Notes from Limmud 2007
Robin Hood and the Jewish Connection
[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. (In this case, there seem to be a fair number of divergences from Wikipedia, though none of them serious.) Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]
This lecture will not seek to prove whether Robin Hood existed. Instead, it will examine the place of Jews in the legend of Robin Hood.
The composition of the legend happened in three stages: An oral phase embodied in ballads, all of which give the same date of birth for Robin Hood, 1160, and all 38 of which were collected in the nineteenth century by Francis Childe [and now available online]. There is also unanimity of the attitude towards "Jewes": they're mentioned once or twice in all of them along with all of the other outlaws. Nothing much more is said about them, but they are mentioned. Considering the general attitude towards Jews by the Church, they would have been classified with the outlaws; they weren't much loved (and pretty much all other English folk ballads are ravingly antisemitic).
The second source is from the Tudor period, when there was a rebirth of theatre plays dealing with Robin Hood, particularly Robin Hood (1598), and Shakespeare's King John. Of course, as a Tudor it was to Elizabeth's advantage to show the Plantagenet kings as a nasty bunch.
Finally, in the nineteenth century there was a surge of Robin Hood novels. Primarily, Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe (1819), in which Robin Hood helps the Jewish moneylender and his daughter Rebecca, who help to get Richard back on the throne (though the novel ends before he goes off to the Crusades again and everything goes to hell in a basket).
There are two other sources from this period that are more important, but more obscure: A book about Maid Marion with a strong Jewish, and strong Muslim (Moorish) content: Maid Marian the Forest Queen (1819); and Sir Thomas Peacock's Robin Hood (1822).
What is the possible origin of the connection between Robin Hood and the Jews? According to the C19 historian Joseph Hunter (1852, The Search for Robin Hood—read this, if you're going to read anything), the connection may have been a pub in Nottingham at the corner of Jews' Lane—which street went back to 1152, when there were Jewish metal-workers there. (It's now called Maid Marion Way.) The pub is named after the original Saxon name for Nottingham, Snottingas Alehouse. It stood at the corner of Jews' Lane. Historically, it was strange that the Jews lived there, as it was a cross-point for non-Jewish commerce too; it was unusual for the two to be together. This alehouse was known to be frequented by Jews. In thirty-seven of the thirty-eight ballads, Robin Hood appears in that pub drinking with the outlaws and renegades and also the Jews. That may be the historical connection.
By the thirteenth century there were a rash of names Robin Hood and Matilda (not yet Marion): it became a popular name. The first reference to a Robin Hood married to Matilda dates from 1324, in Barnsdale, ten miles from Locksley, whence the the potential historical Robin Hood, Robert of Locksley, hailed. (Though Locksley was actually Wakefield in Yorkshire, not Nottinghamshire.)
The name "Robin" may also have been a reference to the sprite Robin Goodfellow; Robin Hood's dress also ties in. Robin Goodfellow is in turn tied in with the older Celtic figure of the Green Man , the Man of the Woods.
In ?1632, Anthony Munday published a play, A True Tale of Robin Hood—one of the first plays banned by the Puritans—where Robin Hood castrates a bishop, and has a number of violent confrontations with members of the Church. He's described as a friend of enemies of the Church and Jews. This despite the fact he was friends with Friar Tuck! Tuck may have been modelled on a bishop of Lincoln, known as the Saint of Avalon, who was bishop 1184-1200, and was known as a friend of the Jews.
Suleiman, a Moor, was with Roboin Hood, and shows up in the Childe Ballads; also in Maid Marian the Forest Queen. The story of Robin Hood, Suleiman and the Jewish Children was passed down through oral tales in Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and the southernmost part of Scotland—which last is where Sir Walter Scott was exposed to them.
According to these legends, the Sheriff of Nottingham was a nasty piece of work. This was probably George de Gray. (In real life, Robert of Locksley, being a Saxon lord, wouldn't even have been able to speak to de Gray, who would have been speaking Anglo-Norman.) Historically, we know this man, who was sheriff 1182-1203, tried three times to massacre the Jewish community in Nottingham. This was because of a disagreement he had with a certain Jewish mloneylender. He did not succeed in doing so; this may have been because he was incompetent, or because the population did not join in (he was a hated figure).
