries with hoods should not go unnoticed, nor should Robin's surname, Hood, which undoubtedly refers to the cloth head covering..
All the people of Notyngham
They stode and behelde;
They sawe nothynge but mantels of grene
That covered all the felde. (ll. 1687-1708)
Money lending plays a major role in the Gest -- Robin's loan of £400 to the bankrupt knight Sir Richard at the Lee is both the central and key episode. It is important to recall that the aid is in the form of a loan, not an outright gift. This scene contrasts vividly with chivalric practice when knights were praised for "fredom" or generosity of goods and spirit. In Chaucer's "The Knight's Tale" Theseus gives Arcite, disguised as Philostrate, "gold to mayntene his degree," with no thought to being repaid.22 In mercantile ideology, the virtue of generosity has been reconfigured as a loan to be repaid. Robin, furthermore, drives a hard bargain when he rejects Sir Richard's offer of God Himself as his guarantor: "Find me a better borowe," sayde Robyn, / "Or money getest thou none" (ll. 255-6). After Sir Richard offers the Virgin Mary as his guarantor, Robin heartily agrees, as he is devoted to the Virgin, and orders Little John to go to his treasure box and carefully count out the £400. The two then agree that the loan is to be repaid in twelve months. After the year passes, Robin anxiously waits to be repaid his money. When the knight is late on the repayment day, Robin twice confesses, "For I drede Our Lady be wroth with me, / For she sent me nat my pay" (ll. 823-4, 939-40). While Robin sounds harsh in demanding a guarantor or surety for the loan as well as a definite repayment date, he is following routine guild policies.23
'For ye have scarlet and grene, mayster,Robin replies by commanding Little John to "Take hym thre yerdes of every colour" and warns him to make sure it is well measured (ll. 285-86). Little John proceeds to measure out the cloth with the stave of his longbow, adding three additional feet with each handful. Concerned about the display of excess, Muche the Miller's Son exclaims: "What devylles drapar...Thynkest thou for to be?" (ll. 291-92). Will Scarlok then laughs, saying that John can afford to give him "gode mesure" because it isn't costing him anything (ll. 295-96).
And many a riche aray;
Ther is no marchaunt in mery Englond
So ryche, I dare well say.' (ll. 281-84)
There are several key points here. First, by outfitting the knight, Robin is in essence retaining the knight as his servant, and, as we later see, he performs this service at the end of the fifth fitt by offering Robin and his men sanctuary and protection in his castle against the sheriff (ll. 1241-64). Second, Robin is explicitly identified as a rich cloth merchant with "many a riche aray," and he exercises his trade at the beginning of the eighth fitt when he sells thirty-three yards of Lincoln green cloth to King Edward. Third, when Robin orders Little John to measure the cloth carefully and he responds by wildly mismeasuring it with his bow-stave, they are playing the roles of "master" and serving-man or apprentice. The scene has nothing to do with Robin's "largesse," as Douglas Gray suggests; instead, the scene dramatizes the friction between a master guildsman and his lesser tradesman.24 Fourth, by using the bow-stave to measure the cloth, Little John is resisting the authority of the established cloth guilds--the Draper's Company and the Merchant Tailors--to impose the standard measure or "Silver Yard" on cloth dealers. These guilds, which had absolute jurisdiction over the manufacture and sale of cloth, wielded their royally chartered power by searching shops in order to make sure that the proper yard measure was used. Fraudulent cloth merchants were punished by fines and even imprisonment. (Herbert 1:46-8). Thus, when Little John uses the bow-stave as a measure, which is some sixty-seven inches in length instead of thirty-six inches, as a measure, he is challenging the right of the cloth merchants, symbolized by Robin Hood himself, to intimidate either the lesser tradesmen or a rival guild.25 Furthermore, when Much accuses Little John of acting like the "devylles drapar," he may not only be commenting on his reckless behavior but identifying the very guild that commissioned the poem to be recited by a minstrel at one of its annual election feasts.26
'Haste thou ony grene cloth,' sayd our kynge,Robin replies:
'That thou wylte sell nowe to me?'
'Ye, for God,' sayd Robyn,Although the Middle English verb sellen can mean "to give" as well as "to sell for money," the latter meaning is clearly intended here because it would be out of character for Robin to give the cloth away.27 The king then casts off his monk's garb and dons the "grene garment," and together with Robin and his men he rides off to Nottingham as their "mantels of grene" cover the field. The royal transaction is not mere fantasy -- surviving records indicate that the Drapers manufactured and sold liveries "for great lords and others of the Commons." An entry in the Calendar of Close Rolls for 1313-18 notes that Richard de Welleford sold material to another Draper "for the King's use" (Johnson 1:85).
