It was not difficult to ascertain the condition and character of one of these personages. He was obviously an ecclesiastic of high rank; his dress was that of a Cistercian monk, but composed of materials much finer than those which the rule of that order admitted. His mantle and hood were of the best Flanders cloth, and fell in ample, and not ungraceful, folds around a handsome though somewhat corpulent person. His countenance bore as little the marks of self-denial as his habit indicated contempt of worldly splendour. (2.2)
When the narrator introduces Prior Aymer to us, he emphasizes the richness of his clothes and the self-indulgent expression on his face. Even though Aymer is the leader of a religious community of monks, he clearly doesn’t live his life according to Christian monastic principles of self-denial.
Prior Aymer is one of many monks and friars in Ivanhoe who don’t fit the ideal image of the religious man. Don't even get us started on Friar Tuck – he's a good man, but he's also quick to pick a fight and drinks way too much. Why does Scott seem to be so critical of the Church? We can't answer this for sure, but the naughty monk is a common figure in medieval European literature, which Scott is imitating in Ivanhoe. Check out Chaucer's Canterbury Talesor Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron if you want examples. There’s almost nothing medieval audiences found funnier than a drunk monk.
At length the barriers were opened, and five knights, chosen by lot, advanced slowly into the area; a single champion riding in front, and the other four following in pairs. All were splendidly armed, and my Saxon authority (in the Wardour Manuscript) records at great length their devices, their colours, and the embroidery of their horse trappings. It is unnecessary to be particular on these subjects. Their escutcheons have long mouldered from the walls of their castles. Their castles themselves are but green moss and shattered ruins: the place that once knew them, knows them no more – nay, many a race since theirs has died out and been forgotten in the very land which they occupied with all the authority of feudal proprietors and feudal lords. What, then, would it avail the reader to know their names, or the evanescent symbols of their martial rank? (8.22)
This is one of the few moments in Ivanhoe when Scott muses over how truly distant the past is from the present. As he describes the richness of the tournament at Ashby-de-la-Zouche, he ponders the fact that all the knights are long dead and forgotten. The family names, symbols, and even castles for which they were fighting have long since faded or fallen down. So what’s the point of all of this wild activity? What do concepts like honor or nobility really mean if they have no lasting effect? Are they worth fighting for? Ultimately, how would you define honor? Does it have to do with your family, your social position, your fighting ability, or something else entirely?
"My master," answered Baldwin, "knows how to requite scorn with scorn, and blows with blows, as well as courtesy with courtesy. Since you disdain to accept from him any share of the ransom at which you have rated the arms of the other knights, I must leave his armour and his horse here, being well assured that he will never deign to mount the one nor wear the other."
"You have spoken well, good squire," said the Disinherited Knight, "well and boldly, as it beseemeth him to speak who answers for an absent master. Leave not, however, the horse and armour here. Restore them to thy master; or, if he scorns to accept them, retain them, good friend, for thine own use. So far as they are mine, I bestow them upon you freely." (10.10-11)
Much of the action of Ivanhoe happens thanks to the laws of chivalry – the rules that tell knights how they are supposed to behave. Both Ivanhoe and Bois-Guilbert prove themselves to be even matches on the tournament ground, not only because they are both tough soldiers, but also because they have equally matched notions of honor. When Ivanhoe rejects Bois-Guilbert's horse and armor after the tournament, Bois-Guilbert's squire is sure that his master will never use those weapons or that animal again. Though they seem so opposed in other ways, the two men share the same rigid ideas of honor.
