The Ballads of Robin Goodfellow

Collected by Allen W. Wright

The Mad Merry Pranks of Robin Goodfellow

Possibly by Ben Jonson
From The Roxburghe Ballads, with notes by W. M. Chappell

A woodcut of Robin Goodfellow

A note on the text

Printed, including the introduction, in The Roxburghe Ballads, with short notes by W. M. Chappell, FSA. Vol. II - I. Hertford: Printed for the Ballad Society, by Stephen Austin & Sons, 1872. pp. 80-85.

The 19th century was the golden age of ballad collections -- printing the cheap publications or manuscripts of centuries gone by. 

In 1847, John Payne Collier published A Book of Roxburghe Ballads -- 1,391 17th century ballads from the collections of Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford and Mortimer (1661–1724), and John Ker, 3rd Duke of Roxburghe (1740 – 1804).

The 19th century was also the golden age of literary forgeries, and Collier included forgeries in both the Roxburghe Ballads and his Shakespeare scholarship.

William Chappell - a writer on English music - revised the Roxburghe Ballads and released an improved three-volume set. The introduction that follows is written by Chappell.

  • Introduction
  • The mad merry prankes of Robbin Good-Fellow
  • The Second Part


"Robin Goodfellow, alias Pucke, alias Hobgoblin, in the creed of ancient superstition," says Bishop Percy, "was a kind of merry sprite, whose character and achievements are recorded in this ballad, and those well-known lines of Milton's L'Allegro, which the antiquarian Peck supposes to be owing to it:--

"Tells how the drudging Goblin swet
  To earn his cream-bowle duly set:
  When, in one night, ere glimpse of morne,
  His shadowy flail hath thresh'd the corn
  That ten day-labourers could not end:
  Then lies him down at the lubber-fiend,
  And stretch'd out all the chimney's length,
  Basks at the fire his hairy strength,
  And crop-full, out of doors he flings,
  Ere the first cock his matins rings."

 "The reader will observe," again says Percy, "that our simple ancestors had reduced all these whimsies to a kind of system, as regular, and perhaps more consistent, than many parts of classical mythology: a proof of the extensive influence and vast antiquity of these superstitions."

  The following ballad is attributed to Ben Jonson, but it is not included among his published works. It may have been intended for a song in one of his Masques. Henry Gosson, the printer of this copy, was contemporary with Ben Jonson. In 1628, and perhaps also before that date, there were little books in prose about Robin Goodfellow, with songs intermixed in them. One is entitled, "Robin Goodfellow, his Mad Pranks and Merry Jests. Full of honest Mirth; and is a fit Medicine for Melancholy." Another, "The second part of Robin Good-fellow, commonly called Hob Goblin; with his Mad Pranks and Merry Jests." These were reprinted by the Percy Society, edited by Mr. J. P. Collier.

  A second copy of Gosson's edition of the ballad is included in the Pepys Collection (I.80), and two editions of later date are in the Bagofrd Collection (643 m. 9, 51, and 643 m. 10, 118). The tune of this ballad will be found in Popular Music of the Olden Time

Upon the history of the woodcuts to ballads I do not venture. It is the especial province of those who write upon what is popularly called "Fine Art." I would merely suggest that the following cut, with the rabbits, is probably derived from one of Robert Greene's books upon Conie-catching.

[Roxburghe Collection I. 230, 231]

Woodcut printed with the Mad, Merry Pranks of Robin Goodfellow

The mad merry prankes of Robbin Good-Fellow

To the tune of Dulcina.

    From Oberon in fairyland,
        the king of ghosts and shadows there,'
    Mad Robbin I, at his command,
        am sent to view the night sports here:
            What revell rout
            Is kept about,
    In every corner where I goe,
            I will o'er see,
            And merry be,
    And make good sport with ho, ho, ho!

    More swift than lightening can I flye,
        and round about this airy welkin soone,
    And, in a minute's space, descry
        each thing that's done beneath the moone;
            There's not a hag
            Nor ghost shall wag,
    Nor cry "goblin!" where I doe goe,
            But Robin I
            Their feats will spye,
    And feare them home with ho, ho, ho!

