Marshall, John. Early English Performance: Medieval Plays and Robin Hood Games: Shifting Paradigms in Early English Drama Studies. Variorum Collected Studies. New York and Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2020. ISBN: 978-1138370937. $175.00. 367pp.
Reviewed by Stephen Knight
University of Melbourne
John Marshall is well-known to scholars and students of earlier English literature as a specialist on popular drama, notably the medieval town mystery cycles, and also the more elusive Robin Hood activities usually called “play-games.” He has published detailed explorations into the contexts and meanings of early English public theatre, combining his personal interest as an actor, producer and teacher of drama studies with a grasp of the scanty and often obscure financial and public records that offer the only real evidence for what went on, and why it went on, in the street theater of small English towns in the late medieval and early modern periods.
Now retired, a research fellow at Bristol University—at the heart of Robin Hood play-game country—he has co-operated with Routledge in their Variorum project to reprint the research essays of people recognized as specialists in their fields. This is one of a series named, the same as this book’s subtitle, “Shifting Paradigms in Early English Drama Studies,” edited currently by Philip Butterworth, a prolific early theater scholar based at the University of Leeds.
The collection offers nineteen essays published over thirty years up to 2017. Varying a good deal in length—some are short special analyses, others quite wide-ranging surveys of periods and contexts—they fall into four sections. First come five essays on the Chester Whitsun mystery cycle plays, including the long and influential essay from 1985 examining just how the Chester pageants were staged. The second section is on the non-cycle plays Wisdom and Mankind and their contexts and the third considers medieval depictions and modern productions of the plays discussed in the previous two sections. The fourth set of six essays is on “Robin Hood Games”: this material covers more than a third of the volume and provides close, and closely-considered, research from 1998-2017 on these intriguing performances which are still difficult to grasp fully, both in terms of their own functions and meanings, and also their place in the larger tradition of Robin Hood.
The sub-title for Marshall’s “Robin Hood Games,” Section 4, is “Customary performance and raising funds” and he brings the recording data into full analysis. Robin Hood scholars will know that these events are elusive, in that no texts have survived, the records are intermittent, and commentators have regarded them variously over time. Occurring, or at least recorded, irregularly in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, with a clear emphasis on appearances in the south-west of England and, somewhat later, in Scotland, they were first understood as ritualistic regular late-May events, not linked to May-day but usually to a late May Whitsun, when Robin would lead a procession from the nearby wood, or forest, to the center of a town where celebratory events would place. As David Wiles showed in his 1981 book, this was eagerly interpreted by Robin Hood mythicists like Margaret Murray and Robert Graves as Robin the Forest Lord, or simply the Green Man, enacting a genial engagement with urban culture. But a closer study of the surviving records, by Marshall and others, was to dismiss this mythic myth. Their analysis indicated firstly that the play-game events were by no means regular—intermittently occasional would be a better description. Then it was shown that the records had a dominating interest in finance: both how much costumes, properties and services cost, and also how much was raised to pay for local expenses, sometimes roads and the like, but usually for the cost of repairs and improvements to the local church.
Marshall’s work in the reprinted essays substantially elaborates the anti-mythic elements of the “Robin Hood Games.” He shows that the “Robin Hood Collections” were financially much larger than the usual everyday activities—the Robin Hood income was usually up to four pounds, while the Christmas “hogglers” (a term of mysterious origin and implication), men going round beating on doors, would raise less than ten shillings. The only financial rival he finds is the “St George Chapel Ale” held at Christmas—as the play-games were also called “Robin Hood Ales,” the two events were presumably parallel in structure, if temporally different.
Marshall is confident that the merely occasional citation of Robin Hood play-game records is not accidental, or a sign of casual record-keeping, but rather indicates that Robin Hood urban activity was organized only when there was felt to be special and substantial need for public money. This certainty is intriguing, and he develops a context for it in the first essay in the section, a thorough account of the records, especially financial ones, of the Robin Hood games in Croscombe, Somerset, 1475-1538. These are churchwardens’ accounts, and the wardens themselves usually were central in presenting the games—Marshall reports they were “neither the wealthiest nor the poorest parishioners” and “for the most part they were craftsmen of middling status” (260-1). Recent research has shown that the south-western towns with Robin Hood play-games were not those run by royalty or aristocracy, but by just those tradesmen and churchwardens who populate the Croscombe records—hence Marshall’s judgement that Robin was a “hero of communalism and autonomy, where the individual derives strength from the mutual support of fellowship” (267).
