Robin Hood is the archetypal English folk hero, an outlaw who, in modern versions of the legend, stole from the rich to give to the poor.
This redistributionist form of philosophy-in-action anticipates the work of writers such as Proudhon and Karl Marx by many hundreds of years. Although most noted for his material egalitarianism, in the stories he also pursues other types of equality and justice. However, as mentioned below, Robin Hood was not originally so generous.
The stories relating to Robin Hood are apocryphal, verging on the mythological. His first appearance in a manuscript is in William Langland's Piers Plowman (1377) in which Sloth, the lazy priest boasts "I ken (i.e. 'know') 'rimes of Robin Hood." Three years later the Scottish chronicler John Fordun wrote that, in ballads, "Robin Hood delights above all others".
Printed versions of Robin Hood ballads appear in the early 16th century — shortly after the advent of printing in England. In these ballads, Robin Hood is a yeoman which, by that time, meant an independent tradesman or farmer. It is only in the late 16th century that he becomes a nobleman, the Earl of Huntington, Robert of Locksley, or later still, Robert Fitz Ooth.
His romantic attachment to Maid Marian (or "Marion") (originally known as Mathilda) is also a product of this later period and probably has something to do with the French pastoral play of about 1280, the Jeu de Robin et Marion. Aside from the names there is no recognizable Robin Hood connection to the play.
The late 16th century is also the period when the Robin Hood story is moved back in time to the 1190s, when King Richard is away at the crusades. One of the original Robin Hood ballads refers to King Edward (Edward I, II, and III ruled England from 1272 to 1377). The idea of Robin Hood as a high-minded Saxon fighting Norman Lords originates in the 19th century, most notably in the part Robin Hood plays in Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe (1819), chapters 40 - 41, where the familiar modern Robin Hood—"King of Outlaws and prince of good fellows!" Richard the Lionheart calls him—makes his debut.
The folkloric Robin Hood was deprived of his lands by the villainous Sheriff of Nottingham and became an outlaw. The Sheriff does indeed appear in the early ballads (Robin kills and beheads him), but there is nothing as specific as this allegation. Robin's other enemies include the rich abbots of the Catholic Church and a bounty hunter named Guy of Gisbourne. Robin kills and beheads him as well. The early ballads contain nothing about giving to the poor, although Robin does make a large loan to an unfortunate knight.
In the ballads, the original "Merry Men" (though not called that) included: Friar Tuck, Will Scarlet (or Scathlock), Much the Miller's Son, and Little John — who was called "little" because he wasn't. Alan-a-Dale is a later invention in Robin Hood plays.
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