The (Recycled) Tales of Robin Hood

By Chelsea Reutcke |

Robin Hood, the legendary outlaw, has been a staple of English folklore since the mid-fifteenth century, with mentions of his name stretching back even earlier. Songs, books, radio, and movies have repeatedly recycled or expanded his story. Within the collection of The Codrington Library of All Souls College, Oxford, a different sort of recycling occurred.

A sheet from the c.1565 printed ballad A little gest of Robin Hood (USTC 518308) was repurposed into binding waste in a sixteenth-century volume. It was common practice to use old paper – or waste – in the binding process, and there was often no correlation between the volume’s contents and its binding waste. The Codrington’s binding was made of limp parchment, stiffened with laminated sheets of printed waste. Alongside A little gest, manuscript waste served as spine support while scraps of printed Latin and French texts became pastedowns.

The volume itself has nothing to do with Robin Hood. It consists of two works by Niccolo Machiavelli – Il prencipe (USTC 510065) and Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio (USTC 510059) – both printed in 1584 by the pirating printer John Wolfe (under the false imprint, ‘Palermo: Appresso gli heredi d’Antoniello delgi Antonielli’). This tells us that the collection was bound in or after 1585, around two decades after the printing of A little gest.

Robin Hood fragment H1r


Robin Hood Fragment H1v
Fragment of A little Gest of Robin Hood. All Souls LR.6.a.13a(2). Copyright The Codrington Library. USTC 518308.

The specific ballad dates back to at least the mid-fifteenth century and, when it was originally published in 1500 (USTC 500531), was the first time the story of Robin Hood appeared in print. It attempted to unite several of the outlaw’s tales into one piece. It is also the longest of the early stories. Set between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, it mostly follows the interactions of Robin and his men with the impoverished but noble knight, Sir Richard of the Lee. The well-known figures of Little John, Much, Will Scarlet, the sheriff, and the king all appear throughout the ballad (and yes, there are archery contests).

The early modern binder cut down the Codrington fragment to fit into the smaller octavo volume. It consists of the H1 recto and verso, indicating that the ballad required at least eight sheets of paper per copy. However, the names on the verso reveal that it came from the end of the ballad. At the bottom of the page, the ‘wicked woman’ the Prioress of Kerkesly and her accomplice Sir Roger of Dankester (Doncaster) plot to murder Robin Hood by excessively bleeding him! Only four more lines follow (sadly, Robin dies), so the complete printed ballad would have been slim quarto.

This piece of A little gest is the only extant evidence of the c.1565 edition attributed to the English printer and publisher William Copland. Active from the 1540s until his death in 1569, Copland was a prominent printer of Middle English romances, which experienced renewed popularity in the 1550s. Copland also printed a 1560 edition of A mery geste of Robyn Hoode (USTC 505678). Despite the character’s popularity, the survival of these stories was not guaranteed. In Alexandra Hill’s monograph on Lost Books and Printing in London, 1557-1640, she records a ‘Robyn Hod’ ballad with no extant copy.  Two other ballads – ‘Robin Hood and the Friar’ and ‘Robin Hood and the Potter’ – survived thanks to Copland’s decision to append them to the 1560 edition. Decades later, another decision to append a Robin Hood ballad, now as binding waste, provided proof for the c.1565 edition.

The fragment of A little gest contains a great amount of history despite not even comprising a full page. It shows the endurance of a folktale from medieval song to a printed ballad as well as the recurring popularity of that ballad. Yet, its transition into waste paper also demonstrates how ephemeral these printed ballads were. It also begs the question, what other treasures are hiding just beneath the surface?


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Chelsea Reutcke is a PhD student at the University of St Andrews. Her thesis explores the print culture of Catholics in late seventeenth-century England during the reigns of Charles II and James VII & II. She examines the patrons and bookmen producing Catholic print and the methods they used to navigate regulations of the press, as well as how the laity accessed and engaged with print. She is currently a co-editor of BBIH (Bibliography of British and Irish History).


Featured Image: Available from Wikimedia Commons by CC BY-SA 3.0; Fragment Images: Copyrighted by The Codrington Library and used with permission.

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