Walter Scott is Known as the Father of the Historical *Novel, Sir Walter Scott used this genre to rekindle respect for the *Middle-Ages during the early 1800s. The image of the Christian, Medieval period had suffered greatly during the 18th Century *Enlightenment, when Europe was striving to recapture its ancient, *classical past. In Ivanhoe, Scott constructed a cast of characters caught up in the 12th Century conflicts between Christian and Muslim, Saxon and Norman, Jew and Christian, pope and king. Ideals of *romantic love, tolerance, and *chivalry are featured in the love-triangle involving Ivanhoe and Christian Rowena versus Jewess Rebecca. Ivanhoe vindicates Rebecca in a Trial by *Combat, but his faith prevails in marriage to Rowena. The Catholic *inquisition, racial *prejudice, as well as the anti-Biblical Trial by Combat end up under a dark cloud as the novel ends. The chivalric values that Scott portrayed were held in high regard by the anti-bellum *South before the Civil War.
Who was Walter Scott? (1771-1832) Scottish poet and historical novelist of the early 19th century. A jurist by trade, Scott is acknowledged as the first major historical novelist. Known variously as “the world’s greatest storyteller” and “the most popular writer of the 19th century”, Scott brought the late medieval period to life on the printed page. Scott began his career as a poet, but was overshadowed by his contemporary Lord Byron and soon turned to historical fiction.
Historical context: Walter Scott grew up into a world of change and revolution. Neighboring France and the fledgling American colonies had only recently emerged from the bitter conflict of the French & Indian War. This expanded to the Seven Year’s War between France and Britain (1756–63). The radical ideas of the 18th century Age of Enlightenment found expression in the violent jostling of tradition and authority, with climax in the French Revolution of 1789-99). Scott offered a moral gyroscope for an unstable era, that synched nicely with the dawning Age of Romanticism. He represented a return to chivalric values, if not specifically Biblical law. “Walter Scott Disease” – in the words of Mark Twain — personified a conservative backlash to the humanistic dogma of the Enlightenment. As such it was anathema to the Unitarian and Transcendental belief systems that took root in the North as the neo-Puritans migrated South.
Scott relished setting his characters in times of dramatic historical conflict and then sketching the cultural implications of that conflict in their lives. The clash between conquering Norman and subjugated Saxon in 12th century England, as portrayed in the epic, Ivanhoe (1819) is the classic example. The Norman invasion of England occurred in 1066, in one decisive victory at Hastings. The immediate historical setting focuses on the detention of Richard the Lionhearted in Austria as he returned from the partially successful third Crusade (1189-1192). The crusade fell short of recapturing Jerusalem, but a Christian beachhead was reestablished in the Holy Land.
Summary of Scott’s teaching: The Saxon knight, Ivanhoe, is accused of betraying the king and returns to England to clear his name. Ivanhoe is prevented from marrying his childhood sweetheart Rowena, by her father Cedric the Saxon, who betroths her instead to Athelstane, a descendent of Edward the Confessor. In so doing, he hopes to unite the Saxon factions against the Normans. Ivanhoe triumphs over his enemies in tournament jousting, but is wounded and taken prisoner with others of Cedric’s party. He represents a conciliatory influence, being a Saxon knight supporting a Norman king. Scott’s goal is to resolve the conflict and action of his Medieval plot in ways that will prick the conscience of his 19th Century audience.
The Jewess, Rebecca, nurses Ivanhoe to health and falls in love with him. She becomes the focal point as the story rises to its climax. During the castle siege and rescue by Robin Hood, Rebecca is carried off by the Norman Templar, Brian de Bois Guilbert, who seeks her hand in marriage. Refusing, Rebecca is subsequently condemned to death as a sorceress for her healing powers. She appeals to a trial by combat and in a strange twist, Guilbert is forced to appear in the contest against her. Rebecca chooses Ivanhoe as her defender and he appears at the last moment to slay Guilbert and win her release. Saxon and Norman are united under the popular king Richard at his return and Cedric finally consents to the marriage of Rowena and Ivanhoe, who live happily ever after.
