REVIEW: Discovering Robin Hood – The Life of Joseph Ritson – Gentleman, Scholar and Revolutionary (2021)

A Book by Stephen Basdeo

In our modern era, it’s easy to look at an ubiquitous bit of folklore like King Arthur, or in this case Robin Hood, and assume that it has always been there. Perhaps it was spread around for a thousand years and continuously talked about that whole time. The truth is, until the eighteenth century tales of “Robin Hood” were starting to be largely forgotten. In many ways, Ritson was England’s version of The Brothers Grimm, and collected to publish all manner of long-standing nursery rhymes and folklore that it’s somewhat shocking that he is not more well known. For example, things like “Roses Are Red” and “Little Bo-Peep” were locked into history after he published them in one of his many collections. Perhaps his most famous achievement was a collection of Robin Hood Ballads, ballads being his favorite literary style, and the rest was history.

“The name of Joseph Ritson, born in Stockton-on-Tees in 1752, will be familiar to very few people. The name of Robin Hood is known the world over. Yet it was Ritson whose research in the late eighteenth century ensured the survival of the Robin Hood legend. He travelled all over the country looking for ancient manuscripts which told of the life and deeds of England’s most famous outlaw. Without his efforts, the legend of Robin Hood might have gone the way of other medieval outlaws such as Adam Bell — famous in their day but not so much now.”

It’s interesting to note that Ritson was considered “an eccentric” due to his everyday beliefs standing at odds with the nationalistic slant of “what it meant to be British.” He was a staunch atheist, hating that The Church (in all forms) seemed to preach things like charity and peace, then practice the entire opposite. He was a Vegetarian, which may as well be akin to being a practitioner of witchcraft in the Eighteenth Century considering the mere act of eating beef was seen as a patriotic act for whatever reason. He was also a Jacobite and risked troubles with his job as a Conveyancer (specialized lawyer) if some of his thoughts got out, and willfully suppressed some of his own writings. This tendency to lean towards revolutionary thinking is likely why he was so drawn to the Robin Hood ballads, making an interesting juxtaposition between his job and personal interests.

This book is definitely a passion project from Stephen Basdeo, the amount of research that went into this is almost staggering and shows the care he took to expose a historical figure largely lost to time. Most Robin Hood scholars sadly have a tendency to ignore his contributions in favor of more investigative works that try to uncover “who the real Robin Hood was”. The fact that the author was able to piece together a coherent narrative from scant letters written back and forth between Ritson, his family, and friends is miraculous considering the gaps and blind spots in the record.

Overall this was a great book, not only for filling in a bit of history on a topic I was completely unaware of, but a glimpse into late Eighteenth Century life that you don’t see much. It was interesting to see Ritson’s views on The American Revolution (he was against it) and his firsthand account of of the 1780 Gordon Riots, a time when Anti-Catholic sentiment hit a fever pitch in London, and would-be revolutionaries took London to its knees. The reader doesn’t even get a mention of Robin Hood until nearly halfway through the book, so you can see how dense the biographical and socio-political analysis is here. Highly recommended for fans of obscure history and other amazing books by Pen and Sword Publishing. I personally love how they always release things that I had no idea about, and come at the topics from interesting viewpoints.

If you are interested in this book, please click HERE

NOTE: I received a free preliminary, and likely unedited copy of this book from Netgalley for the purposes of providing an honest, unbiased review of the material. Thank you to all involved.

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