Study Guide

Ivanhoe Society and Class

By Sir Walter Scott

Society and Class

To these causes of public distress and apprehension must be added the multitude of outlaws who, driven to despair by the oppression of the feudal nobility and the severe exercise of the forest laws, banded together in large ganges, and, keeping possession of the forests and the wastes, set at defiance the justice and magistracy of the country. The nobles themselves, each fortified within his own castle, and playing the petty sovereign over his own dominions, were the leaders of bands scarce less lawless and oppressive than those of the avowed depredators. (7.3)

There is a weird contradiction in Ivanhoe. Scott often talks about the unfairness of the feudal system, in which a bunch of powerful lords oppress their servants and slaves. The outlaws of the forest are good guys who are trying to defy and undo this system. At the same time, Cedric, Ivanhoe, Athelstane all profit from this feudal system. They aren't powerful nobles like the Earl of Essex or the Earl of Warwick, but they are relatively powerful – Cedric has slaves (or "thralls"), and we see all of Athelstane's tenants attending his funeral at the Castle of Coningsburgh in Chapter 42. Aren't they also oppressing the ordinary folk? Ivanhoe certainly presents a romanticized vision of medieval society and class.

It was worth while to see the different conduct of the beauties who underwent this examination [to become the Queen of Beauty and of Love at the tournament at Ashby], during the time it was proceeding. Some blushed, some assumed an air of pride and dignity, some looked straight forward, and essayed to seem utterly unconscious of what was going on, some drew back in alarm, which was perhaps affected, some endeavoured to forbear smiling, and there were two or three who laughed outright. There were also some who dropped their veils over their charms; but, as the Wardour Manuscript says these were fair ones of ten years standing, it may be supposed that, having had their full share of such vanities, they were willing to withdraw their claim, in order to give a fair chance to the rising beauties of the age. (9.22)

This whole beauty pageant that Prince John has going at the tournament indicates something profound about the novel's attitude towards women. For a woman to be sympathetic and important, she also has to be beautiful. We only have three major female characters in this novel: Rebecca, Rowena, and Ulrica. Other women appear in the text merely as decorations or objects to be admired for their beauty. Rebecca has more dialogue than most, but would anyone listen to her tragic story or pity her unjust fate if she weren't also beautiful? Ulrica has a really terrible backstory, but the old family friend she tells it to, Cedric, can barely listen to her because she's not attractive to him. What do you think of the book's attitude towards women? How does the characterization of the female characters differ from that of the men?

"Knave!" said the Captain, getting up, "thou hast broken my head, and with other men of our sort thou wouldst fare the worse for thy insolence. But thou shalt know thy fate instantly. First let us speak of thy master; the knight's matters must go before the squire's, according to the due order of chivalry." (11.40-42)

The Captain, the man who leads this band of outlaws Gurth encounters in the forest, is Robin Hood. Like the Black Knight and the Disinherited Knight, it takes us quite a long time to learn his true identity. But even though he is a thief living in the woods, we can tell we're supposed to take him seriously because of the way he talks. He uses "thee," "thy," and "thou" like they're going out of style (which they have). These forms of "you" and "your" are highly formal – like "usted" in Spanish or "vous" in French. If an outlaw uses these expressions, instead of the gruff speech of ordinary folk like Gurth, you know he's no ordinary thief.

With sly gravity, interrupted only by private signs to each other, the Norman knights and nobles beheld the ruder demeanour of Athelstane and Cedric at a banquet, to the form and fashion of which they were unaccustomed. And while their manners were thus the subject of sarcastic observation, the untaught Saxons unwittingly transgressed several of the arbitrary rules established for the regulation of society. Now, it is well known, that a man may with more impunity be guilty of an actual breach either of real good breeding or of good morals, than appear ignorant of the most minute point of fashionable etiquette. Thus Cedric, who dried his hands with a towel, instead of suffering the moisture to exhale by waving them gracefully in the air, incurred more ridicule than his companion Athelstane, when he swallowed to his own single share the whole of a large pasty composed of the most exquisite foreign delicacies, and termed at that time a "karum-pie." (14.9)

At formal parties or occasions, we all worry that we will accidentally break some rule of politeness and look like idiots. The great majority of people are nice enough not to get offended when someone breaks a rule they don't share or know about, but these Normans are not nice guys. They are watching the Saxons like hawks, just waiting for them to behave like dolts. And indeed, when Cedric breaks some arbitrary rule of courtesy, they all silently sneer at him (which is both rude and inhospitable).

This feast demonstrates some of the cultural differences between the Normans and the Saxons, who don't behave in the same ways at the dinner table. The Normans assume these differences of custom also reflect class differences – that the Saxons have different manners because they are inferior to the Normans. This assumption that Norman customs are universal and appropriate for all cultures is a sign of their arrogance and self-centeredness.