    If any wanderers I meet
        that from their night-sports doe trudge home,
    With counterfeiting voyce I greet
        and cause them on with me to roame,
            Through woods, through lakes,
            Through bogs, through brakes, --
    Ore bush and brier with them I goe;
            I call upon
            Them to come on,
    And wend me, laughing ho, ho, ho!

    Sometimes I meet them like a man;
        sometimes an oxe, sometimes a hound;
    And to a horse I turne me can,
        to trip and trot about them round.
            But if to ride
            My back they stride,
    More swift than winde away I goe;
            Ore hedge and lands,
            Through pooles and ponds,
    I whirry, laughing, ho, ho, ho!

    When ladds and lasses merry be
        With possets and with junkets fine,
    Unseene of all the company,
        I eate their cakes and sip their wine;
            And to make sport,
            I fart and snort,
    And out the candles I doe blow;
            The maides I kisse,
            They shrieke, "Who's this?"
    I answer nought, but ho, ho, ho!

    Yet now and then, the maids to please,
        I card at midnight up their wooll:
    And while they sleep, snort, fart and fease,
        with wheel to threds their flax I pull:
            I grind at mill
            Their malt [up] still,
    I dresse their hemp, I spin their towe;
            If any wake,
            And would me take,
    I wend me, laughing, ho, ho, ho!

Woodcut for the second part of The Mad Merry Pranks of Robin Goodfellow

The Second Part

To the same tune.

    When house or harth doth sluttish lie,
        I pinch the maids there blacke and blew;
    And, from the bed, the bed-clothes I
        pull off, and lay them naked to view:
            twixt sleepe and wake
            I doe them take,
    And on the key-colde floore them throw;,
            If out they cry,
            Then forth flye I,
    And loudly laugh I, ho, ho, ho!

    When any need to borrow ought,
        we lend them what they do require;
    And for the use demaund we nought,
        our owne is all we doe desire:
            If to repay
            They doe delay,
    Abroad amongst them then I goe,
            And night by night
            I them affright,
    With pinching, dreames, and ho, ho, ho!

    When lazie queanes have nought to doe
        but study how to cogge and lie,
    To make debate, and mischiefe too,
        twixt one another secretly:
            I marke their glosse,
            And doe disclose
    To them that they had wronged so;
            When I have done,
            I get me gone,
    And leave them scolding, ho, ho, ho!

    When men doe traps and engins set
        in loope-holes, where the vermine creepe,
    That from their foulds and houses fet
        their ducks and geese, their lambs and sheepe:
            I spy the gin,
            And enter in,
    And seemes a vermine taken so,
            But when they there
            Approach me neare,
    I leape out, laughing, ho, ho, ho!

    By wels and gils1 in medowes greene,
        we nightly dance our hey-day guise,2
    And to our fairy King and Queene
        wee chant our moone-light harmonies.
            When larkes 'gin sing,
            Away we fling;
    And babes new borne steale as we goe;
            An elfe in bed
            We leave in stead,
    And wend us, laughing, ho, ho, ho!!

    From hag-bred Merlin's time have I
        thus nightly reveld to and fro:
    And, for my pranks, men call me by
        the name of Robin Good-fellow:
            Fiends, ghosts, and sprites
            That haunt the nights,
    The hags and goblins doe me know,
            And beldames old,
            My feats have told,
    So Vale, Vale, ho, ho, ho!


London, Printed for H. G.

1 gills = rivulets,

2 Hey-day guise, a misprint for heydegies = rustic dances. The word occurs in this sense in Lily's Endymion, 1591, and in A Dialogue, both pleasant and pityfull, by William Bulleyn, 1564, the minstrel "daunces Trenchmore and Heie de gie, and * * telleth news from Terra Florida.

More Tales

  • ROBIN GOODFELLOW - The Pictoral Book of Ancient Ballad Poetry of Great Britain, Historical, Traditional, and Romantic
  • THE PIPER AND THE PUCA - By Douglas Hyde, included in Fairy and Folktales of the Irish Peasantry, edited by W.B. Yeats

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