Image robbed from illustrator Barbara Lofthouse, from The Story of Robin Hood, retold by Robert Leeson (New York: Kingfisher, 1994).

Merry Lammastide!

August 1st

Robin Hood and the Feast of the First Loaf

The festival of Lammas is literally the "loaf mass", celebrating the initial harvest of grain, when the first loaf of bread can be baked from the current year's crop.

Bread is often called the staff of life, and the Anglo-Saxons considered it noble fare indeed. Our Modern English words for Lady and Lord derive, respectively, from the Old English "hlaefdige" (meaning "kneader of bread") and "hlafweard" (meaning "guardian of the bread").

In the earliest extant ballads, Robin Hood was not originally a nobleman, but as a champion of the poor in the popular tradition, who defended the right of the people to food and dignity, he was indeed a true "hlafweard", bread guardian, or Lord.

One of the historical rebels whose exploits may have contributed to the Robin Hood legend was Robert Tweng, who, in 1231, under the alias William Whithers, together with a masked band of about 80 followers, emptied the barns belonging to ecclesiastic absentee landlords from Rome, selling the grain or giving it to the poor, and encouraging the tenant farmers not to pay their rent.

Fittingly enough, one of the most popular brands of flour in Canada today is called "Robin Hood", and the company was a sponsor of the 3rd Biennial Robin Hood conference held in London, Ontario in 2001.

In recent popular culture, the grain guardian role of Robin Hood is portrayed in the British "Robin of Sherwood" TV series of the 1980s, in an episode called "The Time of the Wolf", in which the sheriff's men confiscate the village of Wickham's entire grain harvest, and the merry band steals it back and returns it secretly to the villagers.

In more traditional folklore, Robin's second-in-command, Little John, is linked to the grain harvest in some versions of the ballad "John Barleycorn", in which the grain is referred to as "Little Sir John", and the harvesting is portrayed as an unsuccessful attempt to kill him. This song, which humorously celebrates the alcohol-making potential of the grain, thus also embodies the widespread pagan concept of a dying and resurrected grain god, identified by Sir James Frazer in The Golden Bough.

Another of Robin's compatriots associated with the grain crop is Much the Miller's Son, a very early character in the legend, who appears in the Gest and other ballads. Millers in mediaeval times were often viewed as corrupt. In the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer says of the Miller, "He could steal corn and full thrice charge his fees". Under the feudal system, peasants were not allowed to grind the grain they harvested themselves at home, but were required to take it to the local mill, owned by the landlord. The miller took a portion of the grain as a rent or tax for the landlord, and another portion as his own milling fee. Peasants were therefore often left with little to show for their harvesting efforts, at times not even enough flour to feed themselves. Perhaps, then, the defection of Much the Miller's Son to Robin's band of outlaws represents a rejection of this oppressive milling monopoly and an attempt to steal back the people's grain from the millers and landlords.

Further Reading

Motive Power: a look at the social consequences of powered mills in England

A Short Note on Medieval Bread




Merry Lammas Blessings,

from Hester @