How Chivalry in the Middle Ages Inspired Victorian England

Andrea Zuvich

11-24-03

You know him, that devastatingly handsome knight-in-shining-armour. The way the golden rays of the summer sun caress each lock of his hair, the way his eyes cut into your very soul the way his glinting sword can cut through flesh, and the majesty he exudes upon his fantastically decorated noble steed. Ah, yes, the golden days of pageantry, chivalry, honour, valour. Sounds wonderful, does it not? The ideas of that age were so legendary that during the long reign of Queen Victoria of Britain, chivalry came back. Everything “Mediæval” was fashionable again during her reign in literature, art, and society.

Although incomparable to previous civilizations in quantities of literary work, new writers emerged from that dark time to tell vibrantly interesting works, which later brought about an interest in that period. The people of the Middle Ages were raised with the classic tales from the ancient empires of Greece and Rome, such as the Odyssey by Homer, Oedipus by Sophocles, and The Aeneid by Virgil (although these were all rather distorted versions of the tales made by the church in an attempt to further their brain-washing capabilities to make Mediæval people believe in a Christian God.) The Middle Ages did, in fact, have several excellent pieces of literature: in 1100, there was the Chanson de Roland, in 1180 there was Chrètien de Troyes’ Perceval, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s famous Historia Regum Britanniæ (1136), Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan (1210), Boccacio’s Decameron, (1349-1350), and of course Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (1382) and The Canterbury Tales (1386-1400), respectively.

The poets of the Mediæval period were numerous, from troubadours to singing minstrels, all wrote of great deeds made by courageous knights. The most famous of all the Mediæval poets may be the aforementioned Chrètien de Troyes, for he wrote several Arthurian tales of which courtly love and the perfection of the Arthurian court were the main themes.  What is courtly love? Courtly love is code of honour in which the man, presumably a knight, is bound to serve a lady, and in doing her service, is completing an even higher deed than his own personal honour. In de Troyes’ Lancelot, he describes the torrid adulterous affair between Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere. No one is completely sure there was ever truth to this story, but there is no doubt of the fact that de Troyes’ writing has influenced countless writers after him. In Dante Alighieri’s La Divina Commedia, which many people view as “only a book” and not as a superb poetical work, the views expressed in its’ pages are perfect examples of what Mediæval people thought about.

Per me si va nella citta dolente; per me si va nell’eterno dolore;  per me si va tra la perduta gente.”

In his masterful novel, Alighieri also gives an example of an adulterous affair with Paolo and Francesca, not at all unlike de Troyes’ Arthurian tale. According to an article from Humanities-interactive.com: “Knighthood flourished in a calamitous age, when kingdoms were split into quarrelsome factions and the general populace was often ravaged by warfare, pillage, or disease. Against this backdrop of devastation, the chivalric code stressed order, loyalty, service, and charity. Unfortunately, the ideals of chivalry were so high that most knights fell woefully short in their conduct, and they often contributed to the general disorder. By the sixteenth century, nations were beginning to reunite under powerful monarchs, and the nature of warfare was changing. The knight in shining armour disappeared from the landscape—but gained immortality through poetry.”- (“Poetical Knights.”)

Hundreds of years pass by in time and we find ourselves in Victorian England (1800’s.) Here, a new movement in literature and art is taking place: Romanticism. According to Janetta Rebold Benton and Robert DiYanni, authors of the textbook Arts and Culture: An Introduction to the Humanities, “the Romantics had a love for anything that could elicit such feelings: the fantastic world of dreams, the exotic world of the Middle East, the forces of nature in a magnificent or unpredictable moment” (436.) No wonder the Romantics were excited at the thought of the middle ages. In his novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Mark Twain satirized the middle ages by writing “the knight, the bishop, and the jester- all riding atop the back of the hard-working peasant” (Bartlett 19.) Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust was based upon the real-life mediæval scholar Faust; a man whom many people believed had sold his soul to the devil.

Victorian poetry, however, has much closer links to their Medieval predecessors. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (henceforward known as PRB) was a group of poets and artists who made it their duty to capture some of the feelings from that bygone era of courtly love. These were the most mediæval-inspired of all the Victorians. But we shall speak of them later on. Romanticism, which began in 1800 and officially ended in 1850 allowed some beautiful poems about mediæval knights and their ladies to emerge. English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem The Lady of Shalott, was based upon an Arthurian take about an unrequited love. Tennyson weaves together a beautiful description of the island of Shalott, the Lady of Shalott, Elaine, and Sir Lancelot with breath-taking eloquence.

On either side the river lie, long fields of barley and of rye, that clothe the wold and meet the sky, through the field the road runs by to many-towered Camelot, and sometimes through the tower blue, the knights come riding two by two; She hath no loyal knight and true, The Lady of Shalott.”

Another poet, Lord Byron, uses the fair maiden and knight them for many of his poems including She Walks in Beauty: “She walks in beauty like the night of climeless climes and starry skies.” In Keats’ La Belle Dame Sans Merci, the story is similar, although the maiden in this case is most likely a monster:

O! What can ail thee, knight-at-arms? Alone and palely loitering, the sedge is withered from the lake and no birds sing...”

La Belle Dame Sans Merci, by Sir Frank Dicksee

When compared to its Roman and Greek predecessors, Mediæval art seems rudimentary, and often times disturbing. Mediæval art usually depicted a religious scene with the holy family or Jesus. Nonetheless, there were exceptions- there were many works of art that dealt with courtship between lovers and the love of a knight to his chosen Lady. Bodies painted or carved seemed stylized, for they were hardly realistic at all. Some artwork containing romantic scenes may be found on shields, walls, and tapestries.

