Craig Fees,  "Review: The Early Plays of Robin Hood. By David Wiles. D. S. Brewer, Cambridge, 1981. £12", Folklore, Vol. 97, No. 1 (1986), pp. 114-115


The promise that his book displays in its title, and in the breadth of phenomena covered by the term ‘plays,’ is not realized in its handling of information and construction of argument. The latter in particular is dominated by the thesis of the moment, with inconsistencies of logic and convenience of interpretation that undermine confidence in the book as a whole.

Basically, ‘plays’ is used to refer to the whole range of games and impersonations on a pastoral/Robin Hood theme in Tudor Maying festivities. Information is drawn from Elizabethan stage plays, Churchwardens’ Accounts, ballads, contemporary commentators, Scottish proscriptions. The main premise is that the ‘most important reason for studying Robin Hood is to learn how a myth evolves, to observe the different forms and functions that a myth acquires in different circumstances’ (p. 1). A primary assumption is that Robin Hood is a product of the oral tradition, and games and plays of Robin Hood a key to pre-literate dramatic traditions. This is exciting stuff, but goes no deeper than assertion. Assertion is woven out of assertion, with finally no sense of foundation.

In establishing the breadth of phenomena he will be studying, Wiles jettisons the ‘Plays’ of the title for the fewer ambiguities of ‘game,’ terms which he asserts were ‘completely synonymous in late medieval usage’ (p. 3), and illustrates this with the modern mumming play: ‘If today one goes to watch a Christmas mummming play of St. George, one witnesses a piece of theatre played out, rather in the manner in which children play a repetitive game, by men who are in the first instance morris dancers.’ This involves so many misconceptions and near-truths that one is at a loss what to say. It shows a decided lack of familiarity with current traditional drama studies and historical mumming. The terms ‘game’ and ‘play’ existed in a common meaning-field, disrupted by the classicization of Theatre terminology in the 18th century, but not in a state of complete synonymity. The author thus lays no secure foundation for the rest of his study.

Arguments are too often made by convenience. At one point, for example, Wiles rejects Puritan polemic: ‘Though excursions into the greenwood to fetch the May were castigated by Puritans as an excuse for promiscuity, there is no documentary evidence to support their claims’ (p. 56). But he will find support for the polemic in documents which merely testify that polemical claims have been made: ‘his (Philip Stubbes’s Anatomie of Abuses) assertion that the dancers entered the churchyard and the church itself (are) borne out by Archbishop Grindal’s Visitation Articles. The Archbishop hopes to seek out. . .’ (p. 14). This may seem a small fault, but consistently and cumulatively made it means the whole ground is left as if fallow. To determine whether or not what Mr. Wiles has to say is true in part or in whole, the whole area would have to be gone over again with care.

The appendices provide a useful gazetteer of references to Robin Hood games prior to 1600, instances being taken from a variety of sources. A distribution map shows the locations for Robin Hood’s activities mentioned in early ballads vs. the locations in which Robin Hood plays are known to have been performed—the latter of questionable value until extensive search and analysis is undertaken, as experience with mumming plays has shown. Further appendices give extracts from the Kingston-upon-Thames Churchwardens’ Accounts for 1506-1509 relative to the Robin Hood game; the text of the dramatic fragment of c. 1470, likely to have been performed for the Pastons of East Anglia, and published in the Malone Society Collections II (Oxford, 1908; W. W. Greg, ed.); two texts appended by William Copland to his c. 1500 edition of the Lyttel Geste of Robin Hood; and several extracts concerning Robin Hood and Maying from Elizabethan stage plays. If Mr. Wiles’s book goes into a second edition, he should take the opportunity to improve the style and consistency of his footnotes and bibliography.