The champions were therefore prohibited to thrust with the sword, and were confined to striking. A knight, it was announced, might use a mace or battle-axe at pleasure; but the dagger was a prohibited weapon. A knight unhorsed might renew the fight on foot with any other on the opposite side in the same predicament; but mounted horsemen were in that case forbidden to assail him. (12.14)
This is only a small part of the rules for the second day of the tournament, when two opposing teams of knights fight together in a mock battle. All of these rules and regulations work together to make the violence of the fights manageable and fun for the spectators. In fact, except for the small-scale siege of Torquilstone, Front-de-Boeuf's castle, there aren't any true battles in this novel. There are tournaments, duels and tussles, but the violence of both the Crusades and of the Norman invasion happens off-screen, before the novel even takes place. These large-scale events serve as a backdrop to Ivanhoe, but the action of the book is mostly personal and even anticlimactic (in the case of Bois-Guilbert's sudden stroke during his joust with Ivanhoe). Why might Scott choose to focus on tournaments rather than real wars? How would this novel be different if Scott had tried to represent the Crusades or the Norman invasion directly?
[The interest of the men in the audience] showed itself in loud acclamations upon every change of fortune, while all eyes were so riveted on the lists that the spectators seemed as if they themselves had dealt and received the blows which were there so freely bestowed. And between every pause was heard the voice of the heralds, exclaiming, "Fight on, brave knights! Man dies, but glory lives! Fight on; death is better than defeat! Fight on, brave knights! for bright eyes behold your deeds!" (12.22)
The fact that people used to fight each other with swords to amuse an audience is proof of how savage the Middle Ages were, according to the narrator. Have things really changed all that much, though? It's a shame Scott didn't live long enough to see a mixed martial arts tournament.
It's also striking that the heralds encourage the knights to fight for two concepts: glory and "bright eyes" – i.e. ladies. Ideals of honor and courtly love are both extremely important to the codes of chivalry. Among the knights fighting in this scene (Bois-Guilbert, Ivanhoe, Front-de-Boeuf, etc.) who would you say is most chivalrous? Who best fits your image of an ideal knight? Why?
"I did injustice," he said, "to the thieves and outlaws of these woods, when I supposed such banditti to belong to their bands; I might as justly have confounded the foxes of these brakes with the ravening wolves of France. Tell me, dogs – is it my life or my wealth that your master aims at? Is it too much that two Saxons, myself and the noble Athelstane, should hold land in the country which was once the patrimony of our race? (21.25)
Arriving at Front-de-Boeuf's castle, we're treated to one of Cedric's typical anti-Norman rants. Cedric gets into a grey area, though, when he starts talking about England as "the patrimony of [the Saxon] race." A patrimony is an estate that has belonged to a particular family or people since ancient times. That's not really right, though. The Saxons were not the native people of England. When they arrived in the 5th century, they conquered the Celtic people who lived there before them. Looks like Cedric's Saxon nationalism is at least a bit hypocritical.
"Answer me not," said the Templar [Bois-Guilbert], "by urging the difference of our creeds; within our secret conclaves we hold these nursery tales in derision. Think not we long remained blind to the idiotical folly of our founders, who forswore every delight of life for the pleasure of dying martyrs by hunger, by thirst, and by pestilence, and by the swords of savages, while they vainly strove to defend a barren desert, valuable only in the eyes of superstition. Our Order soon adopted bolder and wider views, and found out a better indemnification for our sacrifices. Our immense possessions in every kingdom of Europe, our high military fame, which brings within our circle the flower of chivalry from every Christian clime – these are dedicated to ends of which our pious founders little dreamed, and which are equally concealed from such weak spirits as embrace our Order on the ancient principles, and whose superstition makes them our passive tools." (24.58)
Finally, all the masks come off. Bois-Guilbert may pose as a high-and-mighty Christian, but only because he gets more power that way. In fact, he regards Jerusalem itself as "valuable only in the eyes of superstition." He believes that underneath all the propaganda, the Knights Templar is a nonreligious organization dedicated to gaining world power with its fighting forces. He promises Rebecca that he and his soldiers will be seizing the thrones of Europe before too long. How can she turn down a man with this kind of ambition? But Bois-Guilbert's ambition is also terrifying. He's talking about literally revolutionizing the world and overturning religions and governments alike. If you were in Rebecca's position, what would you think of Bois-Guilbert's ambitions? How does his ambition affect your sense of him as a character?
