Now stand ye forth my merry men all,
And harke what I shall say;
Of an adventure I shal you tell,
The which befell this other day.
Around 1560, the London-based printer William Copland published a work that declared on its title page to be “A mery geste of Robyn Hoode and of hys lyfe, wyth a new playe for to be played in Maye games very pleasaunte and full of pastyme”.
The ballad – with slightly varying titles, all referring to a “Gest” or “Geste” – had been published several times previously from other printers. The earliest surviving published edition of the Gest dates from around 1500 (although the ballad was likely composed a few decades before that) . But this “new play” intended for the May Games was not included in the earlier editions, but Copland’s addition of the play sheds light on an important but somewhat cloudy aspect of Robin Hood’s history.
The May Games were village festivals, usually held in May or June [although not often on May 1, as some historians once felt] around Whit Sunday. And for a couple hundred years, Robin Hood played a large part in such games. Sometimes costumed players from one village would proceed to another village to ask for money. Robin Hood might sell badges (such as strips of cloth) or church ales to raise money. Often the money would go for something like repairing the village church. (J.C. Holt has speculated that the idea that Robin Hood robbed from the rich to give to the poor might have come from some enterprising churchwarden promoting the benefits of the funds raised.) Small Robin Hood plays would be performed at these festivals, often with mock combat. Between the 1420s and the mid-1600s, we have more references to these Robin Hood plays than any other kind of English folk drama.
Many of the surviving records of these plays or games concern financial matters. We know, for example, that in 1561, the good villagers of Chudleigh in Devon paid 11 shillings and 6 pence for the cloth of Robin Hood’s coat (among many expenses) and that they received three pounds for the sale of ale. But not all the Robin Hood references that year were so dry. In Edinburgh of 1561, the Robin Hood games had been banned, but that didn’t stop them from being performed which led to riot and robbery – in real life, not just the fictional, mock drama.
Mostly the text, the fiction, of these plays has been lost to history. That’s why Copland’s edition is so vital. There’s only one earlier surviving text of what of these plays were like -- a “dramatic fragment” from around 1475. It’s from a manuscript belonging to the Paston family and often called “Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham” based other Paston family references. This play contains 21 rhyming couplets, but does not tell us which characters are speaking or provide any stage directions. (Whether the rhymed dialogue is incomplete or Robin Hood was supposed to save the day in a wordless, action-based conclusion is a matter of some debate.) Scholars have offered various “reconstructions” of the play, largely relying on its similarity to the ballad Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne. This fragment is also notable as the earliest surviving Robin Hood story to feature Friar Tuck (or “ffere tuke”), although there are references to a real outlaw earlier in 1400s using the Tuck alias. Tuck and Maid Marian both appear to belong more to the performance tradition than the ballad tradition, where they only appear in later ballads.
So, what of Copland’s “Playe of Robyn Hoode, verye proper to be played in Maye games” which he had described as new on the title page? Well, it seems to be two separate plays joined together “like two episodes from a modern television serial copied onto the same tape” as Stephen Knight described it in his 1994 Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw. (Ask your parents if you’re confused by having TV episodes on “tape” as opposed to streaming or Blu-Ray.) The first play shows Robin Hood and his men encountering a friar (Tuck) and the second depicts their encounter with a potter.
Scholars also question whether it is accurate to describe this play – or plays – as new. R.B. Dobson and J. Taylor in their 1976 collection Rymes of Robyn Hood state “All in all, the most likely hypothesis is that two existing early Tudor May Game plays had been roughly re-worked for the press in order to allow Copland to exploit the contemporary appetite for such works.” (p. 209 – 1997 edition). Certainly much in the plays is familiar.
The potter section greatly resembles the opening part of the ballad Robin Hood and the Potter which survives as a single manuscript from around 1468 (based on a datable reference elsewhere in the manuscript). Some lines are almost directly from the ballad. When describing a proud potter who refuses to pay the outlaws road tax (or pavage), the ballad says “he was neuer so corteys a man / on peney of pawage to pay” and the play in Copland’s edition says “yet was he neuer so curteyse a potter/ as one peny passage to paye”. The play takes Robin’s fight with the potter from the ballad, but doesn’t include the rest. In the ballad, Robin goes on to switch places with the potter in order to trick the sheriff (an idea also carried over to the latter ballad Robin Hood and the Butcher). The play gives the potter a boy named Jack, a character who does not appear in the ballad. While a potter ballad was clearly known to the writer, as Knight and Ohlgren among others note, it’s likely that the writer had access to a Potter ballad somewhat different than the sole version which survived to the 21st century. (Later printed broadside ballads survive in all sorts of different variant versions.)
