Sunday, 28 October 2012

Camping It Up With Robin Hood

I know I mentioned Robin Hood last time, but this weekend is the annual Robin Hood pageant in the grounds of Nottingham Castle. When I worked at Nottingham Castle from 1999 to 2005 I always looked forward to this last weekend of October because it was when the pageant was held. The whole of the grounds are taken over by traditional crafts, medieval entertainment and historical re-enactors. There’s even jousting with Robin Hood and his Merry Men versus the Sheriff and his evil men. It’s still a popular addition to the county’s Robin Hood calendar.
Re-enactors at the pageant
Just a couple of weeks ago I was involved in a documentary for a German tv company. They were putting together a programme about Robin Hood and his  place in the world today. My part in the documentary came about through my research into the origins of the oldest Robin Hood ballad, “The Geste of Robin Hood”. As mentioned several times on this blog I believe that this ballad, and the most famous stories from it (living in the forest with a band of men, robbing the rich, the connection to Nottingham, the archery contest, and the king’s search for Robin in Sherwood Forest, among others) are all based on the family background of Sir William Neville.

As I mentioned last time Sir William was Constable of Nottingham Castle, an important position in the personal gift of the king of England, a position that had previously been held by his step-uncle Piers Gaveston.

On my guided tours of gay Nottingham it would be remiss of me not to mention Robin Hood. As it happens there are a couple of good stories about the outlaw which link in well with the lgbt history of the city.

The first takes place in 1975. There was a street theatre group formed by several lgbt groups in Nottingham who devised a play called “Robina Hood and her Gay Folk”. The script doesn’t survive, but you can get an idea of how the play went by going through the list of characters – Robina was a female version of Robin, Maid Marian was played by a man in drag (future music journalist Kris Kirk), and a very camp Richard the Lionheart. Someone even dressed up as the Major Oak.

The actors decided to put on their play in front of Nottingham’s council house in the market square. On that particular night there was a trade delegation from the Soviet Union attending a reception at the Council House. Whether or not the play drew a large crowd I don’t know, but the Russians certainly noticed it when they left the reception. They thought the council has organised it especially for them and thought it was the real Robin Hood Society. A passing dog also thought they were real – or at least it thought the Major Oak was real because it peed up the actor’s leg!

It wasn’t long before the council realised what was going on and they got the security guards to chase the actors away. Just how they explained that to the Russians isn’t recorded, but imagine what it would have been like if you’d gone out for a few drinks that night and saw a female Robin Hood, a man in medieval drag, a Crusading knight and a tree running down the street, chased by security officers 

The castle gatehouse

And that seemed to be it as far as a gay Robin Hood until 25 years later at the 2nd International Robin Hood Conference at Nottingham University. Of all the lectures that took place one in particular caught the media’s attention. It was called “The Forest Queen” by Prof. Stephen Knight of Cardiff University. The lecture was actually about a Victorian novel about Maid Marian, but the media took the lecture’s title out of context when reporting Knight’s comment in his lecture that “the Robin Hood legend is certainly homosocial and, through all the male bonding, fighting and inter-masculine emotion, can be seen as a saga of homosexual values”.

What Professor Knight was saying was that at a time when gender studies were becoming mainstream, stories of a group of men living together would naturally lead some people to put a gay interpretation onto the characters. This is exactly what the media did. Taking notice of the word “homosexual” in the lecture, and the lecture’s title, they declared that this top expert on Robin Hood was saying the outlaw and his Merry Men were all gay. He wasn’t.

As I said in my interview for the German tv documentary the legends of Robin Hood have been interpreted and reinterpreted by every generation and every social group to suit the times they live in. That’s what makes Robin Hood such a universal hero – he is adaptable, which at the same time makes the medieval outlaw such a favourite character.

For my theories on the origins of the ballads of Robin Hood and the people who inspired them, click on “Robin Hood” in the labels list.

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