Girouard, Mark. The Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the English Gentleman.

New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981.

Around about the time of its wars against the French Revolution and then Napoleon, England witnessed an odd and interesting phenomenon that lasted through the entire 19th century and right up to the end of the Great War: The revival of the medieval code of chivalry, with King Arthur, knights in armor, the notion of courtly love, and all.

The ideals of personal bravery and honour, service to the nation, and self-sacrifice reappeared in modified form and helped shape British culture for several generations, not only in art and literature but even in politics.

Sir Walter Scott’s novels had a lot to do with reviving the myth of chivalry (and it was indeed mostly a myth), and so, too, did the paintings of Benjamin West, featuring the Black Prince and other knightly heroes. And Tennyson helped further the new myth in the next generation. There was a new rise of interest in the Middle Ages, but George IV and then the Victorians interpreted that period to suit themselves. Those with the money to build new country homes often opted for what they fancied were medieval-style castles. Prince Albert’s tomb features a reclining sculpture on top depicting the Prince in full armor with his favorite dog at his feet, also in medieval funerary style. Even Baden-Powell promoted his new Boy Scouts in Arthurian chivalric terms.

The whole thing reached its climax with the deaths of Capt. Robert Scott and his companions in Antarctica early in 1912 (especially Capt. Oates, who “walked out to his death an English gentleman”) and with the sinking of the Titanic later that same year. Many of the English males aboard politely helped their wives and other women into the lifeboats and then stepped back, content to go down with the ship. At least, that was the legend. (Though it’s true that Bruce Ismay, managing director of the White Star Line, slipped into a boat at the last moment, and so survived — and was never able to hold up his head again.) And just to round out 1912, there was also a jousting tournament at Earl’s Court, in which a dozen aristocrats donned armor and went at each other with lances. (Lord Ashby St. Legers beat out the Duke of Marlborough for the gold cup.)

As always, Girouard brings his narrative to life with color and wit, all based on careful research. If you have an interest in social history, or in 19th-century literature, this heavily illustrated volume will teach you a great deal you probably didn’t know.

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Published in: on 16 March 2014 at 5:45 am  Leave a Comment  
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