The friar section, however, is not only familiar to scholars of the medieval outlaw legend, but very familiar to a general 21st century audience as well. Robin forces Friar Tuck to carry him across a river on the friar’s back. This scene appears in most Robin Hood children pieces – an illustration of this event is the frontispiece to much reprinted 1883 children’s novel The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood by Howard Pyle. The scene occurs in the 1938 film The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn as Robin and Eugene Pallette as Tuck and the 1952 film The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men with Richard Todd and James Hayter. And like the potter section, it also resembles a ballad – Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar. The difference is that the earliest surviving copy of this particular ballad is from a century after Copland’s play. Either the later ballad came from a recorded performance tradition, or quite possibly the ballad existed in some form long before we have a record of it. When it comes to Robin Hood, there’s a lot we just don’t know for sure.
(For the most part, the original spelling has been retained. Please note that Copland often used a u where we’d use a v. So knave is spelled “knaue”, or loved is rendered as “loued”.)
Robin Hood asks the Merry Men to listen to a recent adventure. Robin tells how he had met a friar, how they fought with quarterstaffs, and how the friar had made off with Robin's purse. Robin asks if any of his Merry Men will bring the friar before Robin. Little John agrees they will find this Friar. Elsewhere, the friar -- Fryer Tuck, to use the play's spelling -- brags how he's an excellent archer, and can handle the sword, buckler (the small shield that heroic adventurers are often said to swash) and quarterstaff. The friar says he will go to find that good yeoman Robin Hood in Barnsdale. If Robin is the better man, Tuck will serve him. But if the Friar is more worthy, then he says of Robin "By my truth my knaue shall he be,/ And lead these dogges all three."
Robin sees the friar and grabs him by the throat. Tuck explains his presence, saying he's looking for Robin Hood, but Robin asks "Thou lousy frer what wouldest thou with hym / He neuer loued fryer nor none of freiers kyn". They trade more insults, and Robin jumps on the friar's back, forcing Tuck to carry him across the water (as the bridge has been borne away). But Tuck turns the tables and dumps Robin into the water.
Robin Hood and Friar Tuck begin to fight with staffs or clubs. Robin begs leave to blow his horn to summon his favourite dog to say goodbye. Instead, the horn summons the Merry Men. “Here be a sorte of ragged knaues come in / Clothed all in kendale grene.” Robin gives Tuck leave to whistle for his own men, who have the canine-sounding names of Cut and Bause. (In the ballad, the friar summons dogs who can catch the Merry Men’s arrows.) The fight continues. Robin halts the fight and asks the friar “wylt thou be my man / To do me the best seruyse you can.” He offers Tuck not only gold and fee, but also a "lady free".
If you’re of prudish or delicate sensibilities, you might want to follow the example of the 19th century ballad collector Francis Child and just skip over the Friar’s response and continue onto the Potter summary.
Here is an huckle duckle,
An inch above the buckle.
She is a trul of trust,
To serue a frier at his lust,
A prycker, a prauncer, a terer of shetes,
A wagger of ballockes when other men slepes.
Go home, ye knaues, and lay crabbes in the fyre,
For my lady & I will daunce in the myre,
For veri pure joye.
(The scene apparently ends with a morris dance.)
F.J. Child, omitted those lines when he printed the play, claiming that they have "no pertinency to the traditional Robin Hood and the Friar". No wonder Child might have been a bit shocked, if -- as Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren have raised as a possibility -- the friar was wearing a large fake phallus in this scene. Some, such as Barrie Dobson and J. Taylor, have suggested that the "lady free" must be Marian. Although she goes unnamed here, some old references do give Marian a bit of a bawdy reputation.
Much like the friar section, Robin asks his Merry Men to listen to an adventure. He describes meeting a proud potter who wears a rose garland on his head. For seven years, the potter has travelled through Robin’s domain but not paid a penny of passage (or pavage aka road tax) to the Merry Men. Robin asks :
Is there any of my mery men all
That dare be so bolde
To make the potter paie passage either siluer or golde
Little John declines the offer.
Not I master for twenty pound redy tolde
For there isnot among vs al one
That dare medle with that potter man for man.
Little John explains that he had been in a fight with the potter and regretted it. Robin then bets Little John twenty pounds that he can make the potter pay.
