Look, I know I ought to hate this movie.  But though I found it long, I enjoyed pretty much every one of its 140 minutes.  Yes, it plays havoc with history.  Even though Robin Hood is just a figure from ‘folklore’, and therefore a big blank as far as real history is concerned, we all have a a sufficiently strong sense of the ‘real’ Robin Hood that it can be offended. But Robin Hood is meant to represent someone striking back against murderous arbitrary power sucking all the surplus from the common working man.  Insofar as the movie is meant to set up his subsequent life of righteous banditry, it does it pretty well*

Instead, history took its heaviest blows at the level of kings’n’queens international politics.  A French-versus-British angle was daft just 130 years after the Conquest – the two Kingdoms overlapped, surely, and the Channel was not the great barrier against being overrun by the French that it was to become.  And why was King John (superbly cast, incidentally) shown burning up a copy of the Magna Carta before the barons?

Nevertheless, I enjoyed a sense of historical realism behind the nitty-gritty of the film – the sense of struggle and risk in medieval life, and how this must have interplayed with the rules of society at the time.  To put it in dull, economistic terms: the surplus produced by the farming economies of the time must have been so precarious, so subject to nature’s whim, so vulnerable to uncertain property rights, that I could understand how inhumane feudal rules and power structures were necessary. Anything that guaranteed order of some sort, including the Mafia rules of feudalism, must be better than anarchy.

The other point I was fumbling towards is this.  We use Robin Hood as a metaphor for anything that takes from the Rich and gives to the Poor.  So when Brown put up taxes on higher incomes he was being Robin Hood.  However, this is using the state to take from the rich to give to the poor. As League of Ordinary Gentlemen points out, in medieval times to be rich WAS to be the state.  Hence the temptation for numerous right-wing thinkers to adopt the Robin Hood character instead.  They link to a NYT piece by AO Scott:

You may have heard that Robin Hood stole from the rich and gave to the poor, but that was just liberal media propaganda. This Robin is no socialist bandit practicing freelance wealth redistribution, but rather a manly libertarian rebel striking out against high taxes and a big government scheme to trample the ancient liberties of property owners and provincial nobles. Don’t tread on him!

LoOG are right that the strongest message you can get from the movie is about abuses of power, and its importance in economic relations.  For me (predictably) it weakens the right of the Robin Hood Taxation people to use that image in their campaign.  As Tim Worstall and I have argued tirelessly, such tiny transaction taxes end up landing on you and me.  In Robin Hood’s time the transaction tax would be the equivalent of a duty on grain, beer and mead, which King John claims as being aimed at big Abbey brewers**, and really ends up on the ordinary peasant.  He’d be aiming an arrow at it.

*Though I doubt there will be a sequel: having seen so many castles stormed and Frenchmen thrown lustily into the sea, let alone the origins of habeas corpus, the derringdo against the Sherrif of Nottingham will seem rather quaint

**on this subject, look at the madness of recent micro-economic tinkering on breweries via a letter to the FT

The taxpayer now provides a small brewer producing around 5,000 hectolitres of beer with an annual duty subsidy of about £170,000 (and even more for those brewing stronger beers). The relief is so highly tailored to the small brewer that those brewing slightly more are likely to be in the position that even if they could brew their beer for nothing, their duty bill would still make them more expensive than a microbrewer.

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8 thoughts on “Robin Hood, the prequel: a defence of feudalism?

  1. Or as I said in an obscure radio interview (obscure being the only kind anyone lets me do) a real Robin Hood Tax would be all of us in green tights descending upon Westminster to demand back the money already extorted from us.

    1. I would like to point out the Ridley Scott resisted the temptation to use tights. After about 30 minutes, a few people got up and walked out.

  2. A problem with liberalism is the preoccupation with the state, which always decides the distribution of wealth by enforcing and redefining property rights, and its ignorance of class division, wealth creation being turned on its head. The enduring appeal of Robin Hood as a folk hero in England is not only because of the injustice of the feudal order, but because of the enclosure of common lands, the resulting process of forced urbanisation, industrialisation, and latterly deindustrialisation…

    You misunderstand the purpose of the RHT campaign, which is not to get governments to implement a transaction tax, but to keep the cause of the crisis fixed in the public imagination – it is a transitional demand, not a genuine policy proposal.

    1. I think you are slightly charitable to the RHT campaign there. If ‘keeping the cause fixed’ (and some of the unjust consequences before the public) was they point, then I’M part of the campaign – my stuff has done that to some degree. The RHT wants their specific proposal backed; for example, in a pre-election grilling, the authors of the manifestos were lobbied on a Guardian podcast for whether they too back a ‘Robin Hood Tax’, and all of them – scared no doubt – felt they had to say yes.

      I agree with your first point – those power relations cannot be ignored, and the sort of liberalism that takes a blind or idealistic view of how society actually operates is the worse for it. Banning the poaching of deer, and appropriating common land, seem to be reasonable analogues of one another.

  3. But there was a French vs British angle – Louis, the French King’s son, came and conquered most of the South during the Barons’ War. It was only when John died that the Barons thought he was more of a threat than infant Henry III so switched to him.
    Or at least that’s what Wiki says.

    1. I clearly need to brush up my medieval history – I only really have a cartoon version of King John. Over to wiki …

    2. I’m not sure what Giles is talking about there either. On top of what you said, one of the main things that led to the Barons’ rebellion was territorial losses on the continent to France.

      King John burning a copy of Magna Carta is certainly taking some liberties. Perhaps it is Scott’s take on how John went back on his signing just before he died.

      “To put it in dull, economistic terms: the surplus produced by the farming economies of the time must have been so precarious, so subject to nature’s whim, so vulnerable to uncertain property rights, that I could understand how inhumane feudal rules and power structures were necessary. Anything that guaranteed order of some sort, including the Mafia rules of feudalism, must be better than anarchy.”

      What a strikingly illiberal thing to say. Egregiously curtailing liberty was necessary to protect national security, you say. Where have I heard that one before?

      And it seems an odd reading of history, making it seem as if the landowners had no choice but to have serfs. In fact, serfdom was more common when the society wasn’t near its Malthusian limits. The labourers got too uppity for their own good and the landowners knocked them down a peg or several thousand:

      http://web.archive.org/web/20060830223115/www.wws.princeton.edu/pkrugman/serfsup.html

      http://web.archive.org/web/20071013210741/http://j-bradford-delong.net/movable_type/2003_archives/001447.html

      1. “What a strikingly illiberal thing to say. Egregiously curtailing liberty was necessary to protect national security, you say. Where have I heard that one before?”

        Yes, look my liberalism is pragmatic. I think different societal models existed with different economic models, perhaps there is something Marxist about me – not that at each and every point in history the version of liberalism that we now think is ideal is what would have suited society as a whole. I’m not saying I would have liked it – but liberalism was not discoverd like some sciencific discovery (‘if only we had thought of this when we had all those kings and queens!’) but became possible – and liberals are great people because they push to get rid of social structures that become obselete, rather than cling on to them.

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