"Alas!" said the fair Jewess, "and what is it, valiant knight, save an offering of sacrifice to a demon of vain glory, and a passing through the fire to Moloch? – What remains to you as the prize of all the blood you have spilled – of all the travail and pain you have endured – of all the tears which your deeds have caused, when death hath broken the strong man's spear, and overtaken the speed of his war-horse?"
"What remains?" cried Ivanhoe; "Glory, maiden, glory! which gilds our sepulchre and embalms our name."
"Glory?" continued Rebecca; "alas, is the rusted mail which hangs as a hatchment over the champion's dim and mouldering tomb – is the defaced sculpture of the inscription which the ignorant monk can hardly read to the enquiring pilgrim – are these sufficient rewards for the sacrifice of every kindly affection, for a life spent miserably that ye may make others miserable? Or is there such virtue in the rude rhymes of a wandering bard, that domestic love, kindly affection, peace and happiness, are so wildly bartered, to become the hero of those ballads which vagabond minstrels sing to drunken churls over their evening ale?" (29.61-63)
As Rebecca describes the battle of Torquilstone to Ivanhoe, they get into a deep philosophical argument about the morality of warfare. Ivanhoe is on the pro-violence side – he thinks dying for a glorious cause leads to lasting fame and greatness. Rebecca thinks war disrupts families and destroys useful lives.
We'll leave it up to you guys to decide which is more important, glory or peace. However, we do think it's interesting that Scott stops the action at Torquilstone to consider what all of this violence really means. After all, Ivanhoe is the early 19th century version of an action movie, and not many action movies would stop in the middle to discuss whether the action is moral. Why do you think Scott includes this discussion between Rebecca and Ivanhoe? How does it contribute to the tone of the Torquilstone battle scenes?
"And a brave addition to the kingdom of Satan," said De Bracy; "this comes of reviling saints and angels, and ordering images of holy things and holy men to be flung down on the heads of these rascaille yeomen."
"Go to – thou art a fool," said the Templar; "thy superstition is upon a level with Front-de-Boeuf's want of faith; neither of you can render a reason for your belief or unbelief." (30.4-5)
De Bracy blames Front-de-Boeuf's violent death on his frequent anti-Christian curses and blasphemies. Bois-Guilbert thinks both De Bracy and Front-de-Boeuf are fools – De Bracy for his unthinking attachment to religion and Front-de-Boeuf for his equally thoughtless disrespect. Bois-Guilbert seems to think both belief and unbelief should be equally based on rational thought. He believes that if you can't provide a reason for your beliefs, what's the point of having them?
But here's a question we frequently think about at three in the morning: can you reason your way to true religious faith? Aren't faith and reason two different (maybe even opposing) things? In a debate over religious belief, would you side with De Bracy's unquestioning faith, or with Bois-Guilbert's rationality?
[Ivanhoe] descended into the lists, and commanded them to unhelm the conquered champion [Bois-Guilbert]. His eyes were closed – the dark red flush was still on his brow. As they looked on him in astonishment, the eyes opened – but they were fixed and glazed. The flush passed from his brow, and gave way to the pallid hue of death. Unscathed by the lance of his enemy, he had died a victim to the violence of his own contending passions.
"This is indeed the judgment of God," said the Grand Master, looking upwards – "Fiat voluntas tua!" (43.82-83)
Bois-Guilbert is such a conflicted character that it winds up literally killing him by the end of Ivanhoe. He dies in battle with Ivanhoe, but not because Ivanhoe is such a great jouster. He just happens to have a heart attack, or a stroke, at the moment they cross lances. Bois-Guilbert is so conflicted over his role in Rebecca's trial that he winds up dying almost spontaneously. Why do you think Scott chose to end the trial by combat this way? Why not just have Ivanhoe kill Bois-Guilbert directly? ("Fiat voluntas tua" means "Thy [God's] will be done," by the way.)