The 'Mistery' of Hobin Hood: A New Social Context for the Texts


  • Richard Tardif


The recent debate on the nature and origin of the Robin Hood ballads has been conducted not by literary critics but by social historians; that fact emphasises the importance of these ballads as a register of the popular consciousness of the time. 2 Two major interpretations of the original context of the ballads have emerged. One view, put forward by R.H. Hilton, sees them as a 'by-product of the agrarian social struggle' which took place from the late thirteenth century through to the Peasants' Revolt of1381: this view sees the ballads realising in fiction the discontents ofthe workers and small landholders who were badly affected by agrarian problems and wel·e active in protests against the prevailing system. M.Keen originally presented evidence and argument in support of Hilton, but retracted it and came to agree with a paper by J.C. Holt, which quite contradicted Hilton's position. Holt argued that the ballads 'were designed primarily for a gentle audience' and that they only achieved popularity with the lower orders through performance in the communal and convivial atmosphere of the halls of the gentry. According to Holt, this was an audience concerned not with 'alleged or actual' class conflict, but with 'hospitality and its formalities, and the precedence which arose from service and status.'