Monday, 3 September 2012

Ivanhoe: Racism in Medieval England

As I said in another post, this is not the first time I read Ivanhoe, although it is the first time I read the original version. The work is astounding.

The story is set in the reign of King Richard Plantagenet, more known as Richard I, or, as I prefer, Richard the Lionhearted. This king is famous for his campaign in the Crusade, and for me personally, as a friend and liege of the loyal Robin Hood.

Anyway, this period in the history in England is marked by dense air of prejudice among the Saxons and Normans, plus the partiality against the Jews. This fact is underlined in Ivanhoe, where people's racial background seems to be taken very seriously in any decision made.

For example, there's Cedric, Ivanhoe's father, who constantly expresses his hatred for the Normans, for being the oppressors of the “natives” of the land. And brave as he is, even in the presence of Norman nobles and Prince John himself he doesn't restrain himself from speaking out his feeling upon the matter.

“Whoever shall call thee Saxon, Sir Baron,” replied Cedric, offended at a mode of expression by which the Normans frequently expressed their habitual contempt of the English, “will do thee an honour as great as it is undeserved.”

The Normans are not less generous in paying insults to the Saxons. This hatred between them even comes to the point of war between landlords, and in Ivanhoe, attempt to kill each other, as shown by the scenes in Front-de-Boeuf's castle.

But the race that perhaps I pity most is the Jews. Because the Jews are without lands of their own, they end up becoming usurers, and thus become highly disliked by others. Not just that, the belief that Christianity is superior than any other religions makes life even more harder for them. In the novel, Isaac of York was almost killed by the Templar, and Rebecca was almost burnt to death, just like her predecessor, Miriam, who had been burnt earlier, after being accused as a witch.

Even our hero Ivanhoe isn't an exception. Influenced by the society in his era, he shares the same opinion towards the Jews. Although he acts with kindness towards them, but he cannot erase from his mind that these people are of lesser race.

“I know not whether the fair Rowena would have been altogether satisfied with the species of emotion with which her devoted knight had hitherto gazed on the beautiful features, and fair form, and lustrous eyes, of the lovely Rebecca; eyes whose brilliancy was shaded, and, as it were, mellowed, by the fringe of her long silken eyelashes, and which a minstrel would have compared to the evening star darting its rays through a bower of jessamine. But Ivanhoe was too good a Catholic to retain the same class of feelings towards a Jewess.”

The King and Robin Hood are less partial. The King corrected Cedric by saying that he is “Richard of England,” not just a Norman descendant who doesn't care about his English subjects. He also chooses to speak English (Old English, I fancy) when dealing with the Saxons. Robin Hood, being of Norman and Saxon descendant, shows more kindness towards the oppressed. He, like Ivanhoe, also exercises kindness towards the Jew, though in his own way.

Overall, the novel is a very good work. The author describes the Medieval era in a way that makes it real. I also appreciate the research that he has done, which is a lot, as shown by the amount of notes in his work. The meticulous details, although too much for my taste at times, give thorough readers one good reason to read and read it again, just to be more familiar with the custom of the era.  


  1. I've always been curious about this one, as I haven't read all that much set in Medieval time period. I find the era fascinating though, and I really should give it a go! -Sarah

    1. Me too. I read the original because I wanted to know Medieval era better. I cheer for your reading it. :D

  2. Ouw ... there part of Robin Hood too in this stories ? Just curious, what is Ivanhoe's character to the story ...

  3. Well, he's a young great knight who supports Richard. But he plays his part only in the beginning and end of the story because he is badly wounded in the middlr of it.

  4. Thanks for your recent visit to my blog. I am not sure we should call the hatred of Saxons and Normans for each other as racism but nationalism. The treatment of Jews was problematic for me, I wondered if there is an underlying attitude of Anti-Jewish feeling in the narrative or if not that it certainly is guilty of Orientalism as the term is used by Edward Said.