'Thyrty yerdes and thre.' (ll. 1669-72)
1. R. H. Hilton, "The Origins of Robin Hood," Past and Present 14 (1958): 30-44; Maurice Keen, "Robin Hood --- Peasant or Gentleman?," Past and Present 19 (1961). Both essays, as well as a response by J. C. Holt, are reprinted in R. H. Hilton, ed., Peasants, Knights and Heretics: Studies in Medieval English Social History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976).
2. J. C. Holt, "The Origins and Audience of the Ballads of Robin Hood," Past and Present 19 (1961); reprinted in Hilton,Peasants, Knights and Heretics. See also Holt's Robin Hood, rev. ed. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1982), pp. 109-58.
3. Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), 51; see also, Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren, Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 1997), p. 8.
4. Richard Tardif, "The 'Mistery' of Robin Hood: A New Social Context for the Texts," in Worlds and Words: Studies in the Social Role of Verbal Culture, eds. Stephen Knight and S. N. Mukherjee (Sydney: Sydney Association for Studies in Society and Culture), 1983, 130-45.
5. Tardif, p. 133.
6. Michael Nerlich, Ideology of Adventure: Studies in Modern Consciousness 1100-1750, translated by Ruth Crowley, 2 vols. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), vol. 1, pp. 60-9.
7. Nerlich, Ideology of Adventure, observes: "The bourgeoisie, in assimilating courtly culture and ideology, not only won for itself the social privileges of the nobility, it not only changed courtly culture and ideology in its own direction in this assimilation (that is, in the direction of bourgeois interest and the expression of this interest), it also changed itself in this assimilation, became more of a competitor-- and that means that it used the cultural and ideological weapons of the nobility (in part unconsciously) in the class struggle against that very nobility" (1:61).
8. Maldwyn Mills, ed., Six Middle English Romances (London: Dent, 1973; reissued 1992), p. 95. See also Harriet Hudson, ed., Four Middle English Romances (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1996), pp. 45-114. For a detailed treatment of anti-mercantile satire, see Jill Mann, Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire (Cambridge University Press, 1973), pp. 99-105.
9. The merchant disguise is also used as a strategic trick in Eustache the Monk, when, like Robin, the outlaw monk pretends to be a bourgeois in order to lure the Count of Boulogne into a trap in the forest; see Thomas H. Ohlgren, ed.,Medieval Outlaws: Ten Tales in Modern English (Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing, 1998), pp. 76-7. If there is some satire against mercantile practices, as Stephen Knight suggests (Robin Hood, p. 55), it is self-directed because the manuscript containing Robin Hood and the Potter was written for a "Ricardo Calle," who left his name and merchant's mark on folio 24v of Cambridge, University Library MS Ee.4.35.1. I have recently identified "Ricardo Calle" with Richard Call, who served as the high bailiff or steward of the Paston family from Norfolk. As evidenced by dozens of surviving letters in Call's own hand to various members of the family, he was the chief business agent of the lord of the manor and managed his estates for at least half a century from 1455 to 1503. As I will show in a separate study, the Cambridge manuscript is exactly the kind of anthology of texts that a upwardly mobile businessman would be expected to own in the fifteenth century.
10. For a representative sample of guild charters and ordinances, see William Herbert, The History of the Twelve Great Livery Companies of London, 2 vols. (London: Published by the Author, 1834 and 1837; reprint, New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1968); Toulmin Smith, ed., English Gilds. Early English Text Society. (London: Oxford University Press, 1870; reprint, 1963); A. H. Johnson, The History of the Worshipful Company of the Drapers of London, 5 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1914-22.) For a study of rural guilds focusing on Cambridgeshire, see Virginia R. Bainbridge, Gilds in the Medieval Countryside (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1996). All subsequent citations to these works will be parenthetical.
11. Herbert, Twelve Great Livery Companies, 1: xiv-xv. The companies and years of incorporation are: 1327: Goldsmiths, Skinners, Merchant Tailors; 1353: Grocers; 1363: Salters; 1364: Drapers, Vintners.
12. From the "General Prologue" in Larry D. Benson, ed., The Riverside Chaucer, 3d ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), lines 276-77.
13. All line citations to the Gest are to the edition in Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, eds. Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 1997), pp. 90-148. All subsequent citations will be parenthetical.
14. See Herbert, Twelve Great Livery Companies, 1:226, 390; 2:300, 644. The armorial bearings of the Drapers and the Mercers both depict the Assumption of the Virgin, which was a favorite tableau in the city pageants; see John Bromley,The Armorial Bearings of the Guilds of London (London: Frederick Warne, 1960), pp. 72-8, 168-72. The Drapers received their grant of arms in 1439, which describes it "as a coat of arms for a perpetual remembrance and in honour of the most glorious Virgin and Mother, Mary, who is in the shadow of the sun and yet shines with all clearness and purity, three sunbeams issuing from three clouds of flame, crowned with three imperial crowns of gold on a shield of azure" (Johnson, History of the Worshipful Company of Drapers, 1:115).