Hitherto, Rowena had sustained her part in this trying scene with undismayed courage, but it was because she had not considered the danger as serious and imminent. Her disposition was naturally that which physiognomists consider as proper to fair complexions, mild, timid, and gentle; but it had been tempered, and, as it were, hardened, by the circumstances of her education. Accustomed to see the will of all, even of Cedric himself, (sufficiently arbitrary with others,) give way before her wishes, she had acquired that sort of courage and self-confidence which arises from the habitual and constant deference of the circle in which we move. She could scarce conceive the possibility of her will being opposed, far less that of its being treated with total disregard.

Her haughtiness and habit of domination was, therefore, a fictitious character, induced over that which was natural to her, and it deserted her when her eyes were opened to the extent of her own danger, as well as that of her lover and her guardian; and when she found her will, the slightest expression of which was wont to command respect and attention, now placed in opposition to that of a man of a strong, fierce, and determined mind, who possessed the advantage over her, and was resolved to use it, she quailed before him. (23.28-29)

When Rowena faces down De Bracy, she first appears strong, tough, and unafraid. However, Scott tells us that the reason she seems so tough is because she's not used to anyone not immediately obeying her wishes. When De Bracy keeps pushing Rowena, she breaks down almost at once. She has almost no resistance to bad treatment, because she's not used to it.

Compare that attitude to that of Rebecca, who is accustomed to prejudice and harsh words. Because Rebecca doesn't expect people to obey her or treat her well, she's much more resilient when she has to deal with cruelty. In a sense, Rowena's sheltered upbringing has really damaged her. Rowena appears relatively weak during this whole siege at Torquilstone. By contrast, Rebecca is strong enough to face even being burned alive without compromising herself or giving in to her tormentors.

"Tell me in plain terms what numbers there are, or, priest, thy cloak and cord will ill protect thee."

"Alas!" said the supposed friar, "cor meum eructavit, that is to say, I was like to burst with fear! but I conceive they may be – what of yeomen – what of commons, at least five hundred men." (26.10-11)

When Wamba makes his way into Torquilstone disguised as a monk, he has to trick the Norman knights into thinking that he's a real friar. We find this scene interesting because Wamba is a fool, a jester. The other characters in the book frequently comment on Wamba's stupidity (his father's name was Witless, for Pete's sake), but Wamba is smart enough to answer Reginald Front-de-Boeuf's questions. His jokey Latin may be funny to real Latin scholars, but it sounds pretty convincing. So while everyone agrees that Wamba is a fool, it seems to say more about his particular social position as a comedian than about his actual mental ability. For more on the potential social advantages of being a fool, check out "Characters: Wamba."

The beautiful Rebecca had been heedfully brought up in all the knowledge proper to her nation, which her apt and powerful mind had retained, arranged, and enlarged, in the course of a progress beyond her years, her sex, and even the age in which she lived. Her knowledge of medicine and of the healing art had been acquired under an aged Jewess, the daughter of one of their most celebrated doctors, who loved Rebecca as her own child, and was believed to have communicated to her secrets, which had been left to herself by her sage father at the same time, and under the same circumstances. The fate of Miriam had indeed been to fall a sacrifice to the fanaticism of the times; but her secrets had survived in her apt pupil.

Rebecca, thus endowed with knowledge as with beauty, was universally revered and admired by her own tribe, who almost regarded her as one of those gifted women mentioned in the sacred history. (28.13-14)

One of the things that makes Rebecca so interesting as a character is that she has a job. She has studied medicine, and she frequently practices her healing gifts. It's rare for a 19th century English novel to feature a major female character with a profession, let alone medicine. Because Rebecca is an outsider to both Norman and Saxon societies, though, the rules about wealthy and well-born women not working don't apply to her. Rebecca's freedom to study medicine is one way in which her position on the edges of English society works in her favor.

"Pardon my freedom, noble sirs," [Locksley] said, "but in these glades I am monarch – they are my kingdom; and these my wild subjects would reck but little of my power, were I, within my own dominions, to yield place to mortal man." (32.5)

An outlaw is a person who is literally outside the laws and customs of his time and place. This outsider status seems like it should be a position of relative freedom from rules and regulations, but the odd thing about Locksley/Robin Hood's merry band of misfits is that they don't actually ignore regular social hierarchies. Instead, they copy the feudal, lord-and-subject relationships of law-abiding citizens. Locksley's men even have their own version of a legal system.

Even though Locksley is an outlaw and Cedric is a landed nobleman, the major difference we see between them is that Locksley has to keep defending his authority. He doesn't hold power in the forest by right or by birth. Locksley tells the Black Knight that he can't be seen to obey any other man while he's in the forest, or else his men might think him weak. How does Locksley's ruling style compare to King Richard's or Prince John's? What does he use his authority over the outlaws to achieve? What codes of honor do the outlaws appear to obey? How do these honor codes compare to those of the other, more law-abiding characters?