The legend then adds to this: One day to Sherwood Forest comes a Moor called Suleiman, who is welcomed into Robin Hood's band. George de Gray then launches into one of his attacks on the Jewish community, and massacres a number of them. The moneylender and his children (the wife having been killed) flee to Sherwood Forest, and Robin Hood takes them in. The only problem is that he can't speak to them, because they're speaking another language. We don't know what this language was; it may have been Arabic, as many of the Jews of Nottingham came from Spain originally. [I'd like a reference for that, please!] One clue towards this is because Robin Hood asks Suleiman "doest thou wat their language"? He says "I don't know," approaches the children, and says to them salam aleikum. Now, in the popular imagination of the English, they can speak back to him.
The children then stay with Robin Hood and are cared for by Friar Tuck until such time as Tuck can get them away to France. This shows this is a later addition; because one of the places the Jews went after being expelled from England was the south of France.
Sir Walter Scott, as well as being a writer, collected folk ballads from the south of Scotland. Robin Hood is an important figure in these. Accordingly to the legend, Robin Hood never got further south than twenty leagues from London; however he is all over the north, according to the legend. The Scottish ballads speak of his connections to Jews in a much more explicit way than in the English ballads. This may or may not have influenced Ivanhoe; Ivanhoe is a mythological character created by Scott to represent what the Robin Hood legend represents.
Now, if Robin Hood lived, King Richard screwed both the Jews and Robin Hood over. He was nominally nasty than King—or Prince—John, but he was still himself a nasty piece of work. In many of the Childe ballads Robin Hood has an ambivalent attitude towards Richard. In some he's teed off with him, and says Nottingham was weeping because Richard was not there to protect it. Yehuda al-Ḥarizi wrote [?in the] Khatakh about the meeting between Richard and the Rambam [Maimonides] when the former was a prisoner of Saladin.
When Richard needed money to go on the Third Crusade, he turned to the Jews of Lincoln—which was one of the richest communities in the country. The Jews., of course, were not very happy about this, given what he was going to use the money for. In 1194 when Richard returned, the Jews of Lincoln and Yorkshire set out to attend his coronation. Prince John sent mobs to slaughter them. Those who survived were still intent on reaching the coronation. Richard issued a proclamation that the Jews should turn back; and barred all Jews and all women from attending his coronation.
Richard then later turns to the Jews of Nottingham for help, but by this time the Jews [presumably this sentence finished: had learned not to trust him].
In the legends there are three different endings to the Robin Hood story—one in which Robin Hood is killed by the prioress of a church. In one, Robin says the hell with Richard, and goes back to Sherwood Forest with Maid Marion (who, in one of the legends, first meets Robin when she slashes his face with a dagger when she thinks he's going to waylay her), and they live happily ever after with the outlaws, the wastrels and the Jews, etc. This may be the historically most probable outcome: From the mid-eleventh century Sherwood Forest was a centre for peasant revolts, and there were wild animals. (Only by the beginning of the sixteenth century were lions officially hunted out of England. [*boggle* Wikipedia doesn't describe lions as living closer than than south of France, and even there being hunted to extinction by 100 CE]]) Forests in folk and fairy tales are places of fear; also, used by the Church, as a liminal zone: neither civilisation nor hell. A perfect place for an outlaw.
The third ending, which Scott used, is the no-ending ending: the story stops before Robin's death. What Scott does with the legend is to connect it with the character of Rebecca the Spanish Healer, from Scottish folklore, who all of the folk tales say is a Jew from Spain. She is put on trial for being a witch, because she is a healer. Robin Hood saves her.
(Non-Jewish) literary critics have pointed out three things about this book. The most sympathetic character is Rebecca. Rowena (Ivanhoe's love-interest) does not come across well at all. Secondly, Robin Hood returns to his position as protector of the Jews. Thirdly, it is Robin Hood who organises the tremendous sum of money which must be paid to ransom King Richard.
After Richard lost the Third Crusade, Richard returned to Europe. Richard
was forcibly married—given that he gay—to a
Cypriot Spanish princess
named Berengaria. Richard never touched her, and she fled from him back to
Cyprus. Richard's love was his minstrel Blondel, who followed Richard to
Vienna, where Richard was taken prisoner.
Back in legend, they have to ransom Richard so Prince John and the Sherrif of Nottingham don't take over. In the book, the Jewish moneylender Isaac, Rebecca's father, gets, together with Robin Hood, the money to ransom Richard.
