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Ivanhoe | Study Guide

Sir Walter Scott

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Ivanhoe | Context


The Crusades and Richard the Lionheart

In the 11th century Christian Europe was concerned about the ever-increasing growth of Muslim influence throughout the Mediterranean region. To stop this growth, take back areas that had once been Christian, and regain control of the Holy Land, European kings and nobles began assembling armies and marching on Muslim regions, including Spain, which had come under Muslim rule in the early 8th century. In addition to political and economic reasons, the Crusaders also believed their participation in these wars would earn them heavenly rewards, such as forgiveness of sins. The first of these Crusades set out in 1095 and successfully captured Jerusalem, Edessa, Antioch, and Tripoli, establishing several Latin Christian states. Although the early Crusaders were fairly successful, their success was short-lived, as the Muslims recaptured the city of Edessa in 1144.

When the loss of Edessa became known in Europe, the Second Crusade was launched. It was now the middle of the 12th century. This army made it as far as Byzantium (present-day Istanbul), where a tangle of confusing political alliances led to its defeat. Meanwhile Jerusalem was still a Christian kingdom but increasingly under threat from its Muslim neighbors, especially after the rise to power of the great Muslim leader Saladin. Despite a combined French and German force of about 50,000 crusaders, an attack on Damascus failed. Shortly after, Jerusalem also fell, as did almost all the rest of the Crusader states.

In response the Third Crusade was assembled. It was the largest Crusade yet and made its way eastward in 1189, led by the Holy Roman emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, who had ridden in the Second Crusade and was now close to 70 years old. The army all but disintegrated a year later when the emperor accidentally drowned. The call to arms was taken up by two European kings: Philip I of France (Philip Augustus) and Richard I (Richard the Lionheart) of England, who had only just been crowned. As he traveled east, Richard took Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean; the island remained under Western rule for the next four centuries. Then he moved on to Acre, Israel, where he defeated Saladin in September 1191. This win came despite offending and losing the support of Philip and another ally, Duke Leopold of Austria, who returned to Europe. Richard was unable to retake Jerusalem, though, before being called back to France, where Philip was plundering Richard's French holdings. Richard signed a peace treaty with Saladin and headed back to Europe.

However, Richard never reached France. He was shipwrecked near Venice, Italy; captured by Duke Leopold; and held for ransom by Henry VI, the emperor of Germany. Richard's chancellor, William de Longchamp, raised and paid the huge ransom demanded, and Richard was finally freed in February 1194. He returned to England, but only long enough to be crowned a second time to make sure his monarchy was secure. Leaving de Longchamp in charge Richard went to Normandy where he spent the next five years fighting Philip. In the spring of 1199 Richard was injured during a siege, the wound became infected, and he died of septicemia, or blood poisoning, on April 6, leaving the crown to his brother John.

The story of Ivanhoe takes place in England at the end of the 12th century. Ivanhoe has just returned from the Crusades, where he fought beside the English king, Richard the Lionheart. For most of the novel, Richard is believed to be in captivity in Europe. The novel ends shortly after he retakes control of the country from his brother John and before he leaves again for France but briefly mentions that Richard's early death put an end to Ivanhoe's career.

The Rise and Fall of the Knights Templar

The Knights Templar—also called the Poor Knights of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon—were one of two military orders that played an important role in the Crusades. (The other order was the Hospitallers, also known by other names, such as the Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem and the Knights of Malta.) The Templars were established to accompany and protect Christian pilgrims on the way to the Holy Land. In Jerusalem, however, they were barracked in the king's palace, which had previously been the Temple of Solomon, and took on the task of defending the Crusader states. Despite their vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, the order soon became rich and powerful.

The Templars were divided into four ranks: knights, or heavy cavalry; sergeants, or light cavalry; farmers, who were the order's administrators; and chaplains, who were, in effect, the priests of the order. The Ivanhoe character Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert is a powerful and skilled Templar knight with ambition to move up the chain of command to the very top. There was an administrative hierarchy that governed the various aspects of the order, but everyone answered to the grand master. The grand master himself answered to no one but the pope; like the pope, once elected, the grand master remained in office for life. In Ivanhoe readers meet a fictional grand master of the Templars whose power and sense of obligation to the order has overcome his humanity.

The Templars' services were sought by secular leaders from Europe to the Holy Land, and were rewarded by them with lands and titles in exchange for their services. In addition to their military role, the order also became de facto bankers and transported gold among the countries they served.

