Saturday, March 14, 2009

Is History One-Sided?

Not everyone liked Robin Hood. According to myth, he stole from the rich to give to the poor.

But shock horror: a document critical of Robin Hood has been discovered ('Negative' attitude to Robin Hood, BBC News, 14 March 2009).

(Notice, by the way, how the BBC subeditors insert coy quotation marks around the word "negative" - just in case anyone might think the BBC might be taking sides in this controversy - even though surely the word "attitude" already indicates that they are merely reporting an opinion.)

Julian Luxford of St Andrews University, described by the BBC as an expert in medieval manuscript studies, said: "Rather than depicting the traditionally well-liked hero, the article suggests that Robin Hood and his merry men may not actually have been 'loved by the good'.

Here are two important clues about the document.

1. It was written in Latin.
2. The manuscript is owned by Eton College.

According to the tradition that I learned as a boy, Robin Hood was well-liked by the poor and well-hated by the rich, including bishops and abbots. And of course the Sheriff of Nottingham.

Let me see: who would write a document about Robin Hood, in Latin, and deposit it in the Eton College Library? Obviously not a poor peasant.

So how does this discovery affect the "traditional" depiction of Robin Hood? Not much, as far as I can tell from the BBC report. It seems to tell us rather more about Dr Luxford and his notion of who were the "good" people in late mediaeval England.

I expect that Dr Luxford is reasonably competent as an art historian, and "well-liked" by his peers. However, like many other academics before him (see this blog for more examples), he has allowed his research to be popularized in a way that makes him look rather silly.

Update: Dr Luxford was interviewed on the BBC Today Programme this morning (17 March 2009). He didn't repeat his point about "good people", and James Naughtie made a point of saying why we might expect monks to dislike Robin Hood (following, but possibly not triggered by, my tweet to the programme), so misrule is restored.

It turns out that Dr Luxford's discovery conveniently parallels the plot of a new novel by Adam Thorpe, so we also have another entry for the life-imitating-art category.

Of course the evidence for Robin Hood's real character is very thin either way. All I'm saying here is that we shouldn't just jump to the Robin-Hood-Bad theory on the strength of a single, predictably hostile document.

See also Alex Hudson, Prince Among Thieves (BBC 17 March 2009)

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