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The Chivalric Imagination in Elizabethan England



The present article, drawing from a range of studies in different areas from the last 30 years, seeks to debunk the myth of the obsolescence and decadence of chivalry and knighthood in the Renaissance by avoiding a discussion of its supposedly anachronistic, inert or even escapist nature, and by emphasising instead the cultural relevance, malleability and persistence of chivalric motifs in Elizabethan imagination and society. The continued, even intensified use of chivalric traditions, rhetoric and motifs in the Elizabethan period suggests instead that these occupied a central position in that culture’s imaginative universe, allowing them to become the vehicles for a wide variety of often overlapping discourses. These include such crucial issues as the nature of true nobility, the transformation of the aristocratic culture of honour, politically inflected courtship of the unmarried queen, representations of the post-Reformation religious struggle in Europe with its attendant apocalyptic overtones, geographic discovery and exploration, and instances of social and spiritual ‘self-fashioning’ in terms of a knightly quest – to name only the most important uses of chivalry sketched here. Chivalry in the Elizabethan period is thus best seen not as a stable set of values, but as providing a culturally authoritative but highly adaptable, fluid ‘language’, suitable for articulating a wide variety of meanings.