The Ideal vs. Reality, or,
Another Promising Event Ruined by Bad Weather
The Victorian love for the medieval and, especially, King Arthur, is well-known. Pre-Raphaelite paintings and mid-to-late 19th century Gothic buildings attest to this.
Being a member of the nobility and not being conspicuously bothered by such trivial concerns as having to work for a living, in 1839 the idealistic young Duke of Eglinton put on a good, old-fashioned tournament mega-event, complete with tents, armored knights and jousting competitions. It may have been one of the first modern reenactments!
The image above and to the left is Edward Henry Corbould’s “Knight at the Eglinton Tournament,” and can be fairly said to represent the new chivalric ideal. That golden haze, those flowing feathers, an obedient squire… The goal of the British nobility was to revive Arthurian ideals and art. Why? I’m sure there are all sorts of high-falutin’ reasons, but, in the end, they probably just thought it was cool.
From Christopher Snyder’s The World of King Arthur:
The first decade of Queen Victoria’s reign saw a chivalric revival – in politics and at play – led by the peers of the realm. On 28 August 1839, the wealthy young aristocrat Archibald Montgomery, thirteenth Earl of Eglinton, hosted an earnestly medieval pageant complete with jousting. Unfortunately, it rained violently and the Victorian knights stumbled around in the mud while their fair ladies and other onlookers ran for the umbrellas! Though they were ridiculed in the poetry and newspapers of the day (this cartoon appeared with the caption “Aristocratic Sense: Or, the Eglinton Tomfooleryment”), this did little to stop the Cult of Chivalry in Britain.
One sympathizes with the earnest young earl. After all, if one is an earl one would be inclined to look back on the good old days of lording it over the surfs, before pesky democracies came into fashion. (One wonders how many peasant impressionists doing a credible Black Death coughing hack were in attendance at his event.) And we well know how rain can turn a splendid martial weekend into unseemly grubbing around in the mud.
Still, this whole thing seems rather silly, doesn’t it? The greatest satirist of the Victorian age, Mark Twain, certainly thought so. He punctured the whole chivalric ideal in his A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. And, in Huckleberry Finn, when he had to come up with a name for a wrecked steamboat, he significantly chose Walter Scott. (Scott was the author of the detested Ivanhoe, which was argued about during the Civil War - were the Northerners Normans and the Southerners Saxons?)
Times change and so does fashion. In the post-feminist era, I suppose the mounted knight might be Lady Eglinton. At least it would if Hollywood was the event sponsor. And a pard of mine who reenacts Sub-Roman Britain (in Britain, imagine that) reports being pestered at events by self-proclaimed "pagans," who are Buffyesque crystal worshipers bearing incense sticks. I'd imagine that sometimes a good rainstorm at an event is an outright blessing.
For some odd reason this whole thing reminds me of an episode of I Love Lucy I saw as a kid. For some reason - I forget why - Ricky Ricardo was walking around in a hokey suit of armor singing, "I am the good Sir Lancelot/I like to sing and dance a lot." Which, in turn, reminds me of that goofy song and dance sequence the knights perform in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But I digress.
Chivalry and courtly love were silly. I'm glad it all went away.