The title of Sir Walter Scott's most popular and best-known novel is derived from an old rhyme which records the names of three manors forfeited by a nobleman for striking the Black Prince with his tennis racket. "Tring, Wing, and Ivanhoe" were the three estates. Scott chose "Ivanhoe" for two reasons: it has an ancient English sound and it gives no indication of the subject matter of the story.
The first paragraph of Ivanhoe sets the stage for the whole. In that pleasant district of merry England which is watered by the river Don, there extended in ancient times a large forest, covering the greater part of the beautiful hills and valleys which lie between Sheffield and the pleasant town of Doncaster . . . . Here haunted of yore the fabulous Dragon of Wantley; here were fought many of the most desperate battles of the Civil Wars of the Roses; and here also flourished in ancient times those bands of gallant outlaws, whose deeds have been rendered so popular in English song.
The action all takes place in the environs of York, Lincoln, and Sheffield, mostly in the rural areas surrounding these ancient towns. Scott in vivid terms paints the natural beauty of England much as it is today, although there were no hedgerows in the twelfth century and although many Norman castles, gaping ruins now, were then in the splendor of their prime. The forests were there, however, and the glades and streams. These had changed little with the centuries.
Chivalry was the code of conduct that governed the knights and noblemen of the Middle Ages. Tennyson in Gareth and Lynette expressed its ideals in the words: "Follow the deer? Follow the Christ, the King, Live pure, speak true, right wrong, follow the King — Else, wherefore born?" Respect for women, truth, honor, and courage were also expected. Chaucer's knight loved "chivalrye, trouthe and honour, fredom and courteisye."
The Crusades were organized to drive the Turkish invaders out of the Holy Land, particularly Bethlehem, birthplace of Christ, and Jerusalem, where he was crucified. Churchmen, princes, knights, and noblemen united in this attempt, some going because of religious zeal and others because of the opportunity to travel. There were seven Crusades in all, lasting from 1096 to 1291. All were eventually unsuccessful, and the Moslem conquerors were at last left in possession of the holy shrines.
The feudal system embraced all strata of society in the Middle Ages. Each nobleman, or overlord, divided his land among lesser nobles, or gentlemen, who became his vassals. These grants of land were called fiefs. In return for his lord's protection, the vassal paid certain rents and pledged himself to fight for his liege. Serfs, who were bound to the land, constituted the lowest class. A few franklins, or freeholders, held their lands independently.
Knighthood was the aspiration of every highborn youth, and most of his education was pointed in that direction, unless he was preparing to enter the church. At seven he became a page in the household of a knight or a nobleman. At fourteen he was a squire, helping his lord with horse and armor and caring for his protector if wounded or killed. Training for knighthood included practice in the use of lance, sword, battleaxe, and the wearing of armor, but most knights could neither read nor write. Such learning was reserved for churchmen.
At twenty-one the young squire took the vows of knighthood and received armor, spurs, and sword in a solemn ceremony. Last of all he received his war horse. Now he was ready for adventure in the jousts or in battle.
Knights Templars were a special order of knights whose duty was to guard the Holy Sepulchre. In addition to the vows of knighthood, they were bound not to marry. They also were taught to read and write. Their chief establishment in England was in the area of London still called the Temple.
The Norman Conquest occurred in 1066 when William of Normandy invaded southern England and won a decisive victory over the Saxon Harold at Battle, a few miles from Hastings. William vowed that if he were successful he would build an abbey on the spot where Harold fell. Battle Abbey, not the original one, but a superb medieval structure of stone, is a tourist attraction today. William the Conqueror and his successors found it hard, however, to enforce Norman rule on the conquered Saxons, and not until the fourteenth century did the intermixture of the two peoples become complete. The time of Ivanhoe is approximately a century after the Norman Conquest.
The Plantagenet kings, who ruled England from 1216 to 1399, were so-called because the father of Henry II, a Frenchman, wore a sprig of yellow broom flower in his helmet. This bright-hued flower still grows wild along the roadside in southern France. Richard I was the second of the Plantagenet kings (plante genet).
Robin Hood, the popular hero of song and story, probably lived in the twelfth century and with his band of outlaws furnished excitement in Sherwood Forest. As Locksley in Ivanhoe, he demonstrates his unmatchable skill with bow and arrow. Traditionally he robbed the rich to give to the poor. With his name were associated those of his chief followers: Little John, Friar Tuck, Allan-a-Dale, and Maid Marian, fair "as ivory bone."
The tournaments were to the Middle Ages what baseball and football games and other athletic events are to modern spectators. Usually called by invitation of a prince or a nobleman, they were practice sessions for war. Knights showed their prowess and developed their skill. The tournament at Ashby-de-la-Zouche actually occurred, Scott using it as part of his historic background.