Did Robin Hood really exist? Probably not, so why do historians keep trying to find the real Robin Hood?
For decades, historians have searched for Robin Hood to better understand where the ideas attached to him began, to investigate the social and legal institutions that perhaps helped birth his legend, and to find the man whose name is synonymous with social banditry.
Stories about Robin Hood date back to the Middle Ages, and the figure remains pervasive. Thanks to medieval movies, books, television shows, and other forms of media, new spins on Robin Hood continually reinvent the legend to make it perpetually relatable.
When it comes to Robin Hood's true identity, the truth is wrapped up in lots of medieval myths, laws, norms, and human behavior, to the extent that the famed hero has become part of us all. Robin Hood may not have existed as a person, but he could be a collective, an idea, or a movement.
Many myths, legends, and folklore tales began in oral tradition - and Robin Hood may be no different. As minstrel culture declined during the central Middle Ages, the stories they told found new life in written texts. Robin Hood stories are tied up in defying authority, fleeing from the law, and heroism. Outlaws, hiding in the forest, standing up to injustice - these were all ideas that spread through society by way of oral transmission.
While Robin Hood was not referenced in written documents until the 14th-century narrative poem attributed to William Langland, Piers Plowman, the language of ballads and narratives about him reflects earlier forms of storytelling.
That said, another side of the argument holds Robin Hood stories began as nothing more than short sayings or rhymes that originally developed in written form and then expanded in oral form. Either way, Robin Hood stories blended oral and written traditions throughout the Middle Ages - and still do in modern times.
Researchers have scoured court pleadings and other historical documents for the real Robin Hood, and they've found a few names that come close. As early as the 13th century, surnames like "Hode" and "Hood" appear in reference to real fugitives and criminals.
Similarly, names such as "Robehode" and "Robinhood" seem to be used by legal officials as terms or monikers for criminals and outlaws.
As stories about Robin Hood developed in garlands and ballads, the hero made new friends, developed distinct personality traits, and became associated with fighting against royal authority - but his main enemy was King Edward (probably King Edward II), not King John. As the Robin Hood legend developed, he took refuge in either Sherwood or Barnsdale.
Barnsdale was originally the more common location, but as stories connecting him to Nottingham became more prolific, Sherwood won out as Robin's home.
Robin Hood became part of May Day celebrations in England during the 15th century, in large part because people performed Robin Hood plays at the festivals. Plays developed alongside ballads, but they featured an element of public participation, complete with mock combat, king-like Robin Hood figures, and charitable donations. This gave the developing story a more personal feel.
By the reign of Henry VIII, "Maying" was celebrated by the king, who participated in a Robin Hood procession to the forest where the group, dressed in green, feasted and danced in celebration.
Certain scholars think medieval people played Robin Hood games several times a year, and such amusements were not tied exclusively to May Day and related practices. Either way, Robin Hood games, plays, sporting events, and the like became part of the regular festival cycle and occurred at all social levels.