The Age of Chivalry Revisited

One of the benefits of our sojourn here in York is that it means we're "unplugged" from some of the frantic pace that characterizes life back in the States, freeing us up for some dedicated time of reading. So one of my goals for this semester is to read a number of British classics that I've only dabbled in before. I've brought along Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, Cardinal Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua, Evelyn Waugh's Scoop, and others. But I dove into the pile by first reading Sir Walter Scott's 19th-century manifesto, Ivanhoe.

One of the courses I'm teaching here is "Victorian Britain and Postmodern Culture: Contemporary Medievalisms" (the informal title is "Everything Jamie loves about 19th-century Britain!"). As England was undergoing the upheaval of the Industrial Revolution--which, for all its "economic growth," also fragmented families and entire ways of life--the middle of the 19th century saw a backlash and critique in the form of a new fascination with medieval modes of life. Scott's Ivanhoe was a huge part of this. While penned as a story, it was adopted as a manifesto, calling England back from the atomism spawned by the "Satanic mills" of industry to the organic (and admittedly hierarchical) organization of the body politic in feudal times.

Scott's book (much of which is set right here in Yorkshire) embodies all the (often caricatured) pictures we've come to inherit: knights in shining armor, damsels in distress, tournaments and jousts, Richard the Lionheart and the despicable Prince John, characters hearkening to Robin Hood and Friar Tuck. But this is no mere lads' tale or entertainment. One has to be struck at the genuine literary quality of the book; this isn't some sort of proto-"genre fiction." And there are very interesting subplots and themes: One concerns the status of Jews in late medieval England, and here what appears to be Scott's traffic with typical anti-Semitic slurs is actually undercut, I think, by how Isaac and Rebekah function within the story. While anti-Semitic readers might have heard what they wanted to hear, on the other hand I think their attitudes are consistently undercut by Scott's narrative.

The other theme is historical and political, namely how "the English" came to emerge from the meld of Saxon and Norman--the indigenous English and the interloping French. King Richard and Ivanhoe's friendship marks the end of their animosity and the beginning of "the English."

An English treasure, penned by a Scot.