The value of Ivanhoe lies not so much in the dynamic structure of its plot as in the insight it sheds on Medieval life with insight to the present (19th Century). Scott’s traditional heritage is tainted somewhat by the influence of the Scottish Enlightenment, which made an indulgent tolerance a major theme in his books. Nonetheless, there are lessons to be learned. One is the danger of jealousy as revealed in Rowena in spite of Ivanhoe’s willingness to place faith over affection in his decision to marry her, a Christian, instead of Rebecca. The evil and hypocrisy of the Catholic inquisition is exposed and defeated as the tale winds to a conclusion. Manly men are presented as the noble protectors of gentle women. “Real valor,” said Scott, “consists not in being insensible to danger, but in being prompt to confront and disarm it.” 3
Implications for subsequent history: Scott was a traditionalist, who valued the past over the progressive spirit which sees nothing but virtue in every innovation of the present. He upheld the rec- titude of the spirit of chivalry and biblical social graces. “Tradition is the surest guide to the future,” was his credo. 4 This put a check on the mantra of “progress” fueling the Industrial Revolution.
Scott makes the point that forced conversion is no virtue. He is contrasting Protestant tolerance with the injustice of the Catholic inquisition for the benefit of his contemporary readers. By the same token a refused conversion is no virtue either. Regarding Jewish unbelief, the apostle John said, “if anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house…for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds” (II John 10,11). So Scott’s portrayal of the Jews stubborn rebellion against their Messiah as innocent and valorous is duplicitous and destructive. Unbelief should not be persecuted, but neither should it be put on a pedestal.
Another critical point of moral and legal ambiguity related to the character of Rebecca is the Trial by Wager. This extremity of the chivalric code was an anachronism of Homeric pride that flies in the face of Biblical jurisprudence. It remained as a feature of English Common law even into the 19th Century, which came to light in a murder case while Scott was writing Ivanhoe. “According to this case, in 1817 a certain Abraham Thornton, who was accused of murdering a certain Mary Ashford, challenged her brother to settle the matter by the medieval ‘trial by battel’. This was an appeal to the fact that English law in the nineteenth century still gave defendants in certain circumstances the right to demand armed combat as a way of determining innocence or guilt.” Scott’s resolution is less than satisfactory. https://unireadinghistory.com/2016/04/15/walter-scotts-rebecca/
Sir Walter Scott’s novels were read by virtually everyone during the romantic era — men and women, young and old alike. Each new publication was received with the same enthusiasm with which a blockbuster film is greeted today. They had a profound effect on the chivalry and Christian mores of the American South. In spite of the cruel excesses of a tiny minority (never more than about 5%), the testimony of hundreds of former slaves reveals that this was a culture in which master and slave lived together in familial harmony.1 This was in accord with the biblical exhortation given at Colossians 4:1 and elsewhere: “Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal; knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven”. Northern humanists could not tolerate it.
Biblical analysis: The spiritual myopia of many in the modern church is seen in their inability to discern the difference between a genuinely Christian culture with blemishes and a moralistic and hypocritical humanism. For example, the Christian authors of “From Sea to Shining Sea” quote with approval the evaluation of the skeptic, Mark Twain. Twain scorned the Southern delight in Scott as “Sir Walter’s Disease”, lamenting that “He did measureless harm, more real and lasting than any other individual that ever wrote…he had so large a hand in making Southern character as it existed before the [Civil] War, that he is in great measure responsible for the war.” “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly…nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is in the law of the Lord….” (Psalm 1). In spite of foibles, Scott was closer to the mark than Twain.
Corrective or Prescriptive Actions: For the most part, Walter Scott practiced what he preached. He was generous to a fault with the writers under his employ, which may have been in part the cause of the bankruptcy of his publishing business. “Commend me to sterling honesty,” he said, “though clad in rags.” 2Sir Walter Scott did not take the easy way out by declaring bankruptcy when his publishing company became insolvent in 1819. He worked until the end of his life to pay off his creditors, who were finally satisfied. This, of course, is an object lesson for each of us to take full responsibility for our actions in an age of corporate limited liability.