Actually By Mark Twain
Curator’s Comments: While Twain is focused on the Crusades, do you think the spirit of his piece applies to modern military reenactments of any time period?
Lately there appeared an item to this effect, and the same went the customary universal round of the press:
A telegraph station has just been established upon the traditional site of the Garden of Eden.
As a companion to that, nothing fits so aptly and so perfectly as this:
Brooklyn has revived the knightly tournament of the Middle Ages.
It is hard to tell which is the most startling, the idea of that highest achievement of human genius and intelligence, the telegraph, prating away about the practical concerns of the world’s daily life in the heart and home of ancient indolence, ignorance, and savagery, or the idea of that happiest expression of the brag, vanity, and mock-heroics of our ancestors, the “tournament,” coming out of its grave to flaunt its tinsel trumpery and perform its “chivalrous” absurdities in the high noon of the nineteenth century, and under the patronage of a great, broad-awake city and an advanced civilization.
A “tournament” in Lynchburg is a thing easily within the comprehension of the average mind; but no commonly gifted person can conceive of such a spectacle in Brooklyn without straining his powers. Brooklyn is part and parcel of the city of New York, and there is hardly romance enough in the entire metropolis to re-supply a Virginia “knight” with “chivalry,” in case he happened to run out of it. Let the reader calmly and dispassionately picture to himself “lists”—in Brooklyn; heralds, pursuivants, pages, garter king-at-arms—in Brooklyn; the marshalling of the fantastic hosts of “chivalry” in slashed doublets, velvet trunks, ruffles, and plumes—in Brooklyn; mounted on omnibus and livery-stable patriarchs, promoted, and referred to in cold blood as “steeds,” “destriers,” and “chargers,” and divested of their friendly, humble names—these meek old “Jims” and “Bobs” and “Charleys,” and renamed “Mohammed,” “Bucephalus,” and “Saladin”—in Brooklyn; mounted thus, and armed with swords and shields and wooden lances, and cased in paste board hauberks, morions, greaves, and gauntlets, and addressed as “Sir” Smith, and “Sir” Jones, and bearing such titled grandeurs as “The Disinherited Knight,” the “Knight of Shenandoah,” the “Knight of the Blue Ridge,” the “Knight of Maryland,” and the “Knight of the Secret Sorrow”—in Brooklyn; and at the toot of the horn charging fiercely upon a helpless ring hung on a post, and prodding at it intrepidly with their wooden sticks, and by and by skewering it and cavorting back to the judges’ stand covered with glory—this in Brooklyn; and each noble success like this duly and promptly announced by an applauding toot from the herald’s horn, and “the band playing three bars of an old circus tune”—all in Brooklyn, in broad daylight. And let the reader remember, and also add to his picture, as follows, to wit: when the show was all over, the party who had shed the most blood and overturned and hacked to pieces the most knights, or at least had prodded the most muffin-rings, was accorded the ancient privilege of naming and crowning the Queen of Love and Beauty—which naming had in reality been done for him by the “cut-and-dried” process, and long in advance, by a committee of ladies, but the crowning he did in person, though suffering from loss of blood, and then was taken to the county hospital on a shutter to have his wounds dressed—these curious things all occurring in Brooklyn, and no longer ago than one or two yesterdays. It seems impossible, and yet it is true.
This was doubtless the first appearance of the “tournament” up here among the rolling-mills and factories, and will probably be the last. It will be well to let it retire permanently to the rural districts of Virginia, where, it is said, the fine mailed and plumed, noble-natured, maiden-rescuing, wrong-redressing, adventure-seeking knight of romance is accepted and believed in by the peasantry with pleasing simplicity, while they reject with scorn the plain, unpolished verdict whereby history exposes him as a braggart, a ruffian, a fantastic vagabond; and an ignoramus.
All romance aside, what shape would our admiration of the heroes of Ashby de la Zouch be likely to take, in this practical age, if those worthies were to rise up and come here and perform again the chivalrous deeds of that famous passage of arms? Nothing but a New York jury and the insanity plea could save them from hanging, from the amiable Bois-Guilbert and the pleasant Front-de-Boeuf clear down to the nameless ruffians that entered the riot with unpictured shields and did their first murder and acquired their first claim to respect that day. The doings of the so-called “chivalry” of the Middle Ages were absurd enough, even when they were brutally and bloodily in earnest, and when their surroundings of castles and donjons, savage landscapes and half-savage peoples, were in keeping; but those doings gravely reproduced with tinsel decorations and mock pageantry, by bucolic gentlemen with broomstick lances, and with muffin-rings to represent the foe, and all in the midst of the refinement and dignity of a carefully-developed modern civilisation, is absurdity gone crazy.
Now, for next exhibition, let us have a fine representation of one of those chivalrous wholesale butcheries and burnings of Jewish women and children, which the crusading heroes of romance used to indulge in in their European homes, just before starting to the Holy Land, to seize and take to their protection the Sepulchre and defend it from “pollution.”