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A Ritual Failure: The Eglinton Tournament, the Victorian Medieval Revival, and Victorian Ritual Culture

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 March 2023

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Summary

In its own time the Eglinton Tournament was, and today it remains, one of the most famous failures of the Victorian period. The range of epithets applied to the event testifies to the unanimity of critical opinion on this point: christened an “absurdity” by one critic; a specimen of “medieval mania” by another; and “the most bizarre manifestation of medievalism in the early years of the Victorian period” by a third; the tournament has also been labeled “a splendid failure,” “a fiasco,” “the greatest folly of the century,” and – my personal favorite – “the most magnificent abortion that has been witnessed for two centuries.” Despite, or perhaps because of, this widespread agreement, explanations of the Eglinton Tournament's failure rarely get beyond memories of the weather on the opening day. However, such exclusively meteorological recollections risk ignoring the productive significance of the failure to which the rain undoubtedly contributed, and the ways in which that failure can serve as a productive point of entry into Victorian England's elite public ritual culture.

Three critics – none principally interested in the Eglinton Tournament – approach the event with sufficient theoretical sophistication to begin to account for its enduring reputation among critics as a failure. In his survey of the historical context for the 1844 Robert Burns Festival, Alex Tyrrell casts the Eglinton Tournament as “a symbolic statement” of Scottish aristocratic paternalism “protesting against […] the ideology of modernization and social divisiveness that Whig reformers had pursued in the 1830s.” Tyrrell's argument suggests that the tournament failed, at least in part, because it could not persuade its contemporaries to adopt a specific political program and class position. The Earl of Eglinton's decision to attempt persuasion- by-tournament is explained by Helene Roberts, who uses Thomas Carlyle's theory of clothes in Sartor Resartus (1833–34) to understand the Victorian medieval revival. The brief section of her article devoted to the Eglinton Tournament makes perspicuous the degree to which the event relied on contemporary theories of signification.

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Studies in Medievalism XVI
Medievalism in Technology Old and New
, pp. 25 - 45
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2008

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