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HE subject which I now announce
may be thought trivial, too trivial for even such a series of Tracts as this : but it is not so. The remains of the ancient minstrelsy of England—songs which from
age to age were chanted in the palaces of kings, the castles of the barons, and the cottages of the peasants—must have had no mean influence for good or for evil, so that they never can be rightly deemed a subject unworthy anyone's attention. On the contrary, I am disposed to agree with those who think them exceedingly worthy of an attentive examination; and if I am so fortunate as, by applying myself to "all that reading which is never read,” the matter laid up in the obscurest treasuries of history, to have made an approach at least towards ascertaining the true era of the person who is the subject of so many of these ancient songs, and the class of persons to which he belonged, I venture to
think that I deserve not the censure of being one who busies himself with the mere playthings of antiquity, but rather the praise which belongs to one who removes from this or any subject a load of error, and throws a strong light on a question which is at present very obscure.
These Tracts are entitled “Critical and Historical.” Under this term anything connected with early Poetry may fairly be included. But it will be found that I shall not look upon the subject merely as one which has peopled the regions of Barnsdale and Sherwood with the green foresters, or which has awakened poetical feeling in minds of a far higher order than those to which we owe the original songs, but that it will be treated as a subject properly historical. It has been in this point of view raised into consequence by a writer on English History, M. Thierry, whose work has attained a high popularity in England, who speaks of him as the chief of a small body of Saxons, impatient of their subjection to the Normans, and living in a state of perpetual hostility to them, and in long defiance of their authority. This may seem a plausible theory, and like many other things in M. Thierry's work, it has the advantage of the agreeable manner in which he writes of English affairs. But I believe it will be found that the hero of these songs did not live till long after time had worn away the political animosity of Saxon and Norman. Sir Walter Scott, for the purposes of his Romance, places this hero in the same early period to which he is assigned by M. Thierry. Another writer is a little nearer the truth when he represents this company of outlaws as being a portion of the Exheredati, as they were called, men who had been adherents of Simon de Montfort, and who were reduced to the greatest extremities after the battle of Evesham.a But though it seems probable, from the number of the persons who composed this band of outlaws, as they are always represented, that they were not persons who, one by one, and each for his own particular offence, had been placed out of the pale of the law, but who were suffering in some common cause which had led to their proscription, yet it will I think be seen, that the time at which they lived was long after the time when, under the Dictum de Kenilworth, all oppression of the Exheredati had ceased, and the grand feud of the 13th century been composed. These misapprehensions are but venial offences against historic verity, compared with those of writers who, acting in the wild humour of the present age, which is to put everything that has passed into doubt, and turn the men of former days into myths, would represent this outlaw living in the woods as a mere creature of the imagination of men living in the depth of antiquity, so far back that we know neither when nor where, Hudkin, because his name was Hood, and Robin Goodfellow, because his name was Robert, or as Mr. Wright chooses to represent the matter in
* London and Westminster Review for February, 1840. On the subject of the Exheredati I have written at some length in the Introduction to a publication, by the late Record Commission, of a Roll, in which is contained much minute information respecting the proceedings under the dictum. See Rotuli Selecti, &c., 8vo, 1834.
more general terms, “one amongst the personages of the early mythology of the Teutonic people.”a Trusting to the plain sense of my countrymen, I dismiss these theorists to that limbo of vanity, there to live with all those who would make all remote history fable, who would make us believe that everything which is good in England is a mere copy of something originated in countries eastward to our own, and who would deny to the English nation in past ages all skill and all advancement in literature, or in the arts of sculpture and architecture. Even a much more reasonable conjecture I dismiss also : namely, that the character of this hero is a mere creation of some poetical mind, who saw the fitness of the outlaw in the forest among characters suitable for his muse.
So far from being in any sense a goblin or a myth, the songs in which his exploits are come down to us, show him but the outlaw living in the woods, and gaining a precarious subsistence there. There is not, as far as I remember, anything attributed to him but what might belong to a man. He is remarkable for skill in the use of the bow; and this made him formidable. He had a company of persons who acknowledged him as their chief; but what is this more than what has happened in every country, where have been banditti and public roads infested with bodies of discharged soldiers? And though perhaps such a state of things will not be found at present in this country, we must carry our thoughts back to a
* See “Essays on the Literature, &c., of the Middle Ages.” By Thomas Wright, Esq. Two vols. 8vo, 1850.