There was an illuminating “Room for Debate” exchange in the New York Times yesterday on the subject of “Resuscitating Chivalry,” with contributions from six writers representing a range of perspectives on the subject. Two of the contributions will be of special interest to medievalists. Richard Abels, chair of the Department of History at the US Naval Academy, writes a smart and straightforward piece on the economic, legal, and religious dimensions of chivalry as practiced in the European Middle Ages, pointing out that the commonplace “holding-the-door” characterization of chivalry is largely a construct of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
A very different contribution, in flavor and in substance, comes from Scott Farrell, director of an organization called the Chivalry Today Educational Program. Farrell is also a historical fencing instructor, and he’s contributed a chapter (“Sir Aristotle and the Code of Chivalry”) to the extraordinarily subtitled collection Martial Arts and Philosophy: Beating and Nothingness; the essay is complete with photographs of Farrell fencing in front of a castle, and it makes some thoughtful connections between the sources and scholarship on medieval chivalry and the culture of reenactment and WMA (Western Martial Arts). I’ll admit that despite my longstanding interest in medievalism, this is the first I’ve heard of Chivalry Today, which aims to promote “the principles of a universal standard of ethical and honorable behavior by exploring the history, development, and meaning of the Code Of Chivalry; examining its value, evolution, and applicability in all aspects and eras of society from the Middle Ages to the 21st century; and challenging students, educators, and leaders at all levels to pursue the Knightly Virtues in all of their endeavors (you can read the full mission statement here). Unlike Abels, Ferrell sees chivalry as a living force for ethical guidance rather than a bygone relic of the medieval past.
Given the tension between these two visions of chivalry–as a stereotyped archaism vs. an enduring source of virtue–I was struck by the visual accompanying the exchange. Here it is, complete with the caption as presented in the Times:
Though the caption describes the image as an “11th-century illustration” of Lancelot and Guinevere, the image is clearly a modern drawing, probably late-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century in origin (does anyone know?). In fact, if you do a quick search under “Lancelot” on the Lebrecht stock photography site you’ll find that crucial qualifier “after”–as in “after miniature in 11th century manuscript.”
Nothing earth-shattering here, of course, and the inaccurate caption was likely just the hurried invention of an overworked intern. But it’s always interesting when the visual register of contemporary medievalism augments its explicit argumentative dimension. Stock medievalism comes in many forms…
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