We are the sons of these serfs, of these tributaries, of these bourgeois that the conquerors devoured at will; we owe them all that we are.
— Augustin Thierry
A carriage is brought to a halt on the road to Nottingham. The nobles within peek past the curtains to see bandits on all sides. They scan the grimy faces of the hostile woodsman to see if they can recognize that famous outlaw, that protector and avenger of the poor and downtrodden, that paragon of armed social justice, that singular personification of class conflict: Robin Hood.
Generations have grown up with a heroic ideal of robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. Robin Hood’s hawk-eyed archery and fierce swordplay make him popular with kids, and his social conscience endears him to their parents.
Only those who are particularly wary of an apparently left-wing message in the legend take exception. Socialists, of course, make the most of Robin Hood as a hero of the underclass and a medieval precursor to modern Marxist class theory.
Because Robin Hood is a centuries-old folk hero and not a historical figure, each generation has been able to reinterpret the legend to fit its agenda. It was only in the nineteenth century, for example, that Robin Hood amended his modus operandi to include giving to the poor. But if we look to the era in which his legend first "became genuinely popular," according to historian Simon Schama, we’ll see that the classes in conflict don’t neatly fit the Marxist theory. They do, however, fit the older, now mostly forgotten libertarian class theory of French and American classical liberals.
Robin Hood's story is now commonly set in the late 1100s while King Richard the Lionheart is away, fighting in the Crusades, but our earliest written record of the legend appears some 200 years later, at a time of drastic changes in the lives of both rich and poor—and in the relationship between the two.
The Black Death reached English shores in 1348, killing almost half the population by 1350. The survivors were, of course, devastated. Not only had they lost their friends and families; they lost any sense of order in the world. The Middle Ages were marked by a belief in permanence and predictability. For the commoners who made up more than 90 percent of the English population, the details of one’s life would have resembled those of one’s grandparents and could be expected to be the same for one’s grandchildren. Then everything changed.
The population became drastically smaller—especially among working people—but there was just as much gold, as many acres of farmland, and as many buildings and other artifacts of pre-plague England. There was, in short, the same amount of wealth in pre- and post-plague England, and only half as many people to possess it.
With fewer peasants to till the soil, landlords had to compete to attract the surviving labor. After many generations on the same few acres of land, healthy field workers were suddenly uprooting and moving to wherever they found the best opportunity. Market forces made the lives of working people immeasurably better—and the nobles who lost the bidding wars for their services didn't like it.
As happens in every era of dramatic change, the economic has-beens appealed to the coercive power of the State to return conditions to a comfortable status quo ante.
The Statute of Labourers (1351) made it illegal for peasants to accept wages that were higher than pre-plague levels. Meanwhile, food prices skyrocketed, as we should expect from a doubling of the supply of money relative to food supply.
The poor, forced to endure hunger and shortages, could see ever more clearly that the source of their suffering was not just bad weather or pestilence; it was a political class growing rich from peasant labor.
And if the Black Death had destroyed the survivors' belief in the security of an unchanging life, it also led them to question the supporting ideology of feudalism. The doctrine of the Great Chain of Being, which gave divine sanction to the aristocracy's superior position in society and in the economy, suddenly seemed as uncertain as everything else.
An oppressed people with a clear enemy and a belief in the reality of change is a recipe for revolution.
In 1381, in response to a new poll tax to pay for foreign war, thousands of commoners took up arms and advanced on London. The uprising is remembered as the English Peasants’ Revolt, but as Schama notes in A History of Britain, "The 'Peasants' Revolt' of 1381 was, in fact, conspicuous for the absence of peasants."
The rank and file may have come from the bottom of the social hierarchy, but the leaders of the revolt were merchants and lawyers:
the sort of people, in fact, who … had a bit of money and sometimes even a smattering of book learning. Their trades put them in touch with worlds beyond their parish, and they knew how to make an army out of those one rung down on the social ladder. (A History of Britain, vol. 1, p. 246)
In the BBC documentary version of his book, Schama asks and answers a key question for our understanding of the era and culture that produced the legend of Robin Hood:
Was this a class war, then (a phrase we're not supposed to use since the official burial of Marxism)?
Yes, it was.
But was it really? Schama makes it clear that the class theory he has in mind is Marxist, and Marx makes clear that the inescapable root conflict is between socioeconomic classes—specifically between rich and poor—no matter what system led to the creation and distribution of wealth.
The Communist Manifesto opens with these lines:
The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed….
In "Classical Liberal Roots of the Marxist Doctrine of Classes," historian Ralph Raico writes, "On examination these opposed pairs turn out to be, either wholly or in part, not economic, but legal, categories." (That is, categories created by political privilege.)
Not only can we see that that the Peasants’ Revolt was a battle between the productive class of commoners and the specifically political class that fed off their production; this division of sides was also clear to the rebels themselves:
"They were emphatically not a rabble," writes Schama:
En route [to London], their targets had been carefully selected: estates belonging to tax collectors or prominent members of the royal council.… Any document bearing the green wax seal of the Exchequer was marked for destruction. It was an army that knew what it was doing.
If the Peasant's Revolt had been a class war in the Marxist sense, we would have seen the so-called peasants targeting wealth in general. Instead, we see a rebellion led by an emerging bourgeoisie targeting the machinery of the oppressive State.
Marx was not, however, the originator of class theory, and his is not the only version of class war that can describe the events of 1381. As he wrote in a letter, "Long before me bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this class struggle and bourgeois economists the economic anatomy of the classes."
The "bourgeois historians" were French and American classical liberals: Charles Comte, Charles Dunoyer, Augustin Thierry, and other disciples of Jean-Baptiste Say in France, and John Taylor of Caroline, William Leggett, John C. Calhoun, and other Jeffersonians in the United States. And their theory, unlike Marx's revision, divided the people into a productive economic class and a parasitic political class: tax payers and tax consumers. Historically, these classes correlated (not coincidentally) to the oppressed poor and the oppressive rich, but the liberal class theory did not treat the distribution of wealth as the source of inevitable conflict; the historical division of the rich and poor was in fact a result of the political class's coercive exploitation of productive people pursuing voluntary exchange in a free market.
As advocates of such voluntary exchange, we too often resist Robin Hood's rob-from-the-rich morality, as we resist any talk of fundamental conflicts of interest between different classes. But the targets of Robin Hood and his merry men—like the targets of the Peasants’ Revolt—were rich from plunder, not production.
Like the radical liberals of the nineteenth century, the "peasant" rebels of the 1300s—when Robin Hood’s exploits fired the imagination of an oppressed people—recognized that their enemies were the tax collectors, legislators, and all other members of the political class.
Our intellectual tradition not only offers an older, sounder class theory with greater explanatory power than the now more familiar Marxist theory; it lets us join the English rebels in embracing Robin Hood as a hero of the productive class.