By Henrik Thiil Nielsen, 2014-09-20. Revised by Henrik Thiil Nielsen, 2022-06-01.
Robin Hood's accepting the Virgin Mary as surety or "borrow" for a loan in the first fytte of A Gest of Robyn Hode is inspired by a miracle tale that was quite well known during the later Middle Ages. Most often in such tales – called "miracles" – the divine surety is the Virgin Mary, but tales are also found in which God, Jesus, a saint or even a cross acts as guarantor. In these tales, the divine surety pays the debt when the human debtor is unable to. There is a related type of tale, a humorous variant, in which the creditor recovers his outlay from a monk or priest in his capacity as human representative of the divine surety. Such analogues are discussed briefly by Child and at length by Clawson. Miracles with the Virgin as guarantor are known in Latin (several MSS of the 13th century), French, Provencal, Spanish, Norse and ME.
How a Jew lent a Christian money
Whether the author of the Gest knew this type of tale in a Latin, French, AN or ME version, the ME tale found in the Vernon MS is early enough (c. 1400) and sufficiently close to the corresponding passage in the Gest to serve as a representative of his source. In this version, Theodorus, a merchant of Constantinople, is run out of money and goes to a Jew, Abraham, who agrees to lend him a sum on the security of Our Lady. They go to a church and Theodorus swears before the image of the Virgin that he will pay back what he borrows. With the money he sails to Alexandria in order to trade. He does so with success but only remembers about the loan the night before repayment is due. He puts the money in a chest and throws it into the sea with a prayer to Our Lady that she bring it safely to the Jew. She does so, but when Theodorus later returns to Constantinople, the Jew pretends not to have received it. He is brought before the image, where Theodorus prays the Virgin to reveal the truth of the matter:
ÞE [sic] ymage spac, as god hit wolde,
And seide: Jeuh, þou hast þi golde,
And in the botme of þyn ark
þer [sic] þou hast leid eueri Mark.
Robin does not bring his client before an image, neither is any actual miracle performed in the repayment. Yet indications are not lacking that the author of the Gest may have taken his lead from a form of this tale similar to the Vernon MS version. Unlike the debtors in some other versions, Theodorus is not a spendthrift, but "Of herte fre" and "ful of lewte". Similarly, the knight Robin befriends is neither "a sori husbande" who has "lyved in stroke and stryfe", nor an "okerer, or ellis a lechoure" ; when he has gotten into straits it is only because he has had to borrow money from the rich abbot in order to save his son, who has accidentally killed two men during a tournament. The knight's friends are faithless:
'Where be thy frendes?' sayde Robyn:
'Syr, never one wol me knowe;
While I was ryche ynowe at home
Great boste than wolde they blowe.'
'And nowe they renne away fro me,
As bestis on a rowe;
They take no more hede of me
Thanne they had me never sawe.'
So also in the miracle, where Theodorus cannot offer the Jew any human guarantor:
Theodorus seide: icham be hynde,
ffor me þer wol no Mon hym bynde;
he þat sum tyme was my fere
Me passeþ bi wiþ outen chere.
As Clawson notes, these analogous passages and a few others with less striking similarities suggest that the author of the Gest drew on a version of the miracle identical or very similar to that in the Vernon MS, but it should be noted that the complaint about false friends was a favourite topos of medieval literature.
- See sts. 65-66.
- Child, Francis James, ed.; [Kittredge, G. L.], ed.; [Ireland, Catharine Innes], bibl. The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (Boston and New York; Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, ©1882-98), vol. III, pp. 51-52, 53-54.
- Clawson, William Hall; Langton, H. H., gen. ed. The Gest of Robin Hood (University of Toronto Studies, Philological [& Literature] Series, [extra volume]) ([Toronto], 1909), pp. 25-42.
- Horstmann, Carl, ed. 'Altenglische Marienlegenden aus Ms. Vernon zum ersten Mal herausgegeben', Archiv für das Studium der neueren Sprachen und Literaturen, vol. 56 (1876), pp. 221-36; see pp. 232-34.
- Ibid., p. 234, ll. 155-58.
- Child, op. cit., vol. III, p. 59, sts. 59-60.
- Horstmann, op. cit., p. 232, ll. 2-3.