Medieval Literature and Law

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The Gest of Robyn Hode is a ballad written in Middle English, but it is thought the country of Scotland played a great role in the “reception and translation of the legend.” A person was named an outlaw, if the person escaped arrest, as well as not being tried in court. It is also a type of “The Good Outlaw” tale, in which the hero of the story is an outlaw who commits actual crimes, but the outlaw is still supported by the people. The hero in the tale has to challenge a corrupt system, which has committed wrongs against the hero, his family, and his friends. As the outlaw, the individual has to depict certain characteristics, such as loyalty, courage, and cleverness, as well as be a victim of a corrupt legal or political system.

However, the outlaw committing the crimes shows he can outwit his opponent and show his moral integrity, but he cannot commit crimes for the sake of committing crimes. This tale asks the question, do the outlaws go too fair in their crimes, more than what is necessary to revenge an evil deed? This is the moral ambiguity, the reader faces throughout the tale in deciding whether Robyn Hode is a good person or merely a criminal. On the other hand, is there no morality behind the tale and it’s merely a good story or adventure?


A Gest of Robyn Hode is a premier example of romanticizing the outlaw using Arthurian romance, in order to illustrate the corruption of the law. As John Taylor writes, “The targets of Robin Hood’s criticism are the justices of the forest and the common law, against whom grievances could have been felt by more than one section of the medieval community.” The poem is a total of 456 lines in quatrains arranged in eight fitts or sections. It is believed the tale was performed by minstrels, since the tale contains a narrative voice addressing the audience on several occasions. The audience is believed to have been from the Third Class with such jobs as yeoman, apprentices, merchants, journeymen, laborers, and small proprietors.

Most scholars believe the tale to be a compilation of stories creating a heroic ballad using previous tales, such as The Legend of Eustace Monk, a forest renegade who was also an outlawed nobleman and a trickster. John Holt believes A Gest of Robyn Hode was written in approximately 1450. Although the tale is thought to have been written in the fifteenth century, it is believed the content of the tale dates to the time of Edward III between the 1330s and 1340s. The text is unique, in that it provides details relating to the 13th century, such as legal, social, and military structures, but it also includes illusions to medieval geography and locations known during the fifteenth century.

There are disagreements to whether Robyn Hode was a yeoman or a man from the lower gentry class. However, most experts believe the narrative does not focus on social class. Likewise, there was an outlaw from Berkshire, in 1262, which had the alias, “Robehod.” There was also a ship in Aberdeen in 1438, which was called “Robene Hude.” However, the first instance of the poem of Robyn Hode is seen in William Langland’s Piers Plowman written in 1377. The tale of Robyn Hode later becomes a modern day story exhibiting romance and chivalry, as seen by the many 19th century retellings as children’s stories.


A knight’s son has accidently killed a person at a joust and he must pay a bail of 400 pounds. The knight is unable to pay the bail and asks from the Abbot of St. Mary’s. The knight has certain time frame, in which to pay the loan in full, the time has expired and the knight does not have the money. Robyn Hode provides the 400 pounds to pay the Abbot, and in return, the knight gifts him bows and arrows. Later, Robyn Hode competes in an archery match in Nottingham, but it is a ploy to capture Robyn Hode and his friends. They escape to the knight’s castle before returning to the forest.

Robyn Hode hears from Sir Richard’s wife that the knight has been kidnapped by the Sheriff. Robyn Hode kills the Sheriff, while saving the knight, but Robyn Hode has no choice but to return to the forest. Later, the king disguises himself as an Abbot, in order to have Robyn Hode gain his confidence. It is a trick to force Robyn Hode into the King’s service, where he serves for 15 months. Robyn Hode then lives in the forest for 22 years. However, his life ends, when his cousin, the Prioress of Kirklees murders him.


Barrie, Dobson. "Robin Hood" Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages. Ed. André Vauchez. 2001 by James Clarke & Co. Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages (e-reference edition). Distributed by Oxford University Press. John Carroll University. 10 March 2008.

Bessinger, Jr., J. B. “The Gest of Robin Hood Revisited.” Robin Hood: An Anthology of Scholarship and Criticism. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1999. p.39-50.

Green, Richard Firth. “Medieval Literature and Law.” The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999.

Knight, Stephen and Thomas H. “Ohlgren. A Gest of Robyn Hode: Introduction.” Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 1997. Accessed 10 March 2008. teams/gestint.htm.

Morillo, Stephen R. “Outlaws and Robin Hood.” Medieval England: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Pub, 1998.

Ohlgen, Thomas H., ed. “The Gest of Robyn Hode.” Medieval Outlaw: The Tales in Modern English. Gloucestershire, England: Sutton Publishing, 1998. p. 216-238.

Stephens, John. “Robin Hood.” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature. Edited by Jack Zipes. Oxford University Press 2006. John Carroll University. Accessed 10 March 2008.

Taylor, John. “Robin Hood.” Dictionary of the Middle Ages. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1988.

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