The admirers of Sir Walter Scott will find nothing but commonplaces in what follows regarding his novel Ivanhoe (1820). Yet those who wonder why anyone would want to read this once very popular romance might find, hopefully, something of interest in my choice. This is motivated by my interest in understanding how the old values attached to chivalry conditioned the rise of the 19th century gentleman. Others, like Mark Girouard in The Return to Camelot (1981), have told this story but not from a feminist perspective like mine.
Scott is credited with having re-introduced the values of medieval chivalry into Romantic Britain as a model of civil masculine conduct, and not just as a code for the upper-class men engaged in military action as officers. In his “Essay on Chivalry” (1818), published two years before Ivanhoe, he gives a most thorough account of the origins and development of this code, to claim that it survives “in the general feeling of respect to the female sex; in the rules of forbearance and decorum in society; in the duties of speaking truth and observing courtesy; and in the general conviction and assurance, that, as no man can encroach upon the property of another without accounting to the laws, so none can infringe on his personal honours, be the difference of rank what it may, without subjecting himself to personal responsibility”. This is chivalry in a nutshell but also gentlemanliness.
Unfortunately, Scott adds, the barbaric custom of duelling, a relic of Gothic times, he notes, still persists. This kind of interpersonal violence is a sign of the palpable tension between the ideal and the practice of chivalry which colours both Scott’s analysis in the “Essay” and his novel Ivanhoe. You might assume that both are an enthusiastic celebration of this code of manliness but it is quite surprising to find that this not at all Scott’s attitude.
In case you are not familiar with Ivanhoe, allow me to explain that the central subplot narrates the constant threat of rape that Rebecca, the beautiful daughter of the Jewish moneylender Isaac of York, must endure from the lascivious knight Templar Brian de Bois-Guilbert. In his article “Irresolute Ravishers and the Sexual Economy of Chivalry in the Romantic Novel”, Gary Dyer stresses that in Ivanhoe “Scott’s attraction to chivalric ideology must confront its inadequacies; for a sceptical reader, analysing the ‘resolutions’ in the novel serves to delegitimate the narrative resolution that results, one that the novel needs in order for its ideology to cohere” (343). Seeing how Bois-Guilbert is lapsing, the master of his Order has Rebecca judged as a witch (also because she is a very competent healer). She is given the chance to ask for a champion to defend her innocence in combat against Bois-Guilbert but when Ivanhoe appears this is, Dyer adds, “an attempt to rescue the novel from its drift into this cynicism” (347). In fact [SPOILERS AHEAD], Scott cannot solve the dilemma of how chivalry and the misogynistic violence of rape connect and he has the villain die of a mysterious mortal seizure (perhaps apoplexy) and not because of Ivanhoe’s blows.
Actually, there is very little in Ivanhoe of the civil code of chivalry that fed gentlemanliness but plenty about the military version. In the “Essay” Scott informs us that chivalry originates in the ancient German forests, where the Gothic tribes that fought the Romans started giving privileges to the combatants rich enough to fight on horseback. Once the Roman Empire fell, the French (actually the Franks later conquered by the Normans of Viking descent, who eventually conquered England) codified the tribal system established to honour violent men into what became chivalry (which meant “merely cavalry”, Scott points out). The ‘chevalier’ mixed on English soil with the Saxon ‘cnicht’, a similar type of feudal soldier, to produce the knight. The institutions of chivalry and knighthood merged thus in a single code, which was increasingly idealized through the French romances, epic poetry in different languages and (later) drama. Don’t forget El Quijote!
