Michael H. Means
"The Field of the Cloth of Gold": The Ringling Brothers Reinvent Henry VIII Reinventing Chivalry(FN1) SOURCE:
Journal of American Culture 21 no3 69-73 Fall 1998
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Of the many branches of medievalism practiced today, the most common is what Morton W. Bloomfield has described as "the idealization of medieval life and culture, with an emphasis on a rich, mysterious and imaginary world of nobility, honor, class-consciousness, defenders of women, battles, and so forth that, it was believed, flourished in the Middle Ages" (14). In this approach, Wagner, Tennyson, William Morris, Huysman, Burne-Jones, and E. A. Robinson deservedly receive a great deal of careful attention for their contributions to our vision of the Middle Ages. But millions of people today are far more likely to derive their notions of the Middle Ages from school books, movies and television, children's books, and comics. A cult film like Monty Python and the Holy Grail or a popular comic strip like "Hagar the Horrible" is a part of the life experience of many Americans today. Medieval themes are also immensely popular in the fantasy fiction industry but, with a few important exceptions, tend to get read by a fairly narrow cult audience. Although Idylls of the King was standard school fare 70 or 80 years ago, today's adolescents are more likely to know "The Wizard of Id" and Braveheart. For students of popular culture, then, medievalism can profitably be studied by examining works of popular art (cultural products, if you prefer), that impinge significantly on the lives of various audiences. And certainly very few kinds of entertainment have impinged more powerfully on the lives of Americans as has the circus, especially in the decades between the Civil War and World War II. The first two decades of the twentieth century have been called by circus historians the golden age of the circus Grand Entrance Spectacular, or "spec." In seven of those years, Ringling Brothers mounted four specs on medieval topics. In 1903 and 1904, the Ringling Brothers Circus opened its performances with "Jerusalem and the Crusades," followed the next two years by "The Field of the Cloth of Gold." In 1912 and 1913, it opened with "Joan of Arc," and in 1918, the last year it toured under the name Ringling Brothers, it did "In Days of Old." One would expect from these topics and their venue that the focus would be kept firmly on the exotic and spectacular aspects of medieval life. And so it was. In the case of "The Field of the Cloth of Gold" spec, the interests of the Ringlings coincide amusingly with some of those of Henry VIII: creating a lavish, memorably spectacular display. Both Henry and the Ringlings also wanted to make a display of their idealization of chivalry the excuse for their extravaganzas. The Ringling Brothers' version of this historical event was performed, usually twice daily, in cities and towns across America and lower Canada. Anyone acquainted with the specs offered today, especially by smaller circuses, might have difficulty imagining what specs were like before the 1920s. We are used to a procession around the ring(s) of performers and animals, the former often in special costumes and the latter elegantly presented, all then assembling in the rings for a musical lead-in to the first series of acts. The largest circuses often attempt something grander. Barbara Miller Byrd, of the Carson and Barnes Circus, likens the spec to the old street parades that died out half a century ago ("Run Away with the Carson & Barnes Circus"). But in the early years of the century, the spec was often much more--to the parade of animals and performers was added a play in dumb-show and music, a short dramatization of truly epic proportions. Sometimes...
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