If the play-games in this way are not regular nature-myth activities, if in social terms they exploit “horizontal ties,” not a “vertical line of hierarchy” (267), and also are special and lucrative events for social purposes, there remains the question of how they link to the Robin Hood outlaw myth, which is itself clearly in operation at just the time when the non-outlaw play-game records begin to appear. This interface is not a central theme for Marshall, but some of his detailed evidence seems to cast new light on the issue. One link appears through his description of the events of 1497 when Roger Marshall (well-named) was charged with leading a riotous assembly in Willenhall, Staffordshire. To free two men charged with assault, he came as Robin Hood and had, it was alleged, two hundred followers. In his defense, he said they were imitating the people who on “fere day” [fair] would gather money “to the profight of the chirches” [profit], led by Robin Hood or the Abbot of Marham. (Marham was a real Norfolk place-name, but was used at times—no doubt ironically suggesting “Mar-‘em”—in what seem to have been church-satirical play-games.)
Other early play-games and outlaw contacts exist. By about 1475 the Paston family were sponsoring a short Robin Hood play which clearly involves freeing men from the sheriff’s arrest, and seems to be a source for the later-recorded ballad “Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne.” It seems an easy step from the play-game communal hero to the outlaw opponent of brutal law, especially after a period of human and social strain like the mid-to-late fourteenth century. Another revealing link is to be found in Richard Tardif’s essay “The Mistery of Robin Hood,” which argues that the original audience of the ballads and the model for the outlaws were “urban journeymen”—not now serfs, but not trade business owners either—they were free, and variously oppressed, urban workers imagining through Robin Hood about a near-town collective and resistant natural utopia. Tardif’s essay is in Words and Words, ed. S. Knight and S. N. Mukherjee, Sydney, 1983.
The relative ease of movement from respectable small-town funding-collectors to forms of social resistance may well explain the sixteenth-century crack-down on Robin Hood play-games, as in Edinburgh in 1561, but there are other interesting products of Marshall’s research. His last essay, “Revisiting and Revising Robin Hood in Sixteenth-Century London,” offers a detailed account of three contexts. First, the activities of a robber who took the name “Greneleef” (also found in the Gest) and acted in Robin Hood pageants. Then comes the very elaborate 1515 royal pageant at Shooters Hill, near Greenwich. Finally he describes the mid-century account by Henry Machyn of Robin Hood pageants, including one for midsummer—time is shifting, as with the winter play-games in Scotland. Himself a tailor, Machyn probably produced some of the settings and costumes. London itself, like the south-western small towns, had its Robin Hood play-games/pageants that were intermittent, money-oriented and elaborate—and fascinatingly, and knowingly, Marshall reports that London itself was also not run by royalty or the aristocracy, but by its own churchwarden-like freemen.
Marshall’s long-standing interest in public pageants is recurrently informative in the collection—the genre has not in the past been linked enough with the play-games, and its special formality and importance may help to explain the irregularity and also the lucrative nature of the Robin Hood urban activities; the pageants too were far more than door-knocking. Marshall is also very interested in the elaborate play-games costumes, major elements in the financial records: he has a short essay on the appearance of Robin and others, including his compulsory “bycocket hat” and sometimes even ostrich feathers, and suggests that the finely-outfitted Robin had an impact not unlike that of Father Christmas.
Apart from the Robin Hood third of this collection, recurrently enlightening is the close study of the mystery plays. These are like the play-games church-oriented, but thematically meaningful rather than church re-building-linked: there seems to have been no special quest for income from them. They indeed have the regular role of mythic practice formerly and wrongly imagined for the play-games, and in general the mysteries have little overlap with the urban Robin Hood activities—apart perhaps from the use of the pageant wagons, which interest Marshall a good deal. They are one more item in the rich detail and searching analysis offered by this valuable collection of the essays of a major medieval scholar.