15. For a discussion of the "miracle of the Virgin" that is the source of this episode, see Knight and Ohlgren, Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, p. 153.
16. Herbert 1:389-90. The Drapers' Company had no "Master" until 1439, the prior leadership being provided by four Wardens (Johnson 1:110). If it could be proved that the Drapers commissioned the composition of the Gest, then the date 1439 could be considered the terminus a quo of the poem.
17. Sylvia Thrupp observes that guild membership was divided into those wearing the official livery and those who didn't. Those excluded from the livery (called the yeomanry or bachelors) tended to engage in retail shopkeeping rather than wholesale trade. The liveried members constituted a select group of freemen with capital and influence; see her The Merchant Class of Medieval London (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1989), pp. 12-14.
18. The Statute of Labourers (1351) was an unsuccessful attempt after the Black Death to restrict the movement of laborers to other places of employment for higher wages (A.R. Myers, English Historical Documents 1327-1485 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969), pp. 928-29.) The guild ordinances also prohibited the taking of another's apprentice until a "reasonable parting were made between the master and the servant" (Herbert 2:417). Likewise, the Drapers forbade "any one of the Fraternity to take any servant, house, or ground belonging to another brother without leave" (Johnson 1:122).
19. "A Talkyng of Robin Hood," 33rd International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, 1998. Noting that two decidedly non-festive developments in the Gest -- the restoration of Sir Richard and Robin's death by treachery -- are described respectively as "game... full gode" (l. 326) and "false playe" (l. 1820), Hoffman suggests that examples of elision in the late Middle English of the Gest, combined with the poem's jog-trot scansion, incantatory rhyme scheme, and vestiges of seasonal gaming, disguising, and inversion, may have dictated a parodic style of recitation marked by a consistently rapid and mannered cadence, particularly in exchanges between Little John and Much, Sir Richard and his enemies at St. Mary's Abbey, and throughout the comic brawl in the third fitt.
20. W. M. Ormrod, The Reign of Edward III: Crown & Political Society in England 1327-1377 (London: Guild Publishing, 1990), p. 187, 174, 184.
21. Thrupp, The Merchant Class, p. 111.
22. From "The Knight's Tale" in Larry D. Benson, ed., The Riverside Chaucer, line 1441.
23. The ordinance of the Gild of the Resurrection of Out Lord (Lincoln), founded in 1374, states that "No brother of the gild shall have the use of any goods or chattels of the gild, unless he finds a good surety, who will be answerable, in any event, for the goods" (Smith, English Gilds, 177). Likewise, money borrowed must be paid on the day appointed: "When any one has borrowed any money from the gild, either to traffic with or for his own use, under promise to repay it on a given day, and he does not repay it, though three times warned, he shall be put under suspension, denunciation, and excommunication, -- all contradiction, cavil, and appeal aside, -- until he shall have wholly paid it" (Smith: 170).
24. Douglas Gray, "The Robin Hood Poems," Poetica 18 (1984), 29. Here and elsewhere Little John is reacting against Robin's direct orders to perform menial tasks. As Barbara A. Hanawalt observes, apprenticeship contracts "specified that the apprentice not be required to do demeaning work reserved for servants"; see her Growing Up in Medieval London (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 160.
25. The Drapers' Company frequently came into conflict with its rivals in the cloth trade, notably the Dyers, Weavers, and Fullers, as well as the Merchant Tailors. In 1364 Edward III granted the Drapers a monopoly to sell cloth in the City of London, and the lesser cloth guilds were prohibited from doing so: "each of the Mysteries of Dyers, Weavers, and Fullers shall keep themselves to their own Mystery, and in no way meddle with the 'making,' buying, or selling of any manner of cloth or drapery on pain of imprisonment" (Letters Patent of 38 Ed III, cited in Johnson 1:206). Although the statute was subsequently repealed, the Dyers, Fullers, and Weavers abandoned the retail sale of cloth (Johnson 1:101). Incorporated by Henry IV in 1408, the Merchant Tailors came into conflict with the Drapers over the right of search of both unmade and made-up cloth. The Drapers, who had long enjoyed the right to make searches of made-up cloth, were successfully challenged by the Tailors in 1439, who were granted Letters Patent giving them the authority to make full searches in the City. But, when the Tailors' mayoral candidate was defeated in October 1441, the decision was reversed, at which point the Tailors rioted in protest (Johnson 1:117-18).
26. The expression devylles drapar (Devil's draper) appears to be a nonce phrase. It is exactly the type of insult that one would expect to hear at a guild election dinner where those "out of the cloth" good-naturedly insult "those in the cloth," and vice versa.
27. The earlier references to commercial activity and the immediate context with its calculation of exact yardage ("Thyrty yerdes and thre") strongly support the reading "to sell for money."
28. Tardif, pp. 134-39.