The cutthroat Robin Hood and his “inexplicable” appeal


“Then arose the famous murderer, or cutthroat, Robert Hood, as well as Little John, together with their accomplices from among the dispossessed, whom the foolish populace are so inordinately fond of celebrating both in tragedy and comedy, and about whom they are delighted to hear the jesters and minstrels sing about above all other ballads.”

—  Entry for the year 1266 from the 1440s chronicle Scotichronicon by Walter Bower (cited in The History of English Podcast, Episode 136: The Real Robin Hood).

This chronicle was written is Latin, and the word used for “murderer, or cutthroat” was sicarius. [Hence the Spanish and Italian sicario, meaning “hitman”.] It was based on an earlier Scottish chronicle, which also noted that Robin Hood was popular with the masses, but wasn’t critical of that fact, it simply said the outlaw was deemed “good”.

As an aside, I am always endlessly amused when upstanding respectable folks complain in indignation that the masses find violent criminals cool. “Why would they do such a thing, it’s inexplicable!” Gee, I don’t know mate, but riddle me this first: why does the public like ANY stories of violence? Why does it root for warriors and knights and soldiers? Why does it relish tales of war, the most mindless and destructive mass violence humans ever got into? Why the hell are battles entertaining? You figure that out first, and THEN come ask why criminals are popular.

Until then, allow me to offer a morsel for thought: unlike killers in uniform, criminals get to decide for themselves who to to rob and who to kill and who to not. For example:

‘Master,’ then said Little John,
‘An we our board shall spread,
Tell us whither we shall go,
And what life we shall lead;

‘Where we shall take, where we shall leave,
Where we shall abide behind,
Where we shall rob, where we shall reave,
Where we shall beat and bind.’

‘Thereof no force,’ then said Robin;
‘We shall do well enow;
But look ye do no husband harm
That tilleth with his plough.

‘No more ye shall no good yeoman
That walketh by greenwood shaw;
Nor yet no knight nor no squire
That will be a good fellow.

‘These bishops and these archbishops,
Ye shall them beat and bind;
The High Sheriff of Nottingham,
Him hold ye in your mind.’

~ A Little Geste of Robin Hood, c. 1450, emphasis – gleefully – mine

[original post]

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