Medieval Studies Robin Hood
John Marshall
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 06 February 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0031


For someone who probably never existed, Robin Hood has led a remarkable life. Indisputably a creation of the Middle Ages, Robin has not been confined by periodization. Unlike other medieval outlaws, real and fictional, Robin Hood has remained a cultural force from the first mention of him in a literary context in the late 14th century to a major Hollywood film in 2010. His appeal transcends the limitations of origin. As a significant player in popular culture he has responded to and been transformed by generic developments and technological advances. Beginning as an outlawed yeoman in the early poems and an efficient money gatherer in parish games, he becomes gentrified in the Renaissance drama to fit the character demands of tragedy. Through post-Napoleonic war novels he emerges as a national figure embodying Saxon bravery and identity. In pantomime the principal boy adopts the iconic tights that s/he is only now beginning to shrug off. In film and television his derring-do of the past is revitalized in swashbuckling action. He is adopted by New Age believers as a pagan deity and by rap artists “from the hood’” as a hero of retribution. All possible because, in the early material, he lacks definition: no biography, no family, no love interest, no specific period, and no consistent location. As an almost invisible man, he came to personify the central concerns, after poverty, of all human beings: natural justice and unconditional freedom.

General Overviews

For the most part the following offer more than general overviews. All extend beyond the period of medieval studies. Bradbury 2010 and Spraggs 2001 provide introductions to the medieval Robin Hood for the nonspecialist and general reader. Neither offer incisive new insights but facilitate an opening to further study. Holt 1989 and Knight 1994 represent the megaliths of late 20th-century Robin Hood scholarship. Holt, a medievalist and historian, concentrates upon the archival evidence for an historical Robin Hood while Knight is more concerned with the cultural history of Robin Hood manifested through literature and performance; a critical conviction developed further in Knight 2003. Pollard 2004 centers his study within the 15th century in a thorough analysis of the political and economic dimension to the emergence of Robin Hood. Singman 1998, on the other hand, concentrates on the social contexts of the ballad and play texts pre-1700.The astonishing variety of purpose and range of media that Robin Hood has served through the ages is entertainingly demonstrated in the catalogue that accompanied a major exhibition, Carpenter 1995.

  • Bradbury, Jim. Robin Hood. Stroud, UK: Amberley, 2010.

    The most useful of a recent surfeit of popular accounts of Robin Hood. Written with enthusiasm by a well respected military historian of medieval archery the book relies heavily on selective secondary sources. Provides a basic introduction, in reverse chronology, to the history and literature of Robin Hood for the nonspecialist.

  • Carpenter, Kevin. Robin Hood: The Many Faces of that Celebrated English Outlaw. Oldenburg, Germany: Bibliotheks-und Informationssystem der Universität Oldenburg, 1995.

    Essentially a catalogue, written in German and English, of an outstanding and comprehensive exhibition of Robin Hood material and artifacts held in Europe and North America between 1995 and 1997. In addition to a description of exhibits, many of which are illustrated, the volume contains important essays by a number of leading authorities including Holt, Dobson and Taylor, Knight, and Ohlgren.

  • Holt, James. Robin Hood. London: Thames and Hudson, 1989.

    A revised and enlarged edition of the 1982 groundbreaking study by an eminent medieval historian. Driven by a desire to identify the original Robin Hood, Holt meticulously interrogates documentary evidence from the Middle Ages in particular. Tendency to use the literary material for the same historical purpose. Inevitably dated, a reprint of 1989 appeared in 2011 with an unrevised text, new illustrations, and Child’s edition of A Gest of Robyn Hode appended.

  • Knight, Stephen. Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw. Oxford: Blackwell, 1994.

    Scholarly, encyclopedic and fluent introduction to the subject from a literary and cultural studies perspective. At the time of publication, an iconoclastic antidote to the dominance of historical studies in the field of Robin Hood. Half of the book is devoted to the early period with later chapters examining the modern manifestations of the legend in “heritage” and “film.” Very nearly lives up to the lofty subtitle.

  • Knight, Stephen. Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003.

    Knight recasts the material from his 1994 study in a more modern and literary mould. Rather than privilege chronology and form as in his earlier study, Knight examines transformations in the mythic and biographic aspects of Robin Hood within the social, political, and cultural contexts in which they occurred.

  • Pollard, A. J. Imagining Robin Hood: The Late-Medieval Stories in Historical Context. London and New York: Routledge, 2004.

    A leading historian’s contextualization of the early Robin Hood material in the economic, social, and political environment of the 15th century. Emphasizes the importance of the ideologically dominant concept of “good fellowship” in the literature. Argues for the texts to be seen as an articulation of a popular desire to challenge authority. Excellent bibliography for historical material.

  • Singman, Jeffrey L. Robin Hood: The Shaping of the Legend. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1998.

    A little dated now but a genuine attempt to explore the interaction between fictive texts and social contexts. Mainly concerned with the late medieval period, although considers the legend to 1700. More confident in exploring the play-games from the evidence of accounts than critically analyzing the poems and ballads.

  • Spraggs, Gillian. Outlaws and Highway Men: The Cult of the Robber in England from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century. London: Pimlico, 2001.

    Not intended to be as comprehensive as other works in this section. Nevertheless, the chapters on Robin Hood provide a lucid, knowledgeable, and uncontroversial introduction for a reader with more than a casual interest in the cult of outlaws.

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