As was previously stated, Pre-Raphaelitism was no doubt the most Mediæval-inspired segment of the Victorian era. Many great and talented artists (and most of them poets as well) such as: Edward Burne-Jones, Edmund Blair Leighton, Alfred Hughes, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris, and a personal favourite- John William Waterhouse. For these men and all of the others associated with the PRB, “the middle ages were a sort of Utopia where virtues of charity and faith prevailed and the craftsman was happy with his work” (qtd. in Bartlett 19.) Although Pre-Raphaelite paintings had many themes including Greek and Norse Mythology, Biblical depictions, and royalty, the theme of chivalry was always the main theme. In the painting Chivalry by Frank Dicksee, a knight is shown slaying a fair maiden’s captor. Edmund Blair Leighton painted the emotionally stirring and stunning La Belle Dame Sans Merci after the poem of the same name by Keats. Dante Gabriel Rossetti was a huge fan of Dante Alighieri’s La Divina Commedia and painted many scenes from his book. One includes a scene from Paolo e Francesca da Rimini (1855) which was a very popular topic for Victorian artists. In William Holman Hunt’s Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus (1851), the artist again shows us a maiden being saved from an evil captor by a good knight. In Edmund Blair Leighton’s A Lady’s Favour or God Speed, the artist depicts a maiden tying a red sash around her knight’s arm to wish him well on his quest. This same image is re-worked by John Everett Millais in The Huguenot, where the Catholic lady is trying to save the life of her Protestant lover by tying a Catholic sash to his arm. Each and every one of the many Pre-Raphaelite paintings is so descriptive and gorgeous that it wouldn’t be too hard sit and stare at them all day. These artists were so extremely inspired by the Mediæval period that it shows through every brush stroke.

Mediæval society was an extremely rough and brutal and yet through it all, there remained the ideals of how a noble knight should act towards a lady. This ideal of serving a lady helped raise women’s status in the Middle Ages. Royal courts played many games between knights and ladies where the knight would declare his love for the lady. His duty was to send his page to her room every night to make sure she was well before retiring, he was to defeat anyone who slandered her, and was to subject himself to her every whim. All this was meant to be fun and chaste, for most of the ladies were often married to Lords or princes or kings.  It is often said that knights who were to love their Ladies from afar might not have been able to do so chastely. No wonder Chrètien de Troyes wrote about adultery, since according to many historians it was quite frequent, especially during the Crusades. Although, if one was found guilty of adultery, the wife could be killed or sent into a convent, or put into a chastity belt, and the man would probably be exiled or worse.

Victorian gentlemen and Mediæval knights are quite similar. Both needed to show a great amount of respect and courtesy towards women and devotion towards the one woman they wish to marry. Victorian gentlemen respected the ideas of the noble and heroic knight and many tried to be like one.  The Victorian theatre was also interested in the Middle Ages, for example, the famous French actress Sarah Bernhart played Joan of Arc in an equally famous production of the Mediæval martyr. Society’s elite would often play little courtly love-games similar to the ones played by Mediæval courts. For the amusement of the evening, young Victorian ladies would play games where they’d pretend to be damsels in distress and would wait for the young “knights.” Even Queen Victoria herself once compared her Prime Minister to a medieval knight:

“He (Benjamin Disraeli) is full of poetry, romance and chivalry. When he knelt down to kiss my hand, he said, ‘In loving loyalty and faith.’”-(Hibbert 4)

In conclusion, no matter how one looks at it, the Mediæval period once romanticized by the Victorians had an incredible impact on modern-day cultures. Even in today’s society, we still want romance and adventure; we still have books like The Guenevere Trilogy by Rosalind Miles and The Mists of Avalon; and also movies such as Excalibur, Lancelot du Lac, Camelot, Merlin, and the soon-to-be-released King Arthur, even the Lord of the Rings can boast of having ties to Mediæval themes. These among others try to sate our insatiable hunger for that fantastical ideal of the Middle Ages we have. Even if it isn’t possible to live in a world full of romance and art, at least we still have reminders from the past to show us that there were those who loved romance and art just as we do today. We have seen the awesome influence the Mediæval period had on things like literature, art and society and perhaps know a little more of our own thoughts. And if we haven’t, at least we still have our memory of the ideal knight upon his noble steed coming to our rescue!

God Speed, or A Ladys Favour

God Speed, or A Lady’s Favour                                by Edmund Blair Leighton

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Hear ye! 3 thoughts — so far — on “How Chivalry in the Middle Ages Inspired Victorian England”:

  1. Kaye Towne

    Thanks so much I was searching every where trying to find who the artist was of, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, by Sir Frank Dicksee. My mother found me a great trio and I knew 2 of them where by Edward Blair Leighton but I had no clue who the 3rd was by. I of course assumed all 3 were by the same artist but could not find the one any where under Mr Leightons work. Then I saw your blog listing in my search and thought what the heck and clicked on it and low and behold there was the exact picture and artist I was unable to locate any where else on the internet.

    I can now search for the print to go with my others as I think it is a marvelous painting. Thank you so much for writing this blog and including pictures.

    Reply
    1. Andrea Post author

      Hello Kaye,

      You’re very welcome – I’m glad to be helpful when possible. I remember how trying it was to see a painting and not know what its name was. May I recommend you have a look at artrenewal.org for there you’ll find loads of high-resolution artwork with the title and names of the artist. I also love this website: ArtMagick

      Once again, I’m glad you found what you were seeking.

      Have a lovely day!

      Andrea

      Reply

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