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Robin Hood is a famous figure of English folklore, whose existence or fictionality is still a subject of debate. The stories about him started off as folk tales transmitted orally (ballads), but by now of course there are many written stories about him. I'm curious about the history of the transition of Robin Hood tales from oral to written form, and I've phrased my title a little vaguely because I think there are several interconnected subquestions here:

  • Roughly when were Robin Hood stories first written down?
  • What is the oldest surviving written Robin Hood story?
  • Is there one particularly important early written text which influenced many of the later/modern versions of the story? (Cf. Malory's Morte d'Arthur for Arthurian legend.)
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The oldest surviving Robin Hood tales are A Gest of Robyn Hode, between 1492 and 1534, Robin Hood and the Monk written after 1450, and Robin Hood and the Potter, about 1503. There is no evidence that the tales were written down prior to that. Although the first literary reference to Robin Hood was in 1370-ish (in Piers Plowman), it does not require the tales be written -- a drunken priest confesses he does not know his prayers, but he knows "rymes" of Robyn Hood and Randolf earl of Chester. Likewise, although Gest is clearly a compilation of tales fit together (sometimes quite awkwardly), there is no necessary reason to believe that the author used any written sources.

There is no particular written version that defined the legend, which altered quite substantially over the years. (For instance, Alan-a-Dale did not appear until the 17th century; the whole "Saxon vs. Norman" element was introduced by Sir Walter Scott; and the idea of Robin's assisting with the raising of Richard's ransom didn't appear until 20th century movies.)

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According to "The Real Robin Hood" on History.com, the first literary references to Robin Hood appear in a series of 14th- and 15th-century ballads about a violent yeoman who lived in Sherwood Forest with his men and frequently clashed with the Sheriff of Nottingham. Rather than a peasant, knight or fallen noble, as in later versions, the protagonist of these medieval stories is a commoner. Besides this, I found no answers to your questions.

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