Marian The Brave: reclaiming the woman-warrior


Mummers: Bodleian Library MS 264, 21V via

My son and I sat down to reading Robin Hood for the last time today.

Marian, wrote acclaimed historical novelist Antonia Fraser, confessed all to the Merry Men. She was a double agent. She had been put up to spying on them and reporting back her findings by Oswald Montdragon, who had threatened to imprison her mother if she did not comply.

Things could have become considerably more interesting had she not blubbed and told the men in green the whole story. Whereupon they sat about working out how to return her to Oswald as a triple agent, so to speak.

They’re not very bright, the Merry Men. They have not yet realised that the moment Marian gets back to Montdragon she will blub and tell him the whole story. because she’s a frail, weak and foolish woman. When the going gets tough, she faints. She is an enduring wet blanket..

I wondered: was Antonia Fraser burdened with this Marian because history has painted her that way?

Look far enough back through the ages and you will find that Marian is uncomfortably near to other idealised representations of women. Marian and Robin are linked, inextricably, to the Marian month of May, and in some traditions she was seen as Queen of the May.

And the majority of what we know about her comes from those ancient poem-songs, the ballads.

The French ones first; though the Marian we see in the earliest ballads from France portray her as a shepherdess, and Robin a knight or a shepherd lover. Le Jour De Robin Et Marion, by Adam De Halle,  was composed around 1283. And Marian has competitors for Robin’s attention in some traditions: there’s mention of Clorinda, Queen of the Shepherdesses.Good grief.

She remains pastoral and prissy right through until, in the 17th century, the most fabulous version of Marian appears: a feisty woman who dresses herself up as a page and fights Robin Hood, head to head, when they are both in disguise and do not recognise each other.

Five hundred years, it took, but Marian broke her shackles – even in the popular world of the ballad – and became an equal of Robin Hood.

The picture reminded me of another ballad, full of fire.

It hails from a place we have visited recently: the Scottish Borderlands, where one had to have fire in the belly to survive. It is called ‘The Raggle Taggle Gypsies”.

The ballad appeared in around 1720 in a version of sorts, in a set  called The Roxburghe Ballads. And it tells the haunting story of a noblewoman who is up late in her Castle chamber, and she hears the gypsies outside singing.

And they sing so hauntingly, with such elemental power, that the nature of their music carries her quite out of herself and she is transported. And perhaps, a little mad with longing.

They sang so sweet, they sang so shrill. At last her tears began to flow
And she lay down her silken gown, her golden rings and all her show.

She plucked off her high-heeled shoes, a-made of Spanish leather-O
She would in the street in her bare, bare feet all out in the wind and weather-O.

She goes with them, and her Lord cannot believe what is happening. He saddles his horse and rides after the gypsy troop but when he confronts her she scorns him utterly. What care I, she says, for your fine feather bed. I’ll sleep in a cold open field tonight, with the gypsies.

The passion of the song echoes hers: immediate, urgent, a longing which subverts thought and travels deeper.

If you know where to look, you don’t need to write a milksop Marian.

There are plenty of places, even in early unsophisticated folk songs, to find women we would take up arms and follow, the Joan of Arcs, the warriors, the women of fire.

Today, Felix changed his book for good. The chivalric Marian is behind us.

Before us, an intriguing challenge to write her the way she really should be.


35 thoughts on “Marian The Brave: reclaiming the woman-warrior

  1. I liked this post and agree with you about the chivalric Marian. I don’t remember her being so wimpy in the old Ladybird book where I first encountered Robin Hood, but your memory plays tricks at times.

    1. Very good point, Roger; but neither sex is great as a punchbag either. I confess to loving my Jeanne D’Arcs, but also my Scheherezades: those who use their outstanding wit to get the best out of life.The lady in the second ballad was not physical, but she had fire.

  2. I don’t know so much that I need a female protagonist who joins the boys in gun fights and battles, but I certainly don’t want one who swoons at the slightest provocation. And yet one still finds such nonsense in contemporary books. I don’t know about you, Kate, but I for one have never fainted upon receiving bad news or witnessing a shocking sight. Perhaps it’s because we no longer wear tight corsets?…

  3. I prefer the Marion who fights with the boys over one who faints. But I haven’t read or seen any version of Robin Hood since I was a kid, and don’t recall how she was portrayed.

  4. I’ll take a middle-of-the-Sherwood-Forest Marion . . . she neither fights, nor feints faints. She is strong enough to be kind and gentle and intelligent enough not to blubber and flubber about.

  5. I’m glad you finished the book…just to be able to tell us that Antonia Fraser never did change direction. I never even knew of the “fainting” Marian. I think I only knew the much feistier version. I’m now quite intrigued. I loved my mother-in-law–named Marian, and now Sophia’s middle name is Mariana. And I am eager to hear, please do share, what Felix is going to read next! Such good stuff!

    1. They are many and varied, aren’t they? And I think what is so fascinating about them is what they say about the people who fashioned them. A very different mindset from today.

  6. One misses the swooning heroine of old, wringing hands and waiting for the Brave Protector to rescue her. She did wonders for male ego. Mind you, even when that fashion in movies was still in force, I used to get irritated by the heroine squeaking in a corner while the hero fought with odds of two or three against. Why couldn’t she at least clonk one with a vase, I wondered?

  7. I’ve heard some version of the gypsy ballad over here in the U.S.
    “Black Jack David came a riding
    through the wood and he sang so loud and gaily,
    He made the woods all around him ring,
    and he won the heart of a lady.”

  8. I like reading Antonia Fraser’s books. Or I used to… I thought Maid Marion was a feisty member of the gang. I don’t like thinking of her as a silly “milksop” woman (nice expression that!).
    Gosh now I want to read the book…

    1. Hi Rosie! Yes, I am tracking back to read the Robin Hood papers once again, I think. What TH White could do for Arthur, surely someone could do for Robin? They are cracking tales…particularly if Marian is allowed to shine.

  9. Oh, gosh. The raggle taggle gypsies just brought on such a flood of memories if my grandmother, who used to sing that ballad to me when I was a child.

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