Sunday, March 17, 2013

Completely Missing the Point of Robin Hood

We all know the general outline of Robin Hood; Nobleman returns from the Crusades to find his family lands taken, his father murdered and himself branded a traitor.  Eventually he forms a band of "merry men" in Sherwood Forrest and they go out raiding the rich to give to the poor.  It's a feel good, but the generalization completely misses the point of Robin Hood, and also sets up a "Hero" that can't possibly translate to today.  Worse the "Hero" of Robin Hood as translated to today sets us with a dangerous cynicism about economics, and people in general. 

First off, the economics of today and the economics of 12 century England are very different from the economics of 21st century America.  Leaving aside John Smith and the Wealth of Nations, at the time of the Third Crusade, which is when the epic is set, cities in England were essentially City-States, most people would not stray more than 25 miles from where they were born for their whole lives.  Trade was at best barely above the barter system.  Further to that the economies were all centrally planned, a Lord would direct that whatever industry (blacksmiths mostly) existed would produce X, and would plan the agriculture, always making sure to save excess in the event that the cities (essentially castles) would be laid siege to.

Keep in mind the Black Death was not yet upon them, and the only source of education was from the church.  Most forms of healthcare, record keeping and even in some cases governmental bureaucracy was offered by the church.  Books had to be written by hand (Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1450 which is almost 300 years away), so literacy was only through certain orders of monks, priests and nobility.  To picture the inversion of today's economy you'd need to understand that a person could chop down a few trees and make a house by himself in a month (less if he had help) but could work and scrape his whole life and not be able to afford ONE book (the book most in circulation then as now was the Bible).  Today I can literally buy thousands of books for the price of one house.  Indeed they don't even need to be printed anymore.

Prince John the character is a greatly exaggerated depiction of King John who had the misfortune to be born into a royal family of greater men and also to be totally inept.  Indeed the Prince tried to rebel against Richard while he was off fighting in the Crusades but failed miserably.  Eventually Richard died, John became King and managed to screw up so badly the nobles rebelled and the Magna Carta was signed at the end of his reign.  See the problem here?  It wasn't the "rich" that were the problem, it was the centralization of authority.

Unfortunately for any real people in the 12th century, "Justice" was whatever the Lords said it was.  Some were fair, some were just, and some abused the power.  Who could stop them?  To actually oppose a Lord took an army (or at least a well trained force), and even being a "man at arms" took years of training, and the only thing lower than that was to be a pike-man whose job it was to literally stand in the way of charging cavalry with a giant spear braced in the ground.  Enter Robin Hood.  What he actually was has been altered in the retelling sometimes he's a Noble, sometimes he was just a common soldier, what all the folklore agrees with is that he took umbrage with John's rule in Richard's absence. The Taxes are too high, and he has no way to make a living so he becomes a thief or highwayman.

In the more popular versions of the story he fights for the hand of the Maid Marian, sometimes with an archery contest that was actually a trap, sometimes he just storms the castle to end the reign of John and his evil sheriff.  The problem with this is if you take the "outlaw rebelling against opression" view he's not rebelling against the rich at all.  In one version he was rich, why would he choose to steal from the very people and class that he had grown up with?  Even more important to ask, as a very practical matter, if he stole the gold and jewels of the nobles, how exactly would he use say a string of pearls to pay for anything?  There was only one marked for the jewelry that came with nobility.  Silk couldn't feed a farmer.  The coins could, but for rather obvious reasons when people traveled they didn't carry that much in coinage with them.  Giving the riches from a caravan of noblemen to serfs and paupers would have been self defeating because the only people they could in turn sell those items to were the very people they were stolen from.

The oppression of the centralized economy in feudal Europe meant that if a Lord thought that you weren't being productive enough, you were kicked from your lands, and someone else would come in.  Before industrialized farming, the output of a field could vary wildly from year to year, and since they were only growing wheat (corn being an American crop not yet discovered).  If the Lord demanded X bushels of wheat, but you couldn't deliver that you were out on your ass.  It didn't help that there was a mini ice age on, which reduced crop growth, thus increasing famines (one of the reasons the Black Death was SO bad) no excuses were tolerated, and you were out on your ass.  This was oppression pure and simple, and not a matter of economics at all.

Robin Hood is so poorly understoond and misread that its almost as if Karl Marx went back in time to write it.  It's a tragic comedy of misunderstanding that has been used to promote the very idea of centralized planning that was the sole focus of his rebellion.  Indeed the right to alter or abolish the government-and the economics it was encouraging-is what Robin Hood was all about.   That John's reign ended with the Magna Carta, which our own Constitution is a direct descendant shows that if he did exist he had some limited effect.

Unfortunately, centralized planning was the only form of economics known to the feudal Europeans.  The Industrial Revolution, the Renaissance, the printing press, even simple firearms, were a long ways off, so if Robin Hood really did exist his actual impact would have been extremely limited.  We like the story in America because if we tweak the details just a bit, it's almost as if he's an American in our own revolution.  Take care to remember what the times were, and what he was actually doing as opposed to the cliff notes version that is a total betrayal of the actual saga.  If Robin of Locksley was rich, and Maid Marian was rich, and the ending saw him with all his lands and titles restored then demonizing the rich because they are rich, and canonizing the poor because they are not rich is the exact opposite of what a person should take away from Robin Hood. 


Anonymous said...

Nice commentary. Today, many stories are twisted to say what the people at the top want them to say. Reminds me of Orwell's Brave New World! Doublespeak abounds....
Truth may be lost in the weeds, but it still exists, if we seek it. Thanks for shedding some of the light of truth into the darkness.

Dick Stanley said...

Robin Hood could work today, if he stole from the crooked politicians and donated it to upcoming honest ones. Maybe...