May 28, 2011


Chivalry and the Birth of Celebrity: Medieval knights were the sporting superstars and military heroes of their day, who performed before an adoring public in the tournament. Nigel Saul explains their appeal. (Nigel Saul, History Today)

Where are the origins of the modern cult of celebrity to be found? According to one view celebrity was a by-product of the growth of mass literacy and the rise of the popular press in the late 19th century. The word ‘celebrity’ as applied to a person does not appear in print until 1849 and was not to enter common usage until sometime later. A contrary view, however, is that even if the noun had not yet emerged to describe the phenomenon the substance of celebrity culture was already found in 18th-century London. A free press, an explosion in the number of printing houses and the existence of a public interested in new ways of thinking about themselves all fuelled interest in figures, such as Whig statesman Charles James Fox (1749-1806), who were for some reason notorious or had recognisable extrovert personalities.

Each of these suggestions has much to be said for it. Especially valuable is the fact that, for a celebrity culture to emerge, a public or social space must exist away from the traditional power centres at government and court. It is of the essence of a celebrity that he or she, while possessed of the magic of an anointed monarch, has a populist quality which appeals to a broad rather than an elite audience. This essential requirement is certainly found in 18th- and 19th-century England, especially in the London of the 18th century. It can be argued, however, that it is also found much earlier, in late medieval England. It may be that the origins of the modern celebrity cult are to be found in the 13th and 14th centuries, in the so-called age of chivalry.

Much of course depends on what precisely is meant by ‘celebrity’, or by the term ‘celebrity culture’. The idea of celebrity overlaps with that of its sibling ‘fame’. Fame describes ‘reputation’, ‘renown’ or ‘good report’; it is associated with recognition of an achievement beyond time or place, the assurance that a person’s name will live on, the knowledge that he or she will have a place in history. Celebrity, however, is associated with a certain glitziness which underlies and informs a relationship between the celebrity and an admiring audience. A celebrity is someone possessed of charisma, someone whose appeal to the public transcends the sum of his or her deeds and achievements and turns as much on their personality and personal story. A celebrity has to have the sorts of qualities and abilities that would bring him or her success in today’s ‘show business’. While a statesman can enjoy fame, only the most charismatic personality can enjoy celebrity. If the existence of a well-oiled publicity machine undoubtedly aids in the attainment of celebrity, nonetheless the right sort of personality has to be present in the first place.

When we look for the earliest periods, or the earliest societies, in which we encounter these prerequisites for the emergence of celebrity, we find ourselves in the Middle Ages. It is tempting to say that the first English celebrity was not the Georgian dandy or metropolitan courtesan, but the questing knight who caught the attention of the heralds and onlookers watching him show off his prowess in arms.

A key institution in the emergence of chivalry as a setting for celebrity was the tournament, where the knights honed their skills – a form of combat first encountered at the beginning of the 12th century. [...]

It was on the tourneying field that a man with a claim as good as any to be regarded as the first English celebrity made his name. This was William the Marshal (1146-1219), the most brilliant and charismatic knight of his day, Earl of Pembroke from 1199 and the magnate who was to be regent of England during the minority of Henry III (r. 1216-72). Among the knights of Angevin England, the Marshal stands out for his fame, the respect he commanded and the attention that he attracted.

Posted by at May 28, 2011 8:57 AM

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