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1377 - Langland, William - Piers Plowman

Allusion
Date 1377
Author Langland, William
Title Piers Plowman
Mentions Rhymes of Robin Hood; Randolf, earl of Chester

By Henrik Thiil Nielsen, 2014-07-19. Revised by Henrik Thiil Nielsen, 2018-07-28.

Allusion

I kan noȝt parfitly my Paternoster as þe preest it syngeþ,
But I kan rymes of Robyn hood and Randolf Erl of Chestre.[1]

IRHB comments

First brought to notice by Thomas Percy as long ago as 1765, this remains the earliest literary allusion to Robin Hood. Not only that, it is the first absolutely certain (or certainly relevant) reference of any kind we have to the famous outlaw. The above words are spoken by Sloth, who as a lazy and negligent parish priest personifies one of the seven deadly sins. He prefers "ydel tales at þe Ale"[2] to God's word. The allusion tells us three things about Robin Hood:

  • poems about him existed in 1377
  • they were well-known
  • they were regarded as "idle tales", examples of bad (secular) taste.

That an author alludes to a literary work or character does not necessarily tell us that the work or character in question was well-known in his time. He may, for instance, have been trying to impress his readers with his knowledge of literary arcana. However, the taste for popular rhymes is here intended to characterize Sloth as negligent and idle, a low-life character, and for this purpose the poet would have chosen well-known heroes of popular literature rather than obscure characters that could have meant little to most of his readers. If the rhymes of Robin Hood were then well-known, we cannot conclude that they must have existed long before to attain such notoriety. They may have been a recent phenomenon.

Condemnation of, and legislation against, secular entertainers and their performances go all the way back to the Roman empire, and ecclesiastical reprobation of secular entertainments already had a long history in England in Langland's day.[3] The passage cited above should be seen in this light. We cannot conclude that Langland considered rhymes of Robin Hood and the earl of Chester especially noxious, they were most probably singled out simply because they were very popular. The disparaging attitude recurs in most later allusions to Robin Hood, though often expressed with considerably less elegance.

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Notes

  1. Langland, William; Kane, G., ed.; Donaldson, E.T., ed. Piers Plowman (London, 1975), p. 331 (Passus V, ll. 394-95).
  2. Langland. op. cit., p. 331 (Passus V, l. 403).
  3. This is one of the chief themes in the first two chapters of Chambers, E.K. The Medieval Stage ([s.l.], 1925) (first published 1903), pp. 1-41.