Friday, August 26, 2011

Return to Camelot

Wonderful little essay by Mark Girouard on the discovery and dissemination of the Middle Ages in British culture: "A Return to Camelot," The Wilson Quarterly (Autumn 1981), 178-189.

Although we find a few medieval antiquarians in the 18th century (most famously Horace Walpole), the love for the medieval does not become official until King George III hires James Wyatt as court architect in 1800. Breaking the Graeco-Roman imperial style, George commissions the first Gothic palace at Kew and renovates the interior of Windsor. Girouard sees the turn to the Gothic as a direct response to the French Revolution across the channel. Under this environment, Sir Walter Scott emerges as the most popular writer across the western world, Pugin designs a Gothic Parliament and jousting is revived. Sadly, however, King George III's Gothic palace at Kew Gardens is torn down by his son, who had "issues" with his father.

The feudal fantasy infiltrated into many unexpected aspects of British culture, such as sports The iconography of soccer and cricket springs out of the jousting fantasy. Girouard uses the illustration above (my quick sketch) to show the knights-scout moral trajectory. But all this comes to an abrupt end with the experiences of World War I. The massacre and trauma reveal the total irrelevance of medieval fanfare and ethical codes in modern realities. England's Gothic romance springs up quickly in the 1800s, flourishes over the century, and dies, in the 1910s.

Mark Girouard is best known for his pioneering studies in domestic architecture. Life in the English Countryhouse: A Social and Architectural History (1978) transformed the history of architecture. The essay offers a taste of the larger book project, The Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the English Gentleman (1981).

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States