“This infant was call’d John Little,”
“Which name shall be chang’d anon,
The words we’ll transpose, so where-
ever he goes,
His name shall be called Little John.”
– English Ballad
The Merry Men who followed Robin Hood in legend, song and stories are nearly always portrayed as a happy group of outlaws who reign havoc on the Sheriff and rich nobles of Sherwood and coming to Robin’s aid when he has gotten to smart for his own good and been captured.
By almost all accounts the Robin Hood legends include a group of followers, which varies in number from tale to tale. Some of the tales have Robin defending the poor and downtrodden of Sherwood with a small group of close associates. Others say Robin’s posse numbered in the hundreds.
While Robin Hood may have won the hearts and minds of the local populace, the citizens suffering under the oppressive rule of the crown, logic would seem to indicate a smaller group of bandits is the more likely truth. As large as Sherwood Forest is, it would be extremely difficult to hide and feed and equip a force of hundreds. Especially if you steal your supplies.
Most of the Robin Hood tales, regardless of the origin, include mention of the prominent ‘Merry Men’ most notably Little John, Will Scarlet, Allan Aydale (with dozens of different spellings of his last name) Much The Miller’s Son and of course Friar Tuck. But while the tales tell of Robin and his men as happy outlaws enjoying their fame as cunning foils for the Sheriff and the King. But in reality the term “Merry” in the Middle Ages referred to a group of men who were followers of a knight or outlaw. Only in recent usage has it come to mean happy or celebratory.
Likely, the Merry Men weren’t all that merry. This was the Dark Ages after all, and men forced to the woods, to steal for their supper, were not likely to inspire happy feelings. If you were a traveler making your way through Sherwood Forest at the time, you were probably more than happy to not meet the “Merry Men” under any circumstances.