At the birth of Gothic literature, the British were engaged in a struggle to sort out the relationships between history, romance, feudalism, and chivalry. Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France declared that "the age of chivalry is gone," and Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Man suggested that "probably the spirit of romance and chivalry is on the wane; and reason will gain by its extinction."
Angela Wright's article, "The Fickle Fortunes of Chivalry in Eighteenth-Century Gothic" explores this topic in depth. The Gothic representation of chivalry is varied as authors seem to grapple with the issue, even within individual texts. For example, Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto employs the traditional chivalric code when the ghost of the wrongfully-usurped knight Alphonso seeks to right Manfred's wrongs, and thus the damsels in distress can be released by the brave young Theodore. In the same text, however, the two heroines Isabella and Matilda have a distinctly unchivalric dispute over which lady has the proper claim to Theodore's affections. In Ann Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho, the main story of the villain Montoni's capture of the damsel in distress questions the chivalric code, since Valancourt's love for Emily renders him unfit to rescue her. In Udolpho's interpolated narrative, however, the French knight honors the English knight with a proper burial, suggesting that Radcliffe might endorse at least this particular part of the chivalric code, even if she questions its merits as a whole.
Like many virtues praised in other forms of literature, chivalric practices are often twisted in the Gothic for purposes of increased violence and ruin. In “Fatal Jealousy,” for example, chivalric dueling among aristocrats over familial ties and romantic desires is the engine for the creation of truly bloody Gothic carnage. This seems ironic, because in so many ways the Gothic expresses nostalgia for earlier times; but the chapbooks also explore class tensions, and this condemnation of chilvalry may be related to a deep-seated mistrust of aristocratic excess.
Courtesy of Wendy Fall, Marquette University
See also: romantic paradigm
Wright, Angela. "The Fickle Fortunes of Chivalry in Eighteenth-Century Gothic." Gothic Studies 14.1 (2012): 47-56. Print.
Fatal Jealousy; or, Blood Will Have Blood! Containing the History of Count Almagro and Duke Alphonso; Their Combat in the Dreadful Tournament and the Death of the Beautiful Bellarmine, Through the Artifice of Sophronia, Her Rival, Unknown