“After the Plague” Finds Roots of Robin Hood Myth

tales of vigilante archer popularized by post-plague injustice

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Fear of social unrest swept Europe after the Black Death. England passed new laws that clamped down on the working class. This week, Wondrium Shorts shows the conditions that popularized Robin Hood.

It remains unclear whether or not there was ever such a person as Robin Hood. However, the tales of his exploits are abundant—and they became wildly popular due to the state of European society during and after the plague. The ballads of Robin Hood and his band of misfits gleefully recall tricking and killing corrupt sheriffs, finding justice outside the law, and generally protecting the poor from those in power.

Films about Robin Hood, Little John, and the rest of the “merry men” have seen success in productions like 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and the idea of finding victory over a corrupt legal system endures to the present day. In his video series After the Plague, Dr. Simon Doubleday, Professor of History at Hofstra University, reveals the conditions that made the character so popular.

Law and Order, in a Sense

In the 14th century, after the chaos of the Black Death, law and justice seemed restored. The British conducted business as usual, urged on by landowners and employers to impose labor legislation, which disproportionately affected the poor. These strict laws, imposed as the result of a fear of a social uprising, did anything but help.

“In 1376, the House of Commons accused laborers and artisans of becoming vagrants and forming gangs, robbing and thieving their way across the country,” Dr. Doubleday said. “The people […] writing down their perceptions tended to be social elites. Parliament, in the end, was an instrument of class control, serving the interests of the landed classes.”

Parliament’s seeming increase in only serving the wealthy caused many in the working class to find enjoyment in a hero who was known to take matters into his own hands and bring justice to those who cannot fight for themselves.

“The ballad ‘The Gest of Robyn Hood’ quickly introduces us to Robin, who is described as a ‘good yeoman,’ and his companions: among them Little John (also a yeoman); Much, the miller’s son; and ‘good Scarlok,’ a man whose name is later rendered as Will Scarlett,” Dr. Doubleday said. “We’re told that Robin is pious, going to three masses every day, and that he never harms women.

“When his men ask him whom they should rob, beat, and bind, Robin answers them ‘look ye do no [peasant] harm that tilleth with his plow.'”

Instead, they target bishops and the sheriff of Nottingham.

Giving to the Poor

In the same ballad, Robin and his companions dine with a knight who has been forced to make amends for his son, who killed another knight in a joust. The knight at Robin’s table has had to sell everything and take out a loan to repay a local abbot 400 pounds or he will lose his land. He is destitute and abandoned by his friends.

“Already in this tale, we glimpse several important things,” Dr. Doubleday said. “There’s a sense that legal justice, as enacted by social elites, is cruel and exploitative; that real justice is to be found outside the law; and that solidarity among its victims is essential. There’s particular hostility to wealthy monasteries.”

Robin and his men give the poor knight fine clothes and a horse as well as the 400-pound purse. The knight is able to trick and publicly humiliate the abbot for his greed before paying him the full amount and reclaiming his land.

“The Robin Hood ballads embody precisely the grievances that would take center stage in the rebellions that would follow in the aftermath of the plague,” Dr. Doubleday said. “The corruption of the legal system, the misgovernment of the realm, and the pervasive injustices of the age all added fuel to the smoldering fire.”

After the Plague is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily