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Robin Hood and the Three Estates of Medieval Society
By Sabina Rahman
Master’s Thesis, University of Sydney, 2016
Abstract: This thesis examines the representation of the three estates of medieval society in the early Robin Hood ballads, suggesting that they are echoing and stimulating social change away from the tripartite model of feudalism and towards a more equitable, if still hierarchical, social model. It will look particularly at the early texts “Robin Hood and the Monk”, “Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne”, “Robin Hood and the Potter” and “A Gest of Robyn Hode” examining themes of violence, transgression, and fellowship to lead to a conclusion that the ballads are testing current laws and social norms to reveal their inherent weaknesses and to promote an idealised conception of the free common man.
Introduction: The legend of Robin Hood has been part of the English cultural landscape for over six centuries, evolving from the yeoman outlaw of the earliest surviving texts to the dispossessed nobleman that we recognise as his more recent incarnation. This thesis will expand upon claims that have been made before, which suggest that Robin Hood texts demonstrate concerns with regard to the social status quo of medieval society, by displaying this focus in four early Robin Hood texts. The introduction continues with a review of scholarship regarding Robin Hood’s position in a historical framework.
The binding motif throughout the evolution of this story is that of destabilisation as Robin Hood is historically a destabilising figure. Noted as a ‘good outlaw’ he has achieved and maintained international appeal as someone that ‘wants to or is willing to redress the balance.’ He is, at the core, an anti-authority figure and thus has political significance. Indeed, his redemption from the social prejudices that held Robin Hood literature as ‘the refuse of a stall’ at worst and ‘foolish tales’ at best came about in no small part due to Joseph Ritson, who was himself full of admiration for the Revolution that was occurring in France when his collection of Robin Hood ballads was published in 1795. Ritson was convinced, however, that Robin Hood was a historical figure and indeed the majority of the scholarship on Robin Hood prior to the last two decades concerned the historicity of the outlaw, with attempts to authenticate the myth. Sir John Hawkins stated in 1773 that the history of the outlaw was unable to be proved to a scholarly standard due to the nature of the few and scattered fragments of evidence concerning him.