As Scott further points out, the knight was no patriot but a lover of personal freedom. “Generosity, gallantry, and an unblemished reputation were no less necessary ingredients in the character of a perfect knight”. The problem (as Scott shows with a mixture of melancholy, impatience, and disappointment) is that the Order of Chivalry was founded on principles too pure and unrealistic. Unable to comply with it, “the devotions of the knights soon degenerated into superstition, –their love into licentiousness, –their spirit of loyalty or of freedom into tyranny and turmoil, –their generosity and gallantry into hare-brained madness and absurdity”. Bois-Guilbert is supposed to embody this degeneration, with his lusting after Rebecca being attributable, besides, to the vow of celibacy he must obey as a monk. On the other hand, Scott is very clear in Ivanhoe that King Richard I the Lionheart was a disastrous monarch because in him “the brilliant, but useless character, of a knight of romance, was in a great measure realized and revived”; his “feats of chivalry” inspired bards and minstrels, but brought “none of those solid benefits to his country on which history loves to pause, and hold up as an example to posterity”.
This is possibly the clearest instance of the cynicism which Dyer sees in Ivanhoe but there is far more. Scott’s comments on the famous tournament of Ashby-de-la-Zouche which occupy so many pages in his novel are not at all positive. Honourable chivalry is expressed in a horrifying bloodbath which “even the ladies of distinction” see “without a wish to withdraw their eyes from a sight so terrible”. The values are reversed: instead of the women refining the men’s sensibility through the conventions of courtly love, the men’s ruthlessness debauches the women. In this competition, “one of the most gallantly contested tournaments of that age”, Scott writes, “only four knights” died, “yet upwards of thirty were desperately wounded, four or five of whom never recovered. Several more were disabled for life; and those who escaped best carried the marks of the conflict to the grave with them. Hence it is always mentioned in the old records, as the Gentle and Joyous Passage of Arms of Ashby”. If this is not cynicism and contempt against the brutal old ways of chivalry, then I don’t know what it is.
It seems that many women readers of Ivanhoe were disappointed [SPOILERS AHEAD] because the hero Wilfred of Ivanhoe marries his childhood sweetheart, the Saxon Lady Rowena, rather than the real protagonist of this novel: Rebecca. Scott defended his choice in the prologue of the second edition, claiming that the marriage of a Christian knight and a Jewess would be just unthinkable. As Rachel Shulkins points out, however, “Though Scott portrays Rebecca as charitable and self-sacrificial, the acute rendering of her sensuality sets her apart from the aspired ideal of English femininity, advocated during Scott’s time” (5). This is a judgement with which I agree and disagree, for Shulkins sexualizes Rebecca even more than Scott. Unlike the bland Rowena, Rebecca is a spirited lady but, despite her crush on Ivanhoe, she never really tries to seduce him, aware as she is of the religious barrier. She heals him from his wounds very proficiently, which requires close intimacy with his body, though not of a sexual kind. By describing her as a sexy woman, Shulkins sees her through Bois-Guilbert’s eyes, as a woman who elicits desire despite herself and who acts out on it, which she never does. Even Bois-Guilbert sees eventually that her courage and intelligence are more outstanding than her beauty, which is why he proposes to Rebecca that she becomes his mistress with her consent, rather than his victim without it. Logically, Rebecca cannot give that consent for the obvious reason that she cannot love her would-be rapist.
Ivanhoe is not up to her standard, either; theirs is a love story that could never happen but for other reasons. I find that the most interesting scene in Ivanhoe is the conversation they have in the middle of the siege in which Wilfred cannot participate because he is wounded. Rebecca cannot understand why he wants to inflict on other men the violence that has hurt his own body and he replies that it is “impossible” for a man “trained to actions of chivalry to remain passive as a priest, or a woman, when they are acting deeds of honour around him”. Wilfred continues enthusiastically: “The love of battle is the food upon which we live—the dust of the ‘melee’ is the breath of our nostrils! We live not—we wish not to live—longer than while we are victorious and renowned—Such, maiden, are the laws of chivalry to which we are sworn, and to which we offer all that we hold dear”. He names glory as the knight’s greatest reward, she speaks highly of “domestic love, kindly affection, peace and happiness”. Increasingly irritated, Wilfred complains that, not being a Christian, she cannot understand “those high feelings which swell the bosom of a noble maiden when her lover hath done some deed of emprize which sanctions his flame. Chivalry!—why, maiden, she is the nurse of pure and high affection—the stay of the oppressed, the redresser of grievances, the curb of the power of the tyrant—Nobility were but an empty name without her, and liberty finds the best protection in her lance and her sword”.
