So what did Robin Hood and Little John get up to in the woods?

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The Independent Online
Forget opinion polls and the pontificators of Newsnight. If you want an accurate political barometer, check out the popularity of Robin Hood.

The Sherwood Forest income redistributor peaks in popularity in times of authoritarianism and repression, such as the 1980s, while interest in him wanes in more liberal times, according to Stephen Knight, Professor of English at the University of Wales at Cardiff, who has studied the progress of the myth over the past 500 years.

"In times of genuine revolution, Robin Hood is too hot to handle," said Professor Knight. "But he is popular in times of conservatism, as in the era of Thatcher and Reagan, when Hollywood had three films about him in production at one time.

"The reigns of both Henry VII and Henry VIII were popular times for him. Interest declined at the time of the French revolution, and then peaked again after the Napoleonic wars.

"The popularity of Robin Hood material has been used to express coded resistance to conservatism, and will, no doubt, give us a true test of the politics of Tony Blair."

At a conference at the University of Rochester, New York, next month, academics from around the world will spend three days investigating the famous outlaw, watching some of the 38 movies about him and listening to ballads.

His liking for cross-dressing will be on the agenda. Professor Knight said: "There will be discussion about Robin's sexuality - what were they doing in the woods, why were they wearing tights, and that kind of thing."

For Cambridge historian Professor Barrie Dobson, Robin was just a regular sort of outlaw. "It is difficult to say anything about his sexuality. The relationship between Little John and Robin is interesting but with no suggestion of homoeroticism." As far as it's possible to tell, he said, Robin was as straight as an arrow.

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