Sunday, December 2, 2018

The transformation of Robin Hood during the French Revolution

In modern times, "Robin Hood" is synonymous with robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. But originally, that's not what he stood for. Ironically, in general he stood for the opposite, as the mode and method by which the "rich" got that way was excessive taxation primarily through the oppression of King John. This transformation took place right at the end of the 1700s in the middle of the French Revolution, through the work of one man: Joseph Ritson. Dr. Matthew PhillPott, a researcher at the University of London in the Institute of Historical Research, asks the question "When did Robin Hood start giving to the poor?" and goes on to explain:
One man in particular can be credited with drawing out this moral aspect to Robin’s tales. That man is Joseph Ritson (1752-1803), a Jacobin from Stockton-on-Tees, who collected together all of the remaining extent materials relating to the Robin Hood legend and published them in two volumes in 1795.

Dr. Phillpott quotes from Ritson then explains:

Ritson’s interest in Robin Hood stemmed from his political opinions and fitted into the context of his times.

And "fitted into the context of his times". There's a word for this. That's called revisionism - historical revisionism. That's what Ritson engaged in, in order to release the focus from how the rich got that way - taxation - to merely a focus on their greed and simple size of their monetary holdings.

Historian Stephanie Barczewski, a professor of History now at the University of Clemson agrees, writing:

Not surprisingly, Ritson issued his collection of Robin Hood ballads with a polemical introduction which used the legend as a vessel for expressing his political ideas.

Professor Barczewski highlights a letter of Ritson's where he explains why Robin Hood could be empowered to rob from the rich and give to the poor. Ritson wrote that it was:

That same power which authorises kings to take it where it can be worst spared, and give it where it is least wanted.

In other words, Joseph Ritson saw that the kings were redistributing wealth upward, and thought that it ought to be redistributed the other way. True to the nature of revolutionaries, Ritson wanted revenge. Robin Hood was his vessel to achieve that revenge.

J.C. Holt, a professor of history at the University of Cambridge, wrote an exhaustive study of Robin Hood in 1982 in which he observed the following:

With [Martin] Parker, Robin's Gifts to the poor illustrate Christian charity and penitence for crime rather than any deliberately conceived social policy.

This is critical to understanding the entire Robin Hood lore as it evolved, in particular how it became a point on the political map. Not too much is known about Martin Parker, but professor Holt has one very succinct thing to say about him: "Parker was no revolutionary" It doesn't get any more plain than that. According to Holt, Parker's ballad expansions that stress kindness to poor people were unmoving which "failed to spread into the popular tales which became its common jargon." Again, quoting Holt: "He [Ritson] certainly reconstructed him[Robin Hood] in the image of a radical".

Holt concludes with the following comparative observation about Parker and Ritson:

He became an ardent royalist, best remembered for his When the King Enjoys His Own Again. Ritson was different. Politically, in different circumstances a century and a half later, he went the other way, and transformed Robin into a social rebel.

Three historians, and Ritson himself explaining why he transformed Robin Hood.

Since Ritson, Robin Hood has lost much of his government-oriented connection; that is in relation to specifically government-oriented enemies. The King. The Sheriff, and later officials from the established state-church. These days it could be Robin Hood stealing from Big Oil, from bankers, from pretty much any corporate entity you could name. Robin Hood the social rebel begins with Joseph Ritson. Not with the original lore.