Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Return to Camelot

I borrowed from a former housemate The Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the English Gentleman by Mark Girouard. It read like a much older book than something originally published in 1981. It was an amusing and informative passage through the various forms of medievalist and chivalric revivals in Britain from the C18th on. It makes quite clear that folk at all points of the political compass became quite taken by medievalism and chivalry: from neo-feudalists, through conservative revivalists to Imperialists, working men’s associations and Christian socialists. From school reformers to the founding of the Scouting movement.

A couple of the chapters seem to wander off into areas of rather thin connection to direct interest in medievalism and chivalry. But, generally, the book kept to its theme well. It was informative rather than profound. That said, it was almost as useful on the rise of the concept of the gentleman as it was on neo-medievalism. The author is alive to the inherent absurdity of a society that had risen on trade and commerce producing an elite who (at least in their rhetoric and often more) looked down on trade and commerce.

Indeed, though Girouard is not enough of a medievalist to realise this was a very post- medieval affectation. The C18th, and especially C19th gentlemen, had far distaste for trade than actual English medieval knights and magnates did. Being deeply practical folk, medieval lords and knights were very alive to the revenue benefits of trade and industry.

Though that in England only the actual holder of the title was noble, all the rest of the family being legally commoners, produced quite different dynamics from continental Europe where all members of a noble family were legally noble.

The rise of what has been called ornamentalism (particularly in the administration of India), the shift from the East India Company’s use of an expanding urban middle class to the Raj’s reliance and shoring up of the Indian Princes, is seen as being deeply influenced by the chivalric revival.

The romanticised vision of medieval society that still influences contemporary attitudes clearly flows from this prolonged neo-medieval revival. (Late last year, a quite eminent conservative Australian historian patently found my suggestion that knightly society was based on an exchange of labour for protection an excessively functional view of medieval society. He seemed to have some notion of it being an ‘organic’ or ‘natural’ society.) A neo-medieval revival that essentially came crashing down as the effects of the mass slaughter on the Western Front rippled through society.

Still, the book is a fun read. (For entirely personal reasons, finding out that Sir Walter Scott’s estate on which he lavished so much neo-medieval attention was called Abbotsford was amusing at lots of levels.)

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