Scott closes the scene with some rather vague comments about how Rebecca’s feelings are conditioned by the sad situation of the Jews, and the lack of military heroes to admire in the midst of their diaspora. But, and in this Dyer is absolutely right, if a reader is minimally sceptical of chivalry s/he will easily side with Rebecca’s view–supposing this is not what the author himself unwittingly defends, or even Wilfred of Ivanhoe. Desperate to have his master King Richard expel his brother Prince John from the throne he has usurped but unable to persuade the wayward monarch, “Wilfred bowed in submission, well knowing how vain it was to contend with the wild spirit of chivalry which so often impelled his master upon dangers which he might easily have avoided, or rather, which it was unpardonable in him to have sought out”.
To sum up: Walter Scott, the author who re-introduced chivalry into society and thus caused Romantic and Victorian gentlemanliness to borrow traits from the knight, was himself unconvinced by his preaching. Either that, or the fault lies with his readers, who could not see that Richard I was a deplorable king, Wilfred of Ivanhoe a rather silly young man (besides being a traitor to his Saxon family), and Brian de Bois-Guilbert the very embodiment of knightly corruption. There is not in this novel any solid model of manly behaviour (even the Saxon claimant to the throne Athelstane is a dim-witted glutton), whereas Rebecca offers in contrast a womanly model of resistance. Lady Rowena may please Scott’s fantasies of wifely submission (though she also resists as much as she can her guardian Cedric’s plans to marry her off to Athelstane), but Rebecca is the one who dismantles the fabric of chivalry. Her defence of civil rather than military virtues, her talent as a healer, and her ability to defend herself against the attacks of Bois-Guilbert and of his Templar master are far more likely to attract contemporary readers than any knight.
The women readers of Scott’s time wanted to see Rebecca rewarded with a happy ending linking her to Wilfred for life, but Rebecca would soon have found her husband too basic an individual for the depth of her mind. Scott dispatches her to the Kingdom of Granada, “secure of peace and protection, for the payment of such ransom as the Moslem exact from our people”, she tells Rowena –make what you wish of this comment. Since there are no Jewish convents, Rebecca intends to withdraw from ordinary life (that is to say, from the search for a husband) by becoming one of those Jewish women “who have devoted their thoughts to Heaven, and their actions to works of kindness to men, tending the sick, feeding the hungry, and relieving the distressed”. Scott intended Rebecca’s future to be a sort of penance for her sexual feelings towards Ivanhoe, but her fate reads today as freedom to a much higher degree than married Lady Rowena might ever enjoy. If it were up to me, I would rename Scott’s novel Rebecca of York, and if I had the talent, I would write the tale of her adventures in Granada. William Makepeace Thackeray’s spoof Rebecca and Rowena (1850) goes apparently in a very different direction; regrettably, it’s not the story of how the two ladies abandon Ivanhoe to set up home together…
One must always marvel at how texts suggest what authors never intended, as Jacques Derrida defended. I have never been a fan of deconstruction but it does have its uses indeed. The pity is that by subjecting Scott’s Ivanhoe to this method I’m tripping myself up: if Wilfred is not a true manly ideal, where is he to be found…? I mean in men’s fiction, don’t you dare mention Darcy now.
Dyer, Gary. “Irresolute Ravishers and the Sexual Economy of Chivalry in the Romantic Novel”. Nineteenth-Century Literature 55.3 (December 2000): 340-68.
Girouard, Mark. The Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the English Gentleman. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1981.
Scott, Walter. “Essay on Chivalry” (1818). Miscellaneous Prose Works, vol. VI. Edinburgh: Robert Cadell, 1834. 1-126. https://archive.org/details/miscellaneouspr36scotgoog
Schulkins, Rachel. “Immodest Otherness: Nationalism and the Exotic Jewess in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe”. Nineteenth-century Gender Studies 12.1 (Spring 2006): 1-22. Online.
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