The potter’s boy Jack (or Jacke as it is spelled in Copland’s edition) enters, fretting that he is out of his way and if he doesn’t hurry, he’ll miss the Nottingham market. Robin calls Jack’s master a cuckold and asks Jack if his pots are whole and sound, and Jack replies they will not break on the ground. Robin says he’ll break them to spite the potter “And if they will not breake the grounde / thou shalt haue thre pence for a pound.” Jack Is upset and threatens “If my maister come he will breke your crown.”
The potter does come and curses his boy for not being at market. Jack explains that Robin Hood broke his pots and insulted the potter. The potter says “Thou mayst be a gentylman so god me saue / But thou semest a noughty knaue.” Of the cuckold insult, the potter says that he never had a wife, and continues that if Robin is a good fellow, he’d be willing to sell his horse, harness, pots and paniers to him. If not, he threatens Robin with stripes (blows).
Robin again states his claim that the potter has been discourteous in not paying for passage. The potter asks why he should pay passage money to Robin. “For I am Robyn hode chief gouernoure / Under the grene woode tree.” The potter hasn’t paid for passage before now and threatens Robin to do his worse. He asks Robin to:
If thou be a good felowe as men do the call
Laye awaye thy bowe
>And take thy sword and buckeler in thy hande
And se what shall befall
There are no stage directions, but presumably the fight does not go well as Robin calls for Little John. John pretty much tells Robin “I told you so”, but agrees to help Robin fight back. And there the text ends, possibly continuing with more fighting and possibly another dance.
During the first Robin Hood academic conference at Rochester, NY in October 1997, the drama students of the school staged a lively recreation of the Friar portion play. They did a superb job at bringing the old text to life. Seeing it performed brought home to me how fun this play could be.
Then, at the third Robin Hood conference in June 2001 at the University of Western Ontario, another production was staged. This time the long-running medieval Renaissance and drama group Poculi Ludique Societas – or PLS - adapted the play. The PLS version was updated with some Three Stooges-like slapstick. It concludes with a morris dance, something suggested in the original text, but that was followed by a more modern Conga line. As I recall, the production added a comedic prologue, depicting the theft of Robin Hood’s purse.
One of the cleverest changes was dealing with the shortage of actors. There weren't enough actors for both the Merry Men and the Friar's Men. So, immediately before the big fight scene, a few Merry Men defect to the friar's side. Robin asks “Why?” in goggly-eyed astonishment, and the former Merry Man responds, counting the reasons off on his fingers "Medical, dental ... and we don't have to wear kendal green!” (The colour Robin’s band wears in the play.) Some in the audience frowned at these changes, but I think there must have been a lot of adaptation, slapstick humour and ad-libing in the May Games. For me, this production captured the playful spirit of the Games.
Both the Rochester and Western productions followed old traditions by casting a man as the friar's "lady free". [And historical records show that men did play this part.]
Neither conference adapted the Potter portion, but then Friar Tuck is a bigger star than the nameless potter.
At the 2003 Robin Hood academic conference in York, Professor John Marshall delivered a witty paper about the comedy of errors surrounding one production of the Friar play. When Ripon - near Fountains Abbey, Tuck's supposed home - celebrated the 1000th anniversary of their city charter in 1886, Master of the Revels D'Arcy Ferrers chose to recreate the classic scene of Robin and the Friar on what he believed was "the original spot". However, plans to have 50 trained arrow-catching dogs, as in the ballad, had to be scrapped.
It’s often noted how different the medieval Robin Hood is from the character we find in movies and television. It’s true to an extent. The Robin Hood of these plays (or play) does not fight cruel Norman overlords. He doesn’t freely distribute the money from his robberies to poor, starving villagers. Robin doesn’t impose his road tax on rich and powerful knights, barons or even abbots and bishops (although his fight with a friar does continue the anti-clerical tradition of the ballads) – no, this Robin Hood forces a working stiff, a potter, to pay his toll. Robin justifies his actions because he is the chief governor under the greenwood tree. No wonder the publicity for Angus Donald’s 2009 novel Outlaw billed Robin Hood as “The Godfather of Sherwood Forest”.
But if in some aspects the early Robin Hood legend might be darker than the do-gooder children’s hero we often find in the 21st century, the Robin Hood of the friar and potter plays is also funnier. Dobson and Taylor describe the tone of plays as “comic buffoonery”, and when scholars discuss these plays the word “bawdy” is almost always used. Friar Tuck suggests he’ll have his way with a lady free, and there’s an extended discussion on whether the potter is a cuckold. Both plays are essentially about two people insulting each other and then getting into fights. The 2001 Robin Hood and the Friar production by PLS did not have to stretch the text that far to showcase the comic potential inherent in the play
Oh, and the friar’s weapon of choice in these comic fights? The quarterstaff. The online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary offers Copland’s play as the earliest use of the word. But the word quarterstaff should be well familiar to modern-day Robin Hood fans. It’s Little John’s signature weapon in the later ballad Robin Hood and Little John – a ballad very much in keeping with the style of these plays. Little John’s association with the staff continues in film and television versions of the legend.