In the popular imagination, hence, Robin Hood became connected to a certain extent with Jews. There is no Jewish source dealing with Robin Hood: the connection comes exclusively from Christian sources. (This may be because when the Jews were expelled from England in 1290, a number of Jews went to Provence. There was an outgrowth of Robin Hood legends in Provence at that time; not in any Jewish language, but it is thought that Adam de la Halle, a great friend of the Jewish community, who wrote the first great drama about Robin Hood, called Robin and Mariam, may have been influenced by the Jewish oral tradition. There are not any written sources attesting to this, but there may have been, which were destroyed during subsequent progroms.)
Scott ends with Rebecca giving Ivanhoe up, because he is not going to convert (and, as a Christian, Scott wouldn't want him to). At the end, Rebecca has an interesting dialogue with Robin Hood, about freedom and liberty. The two characters who are left in everyone's mind from this book are not the leading characters, Ivanhoe and Rowena, but Robin Hood and Rebecca.
Robin Hood's death is connected with the tension he sustained with the upper echelons of the Church. (Friar Tuck is of course from the lower echelons. [And friars did not get on at all well with the higher echelons.]) According to The Death of Robin Hood, long after Marion had died (after forty years with him), one day Robin Hood feels ill and goes to Kirklees Priory. His cousin is the abbess, but she has already placed him under an interdict, which means he couldn't take Mass, and was condemned to Hell. He's sure she has mellowed. She hasn't. He complains of a fever. She bleeds him—only, rather than to heal him, she bleeds him to death.
As Robin Hood finally realises what's happening, he blows his hunting horn one last time, and Little John comes. Little John wants to kill the abbess. With his last words, Robin asks him not to do so, as he will never harm a woman, and then he dies.
There is a grave outside of the ruins of Kirklees Priory called the grave of Robin Hood, but it's a fourteenth-century forgery.
Another tradition holds that he shoots his last arrow, and says to be buried where it lands, and nobody knows where it did. (Cf. Moses!)
In the modern period, with the exception of the 1952 film Ivanhoe, and a BBC series also from the 50s, there has not been any reference to the Jewish content.
That film gave the leading role to Elizabeth Taylor, playing Rebecca. The woman playing Rowena, Joan Fontaine, fades away by comparison. Robin Hood appears there constantly at the sid eof the Jewish moneylender Isaac. The Jewish woman is as beautiful as they come. Isaac, by contrast, has a noticeably hooked nose, and long knobby fingers. Hollywood is evidently trying to work out its ethnic issues.
In that film, Hollywood was dealing in a safe way with the Jewish issue: Dealing with Jews in the mediaeval period was safer than dealing with Jews in the modern period, particularly for USAns, whose knowledge of the mediaeval period is not too good. It's not until the 1960s, with some exceptions, that Holywood starts dealing with modern Jews.
The image of Robin Hood from 1938, as portrayed by Errol Flynn (who turned out to have Nazi connections); the Sherrif of Nottingham is portrayed by Basil Rathbone, a Russian Jew. Rathbone's nose and dark complexion, etc, were to fill the Nottingham stereotype, in which the villains always looked a little ethnic.
In the 1970s there was a series including the episode of the Jewish children, who were portrayed by Maureen Lipman's children.
In the 1980s, Mel Brookes—who had a problematic relationship with his own Judaism, and converted to Episcopalian Christianity to marry Anne Bancroft—before Bancroft played Golda Meir, got carried away with the subject, and converted to Judaism (!)—made Robin Hood: Men In Tights, in which Friar Tuck is a Yiddish-speaking Chassidic rabbi. Brookes admitted in interviews that he actually had read the Robin Hood material, and was familiar with all of the above.
He also mentions the first reference to Robin Hood, before even the ballads: Piers Plowman (1377), where Robin Hood is mentioned as a "fine outlaw".
In the 1991 Kevin Costner film, we have a reworking of the Suleiman story, but there is no mention of the Jewish episode. It's almost as if they decided to, but decided not to at the last moment. Azim (the Moor's name in this film) is sitting by himself and a little girl walks up and says "Did G-d paint you?" The speaker thought they were going to go into the episode of the Jewish children at this point, but they don't.