Stock Medievalism

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.”

Image 00212632, from Lebrecht Music & Art Pictures; accessed 7/31/13


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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6 comments on “Stock Medievalism

  1. J J Cohen on said:

    But …. Lancelot and Guenevere don’t enter the historical record til the closing quarter of the 12th C! Double sloppy New York Times.

  2. Jenna Mead on said:

    So, stock medievalism is (always already) anachronistic rather than historical nostalgia. Thanks for clarifying, Bruce.

  3. Bruce Holsinger on said:

    Great point, Jeffrey! I’m sure it was just some poor intern looking for a stock shot, but still…one hopes for more care. And Jenna, I’m not sure I’d go that far. Some stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason! Thanks for the comments.

  4. Lara H on said:

    Google reverse image search time! iStockPhoto gives a bit more information than the other stock photo site: “The manuscript is from the 11th century, and this facsimile was published in an 1878 history of science and literature of the Middle Ages.” The 1878 book in question is “History of Science and Literature in the Middle Ages and at the Period of the Renaissance” by Paul Lacroix, which claims to be illustrated with “upwards of four hundred engravings on wood!” (See fig. 311 on p. 385: The eleventh-century manuscript it cites is BnF no. 6,964 (or possibly BnF no. 6,961–it’s hard to read the google books version). I’ve been having trouble finding records of that eleventh-century manuscript online, possibly because the stated catalog number is…not in the format of normal BnF holdings (?).

    Do with that info what you will! (And let me know if you track down the manuscript from which the drawing is based on; I’m curious.)

    • Bruce Holsinger on said:

      This is wonderful, Lara–thanks so much! I probably won’t follow up in any substantive way, but I’ll put an Update on the post so readers can find the original image. Much appreciated.

  5. Lara H on said:

    For what it’s worth, BnF Fr. 343 (anc. 6964; it’s a book with the quest of the holy grail and the death of Arthur) does have an illumination of Guinevere on f. 3v in which she’s sitting down and he’s kneeling in front of her:

    However, that’s pretty much it for the similarities between that image and the 1878 woodcut. Also, it’s a fourteenth-century manuscript. I’m so confused.

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