Julian Luxford says a note discovered in the margins of an ancient history book contains rare criticism of the supposedly benevolent bandit.
According to legend, Robin Hood roamed 13th-century Britain from a base in central England's Sherwood Forest, plundering from the rich to give to the poor.
But Luxford, an art history lecturer at Scotland's University of St. Andrews, says a 23-word inscription in the margins of a history book, written in Latin by a medieval monk around 1460, casts the outlaw as a persistent thief.
"Around this time, according to popular opinion, a certain outlaw named Robin Hood, with his accomplices, infested Sherwood and other law-abiding areas of England with continuous robberies," the note read when translated into English, Luxford said.
Luxford said he found the reference while searching through the library of England's prestigious Eton College, which was founded in 1440 by King Henry VI.
"I saw his name, it leapt out at me," Luxford, 41, said Saturday. "I knew enough about the relative dearth of references to him from the medieval period to know this might be important."
Luxford, an expert in medieval manuscripts, said the find "contains a uniquely negative assessment of the outlaw, and provides rare evidence for monastic attitudes towards him."
He said it was not entirely surprising that monks, as part of England's clerical establishment, harbored negative feelings about the bandit.
Luxford said Robin Hood stories from the Middle Ages paint him as an ally of "good knights and yeomen — salt-of-the-earth type people. But they are not so positive about his relationship with the clergy."
Luxford said the note — uncovered in the margin of the "Polychronicon," a popular history book that dates from the late 1340s — is the earliest known reference to the outlaw from an English source. He said it supports arguments that the historical Robin Hood lived in the 13th century, even though most popular modern versions of the story set him in the late-12th century reign of King Richard I.
The first mentions of Robin Hood, depicted in Hollywood movies by both Kevin Costner and Errol Flynn, are commonly believed to have been in late 13th-century ballads. Some academics claim the stories refer to several different medieval outlaws, while others believe the tales are pure fantasy.
Luxford said his discovery may help settle debates in England about exactly where Robin Hood lived.
The northern England county of Yorkshire has long claimed he was based there, rather than neighboring Nottinghamshire — even naming a local transport hub Robin Hood Airport in tribute.
But folklore has most commonly placed Hood in Sherwood Forest — where he is reputed to hidden from his nemesis, the Sheriff of Nottingham. The forest once spanned 100,000 acres (40,500 hectares) across Nottinghamshire, but has shrunk in modern time to about 450 acres (180 hectares).
"This is another piece of evidence from the Middle Ages showing he was from Sherwood," Luxford said. "It strengthens that connection."
Luxford said he planned to publish more details of the find in the Journal of Medieval History.