But their power and wealth earned the Templars many enemies, including the Hospitallers and the French king, Philip IV (known as Philip the Fair). Philip, with the support of the pope, accused them of blasphemy (based on their secret rules), power, privilege, and wealth and ordered that the French possessions be taken from the Templars. Those who confessed to blasphemy were imprisoned or sent to other orders; those who did not confess were put to death. The last grand master of the Templars, Jacques de Molay, recanted his confession and was burned at the stake in March 1314.

The Code of Chivalry

All knights, whether secular or religious in nature, were expected to follow the code of chivalry, and the notion of chivalry is much discussed in Ivanhoe. Originally, the term chivalry referred specifically to mounted knights—the cavalry of their day. There was no such thing in England before the Norman Conquest in 1066. France in the Middle Ages was characterized by violent behavior on the part of knights, or chevaliers, and the church developed a code of conduct to restrain their tendency to violence. The code was named after them. Over time chivalry became synonymous with the courteous behavior expected from knights. The chivalric code encompassed how knights should behave both on the field of battle and off it.

According to The Book of the Order of Chivalry or Knighthood, written by Ramon Llull in about 1270, Knights should not swear false oaths, practice lechery, or succumb to hubris (pride). The other duties of chivalry were to:

  • support and defend the holy Catholic faith and its clerics.
  • hold land and authority in a feudal hierarchy.
  • support and defend his earthly lord.
  • take horses to jousts and tournaments, hold great feasts open to all, and hunt ... in order to maintain the readiness of the Order of Knighthood.
  • be just, wise, charitable, loyal, honest, humble, strong, hopeful, prompt, [and] courageous.
  • support his land, [because] the whole reason ... the common people labor and plow the ground is that they fear the Knights and are terrified lest they should be destroyed.
  • defend chivalry ... [even] by dying for the love and honor of the order.
  • support and defend women, widows and orphans, and sick or enfeebled men.
  • help and succor them that approach in tears and require the aid and mercy of Knights, and who have placed all their hope in them.
  • have a castle and horse, to guard the highways and to protect those who work the land, to establish towns and cities in order to guarantee justice to the people, and to assemble in a single place men of the various crafts that are necessary to the proper functioning of life in this world.
  • search for thieves, robbers, and other wicked folk in order to punish them.

When the Normans came to England, they brought chivalry with them, and it became the way of life of the new English aristocracy. The aristocracy was supposed to be courteous, but at that time, courtesy, as shown in the name, had to do with how courtiers treated one another, not with how they treated the ordinary man in the street (or field). A lot of aristocratic chivalry was about preserving honor, but honor was as much about status, property, and privilege as it was about reputation. As a result, chivalry did not actually apply except among knights and, in the new English society, among courtiers. Anyone else was likely to suffer. An enemy knight or noble might be captured and ransomed rather than killed; but an enemy foot soldier or serf was most likely to meet death.

Anti-Semitism in Medieval England and the York Pogrom of 1190

The wave of pro-Christian feeling that characterized the centuries of the Crusades led not only to anti-Muslim feelings but also rampant anti-Semitism. In fact after Richard I was crowned in 1189, a false rumor was spread that he had ordered all the Jews in England to be killed. This spurred a wave of anti-Jewish riots throughout the country.

In 1190—shortly before the events in Ivanhoe—one such pogrom or organized massacre took place in the wealthy northern city of York. The rioters were encouraged by local landowners who owed money to Jewish moneylenders and couldn't afford to repay them. (Medieval European moneylenders tended to be Jewish because the Christian church considered moneylending sinful and forbade Christians from engaging in it.) After the family of a wealthy Jew was attacked by a mob, about 150 York Jews were given shelter in the wooden keep of the royal castle near the center of town. Fearful, the Jews locked themselves in, leaving the royal constable locked out. He called for troops to help him get in again. Now the keep was besieged by both the mob and the troops. The Jews realized they would either have to renounce their faith or die at the mob's hands; they killed their wives and children, set fire to the keep, and killed themselves. A few survived and left the keep on the promise of safe passage, but the mob went back on that promise and murdered them. The local landowners found the records of their debt in the Minster (as York's cathedral is called) and destroyed them so the crown wouldn't assume their debts. Despite a royal inquest into the massacre, no one was ever arrested or punished. Knowing what happened in York makes it easy to understand why Isaac and many of the other Jews who appear in Ivanhoe are so fearful and why Isaac and Rebecca ultimately choose to leave the country.

York's Jewish community recovered within a few years. But its recovery didn't last. A series of punitive laws—beginning with Richard I's extravagant tax demands—impoverished English Jews, and in July 1290, no longer able to collect taxes from them because they had no money left, Edward I issued an edict expelling all Jews from the country. Most went to France and Germany. Their exile lasted some 350 years.

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