The Duck of Minerva

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Robin “Just Another Hood”? Really?

March 15, 2009

An AP article claiming that “legendary outlaw Robin Hood wasn’t as popular as folklore suggests” has been picked up by a number of media outlets. Presumably one Professor Julian Lukford of the UK has drawn this conclusion based on a monk’s scrawl in a history book circa 1460:

“Writing in Latin, the monk accuses Hood of “infesting Sherwood and other law-abiding areas of England with continuous robberies.”

OK, so Robin Hood was perceived as a thief by authorities during the period. What’s so surprising about this? And how does it prove he was ‘unpopular’ just because certain members of the clergy objected to his activities? Show me the equivalent of a 13th century Gallup poll demonstrating antipathy by the commoners, and then you’re talking. Until then, you’re just generalizing to the entire population of the area an opinion based on one data point – by a historian who actually lived two centuries later.

Luxford’s rather contradictory comments themselves suggest as much, leading me to wonder whether the press has quoted him out of context to sell a story. The BBC quotes him as saying:

“Rather than depicting the traditionally well-liked hero, the article suggests that Robin Hood and his merry men may not actually have been ‘loved by the good’. The new find contains a uniquely negative assessment of the outlaw, and provides rare evidence for monastic attitudes towards him.”

But the longer version of the AP article quotes the following more nuanced interpretation of the findings, one that doesn’t support headlines claiming Luxford has debunked the myth:

Luxoford “said it was not entirely surprising that monks, as part of England’s clerical establishment, harbored negative feelings about the bandit.

Luxford said Robin Hood stories from the Middle Ages paint him as an ally of “good knights and yeomen — salt-of-the-earth type people. But they are not so positive about his relationship with the clergy.”

In other words, does this finding confirm, rather than debunk, the classic narrative?

Luxford’s work is probably more important for clarifying the exact time period in which the famous outlaw lived. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune:

“Luxford said the note is the earliest known reference to the outlaw from an English source and supports arguments that the historical Robin Hood lived in the 13th century, even though most popular modern versions of the story set him in the late 12th century reign of King Richard I.

Luxford said his discovery also may help settle debates in England about exactly where Robin Hood lived. The northern England county of Yorkshire has long claimed he was based there, but folklore has most commonly placed Hood in Sherwood Forest.

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.