Little John is the only one of Robin’s band (not counting any new recruits) to be mentioned by name in these plays. He also appears in all the early ballads too. One can imagine that when Robin asks for his Merry Men to listen to his tales of adventure that he’s addressing other characters from the ballads, such as Much the Miler’s Son or Will (he of many surnames, but Scarlet is the most familiar to us). But maybe not. The May Games raised funds by selling liveries. The villagers showed their allegiance to Robin Hood by buying badges or strips of cloth. Perhaps the Merry Men that Robin addresses are not the heroes of legend, but the audience themselves – all now made honorary Merry Men by the liveries they have purchased. Interaction between characters and the audience is something that continues in the Robin Hood production, for example it’s a stock part of the many Christmas pantos that Robin appears in.
Earlier I compared the ballad tradition with the performance tradition. But that’s not a fair division, is it? These plays are linked to ballads, perhaps an adaptation of them. The “Robin Hood meets his match” ballads – as many others have noted – are likely an outgrowth of the May Games. But it’s more than that. At the 2001 Robin Hood conference, I didn’t just see a production of Robin Hood and The Friar. I also saw a “talk-sing” recitation of A Gest of Robyn Hode by folk singer Bob Frank. Much like when I saw the plays, Bob’s version of the Gest radiated with life and humour that I hadn’t always seen in the text itself. That was performance too. The ballads are performance – the Gest and the ballad version of Robin Hood and the Potter both ask the audience to listen, not read – listen.
Tuck and Marian only turn up in later surviving ballads, but these plays suggest that the Curtal Friar ballad is much older than the copies that survive. And would audiences have really kept characters separate between different media -- in the plays, but not the ballads -- for so long? When comic books are adapted to radio and television, the adaptations sometimes create new characters and concepts that are later inserted back into the comics within a few years – not a few centuries. Who knows what we’d find if more medieval ballads survived. Perhaps the main differences between the plays and the ballads are ones of practicality. Arrow-catching dogs? It’s an easy enough concept to sing about, but not so easy to dramatize on stage. The nature of the stories may change based on what the strength of each medium is, but for the general audience, ballads or plays – it would all be the same Robin Hood.
The play of Robin Hood and the Friar and Robin Hood and the Potter is available online at The Robin Hood Project of the University of Rochester. Also online at Rochester are the original ballads of the Robin Hood and the Potter and Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar. All include scholary introductions by Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren.
HOOD AND OTHER OUTLAW TALES edited by Stephen Knight
and Thomas Ohlgren. It's a whopping 700 pages filled with ballads,
plays, and historical background. Much of this book is
online at The Robin Hood
Project at the University of Rochester.
Buy it on Amazon.com
Buy it on Amazon.co.uk
Buy it on Amazon.ca
OF ROBYN HOOD; AN INTRODUCTION TO THE ENGLISH OUTLAW
by R.B. Dobson and J. Taylor. Alan Sutton: Gloucester, UK,
1989. Originally published by Heinemann in 1976, this
is a classic collection of ballads and poems with a wonderful
historical introduction. A new edition was released in 1997
with an updated foreword.
Buy the 1997 edition on Amazon.com
Buy the 1997 edition on Amazon.co.uk
Buy the 1997 edition on Amazon.ca
THE EARLY RYMES OF ROBYN HOOD: An Edition of the Texts, ca. 1425 - 1560 edited by Thomas H. Ohlgren and Lister M. Matheson. Tempe: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2013. In most volumes, the Robin Hood texts are edited - variant versions are combined to "produce the best text", typos are "fixed" and spelling and punctuation is adjusted for a modern audience. All very helpful for the general reader, but those editions don't give a true picture of the original sources. This includes reproductions of the texts of Robin Hood and the Monk (including a previously unpublished fragment), Robin Hood and the Potter, seven different editions of A Gest of Robyn Hode and the three early plays. It is a very useful volume for advanced studies.
Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw by Stephen Knight. Blackwell: Oxford UK and Cambridge, USA, 1994.
Two books that give a lot of information on the May Games are:
The Early Plays of Robin Hood by David Wiles. D.S. Brewer: Cambridge, 1981.
Robin Hood: The Shaping of the Legend by Jeffrey L. Singman. Greenwood Press: Westport, Connecticut, 1998.
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