Walter Scott’s Rebecca: Medieval Maiden or Enlightenment Enigma?

by Dr Rebecca Rist

The writer Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) is perhaps best known today for his romantic medieval novel Ivanhoe, which was published in 1819. As an antiquarian and literary genius Scott loved the medieval world, yet he was far from uncritical of it.  In particular Scott’s views on Chivalry are apparent through the creation of Ivanhoe’s greatest fictional character, Rebecca.  It is Rebecca, a Jew, rather than Rowena, the banal Saxon love-interest of the hero Ivanhoe, who is the real heroine of the piece. Scott’s heroine is Jewish for a deliberate reason. For Scott, as for many historians and novelists of the Enlightenment, the very worst of Christian medievalism had been embodied in the persecutions of Jews by crusaders who massacred Jewish communities on the eve of the First Crusade in 1096. Through Rebecca, Scott highlights his dissatisfaction with the medieval world which he portrays.

At the very heart of Ivanhoe is Rebecca’s rescue by Ivanhoe from the Trial by Wager orchestrated by the Grand Master of the Templars.  Its position in the novel is there to emphasize the importance of Rebecca’s character to the novel.  Rebecca alone of all Scott’s protagonists recognizes prejudice and religious bigotry for what it is; it is her empathy, compassion, forbearance and tolerance which make her a true nineteenth-century heroine.  In particular Scott’s depiction of the attempt to convert Rebecca by the Grand Master serves as Scott’s critique of how Catholics have historically treated Jews.  Rebecca is tried by the Templars for witchcraft, which Scott intends us to equate with the papal Inquisition which – however few or many it actually despatched in comparison to contemporary secular authorities – Protestant historians never wearied of re-assuring their readers was an undeniable example of Catholic zeal, bigotry and oppression.  In Ivanhoe the charge of witchcraft is in fact a mere pretext to incriminate Rebecca for being a Jew and to try to force her to convert, as the Grand Master himself, emphasises:

“Repent, my daughter, confess thy witchcrafts, turn thee from thine evil faith, embrace this holy emblem, and all shall yet be well with thee here and hereafter.”

Scott wants his readers to condemn the fanaticism, superstition and xenophobia that this investigation causes.

Indeed Scott goes out of his way to emphasise the evil of forced conversion when at the threat of death by fire, Rebecca, the Jewish ‘witch’ is asked by her oppressors to convert.  Scott has already presented the reader with the theme of forced conversion through the ‘Saxon witch’ Ulrica, who earlier in the novel has allowed herself to be burned to death in the castle of the Norman nobleman Front-de-Boeuf. Both Rebecca and Ulrica are willing to embrace death in order to maintain their racial origins, identity and culture.  Even in King Richard’s dismissal of the Templars near the end of Ivanhoe and the Grand Master’s threat of an ‘appeal to Rome’ for ultimate arbitration, we see both a reference to nineteenth-century debates about ‘the Jewish question’ and a reason why England needs to break free from Catholicism and embrace the Reformation.  Scott, like so many English writers of the early nineteenth century, wanted his readers to contrast unfavourably the Catholic nations of Europe, which had once included medieval England, with Protestant countries in the way they treated Jews.

Throughout the description of the Trial by Wager, Scott deliberately focusses attention not only on the fact that Rebecca is a Jew, but on the fact that she is all alone as the moral agent of the novel. At the trial before the Grand Master, Rebecca’s very person is central to the interpretation of the evidence:

Less than half the weighty evidence would have been sufficient to convict any old woman, poor and ugly, even though she had not been a Jewess.  United with that fatal circumstance, the body of proof was too weighty for Rebecca’s youth, though combined with the most exquisite beauty.

Her keen sensibilities mean that she suffers more acutely than anyone else for her compassion and tolerance.  Indeed, when the Templars attempt to distort and exaggerate her character and religious beliefs, their religious prejudice, blind zeal and rampant bigotry is only further exposed.  The Wager of Battle in Ivanhoe shows just how ambivalent Scott’s attitude towards medievalism – which includes Catholicism – really is. Even the hero of the novel, Ivanhoe, who learns from Rebecca’s example and acts heroically to save her, is impeded by not just his human limitations but by the Chivalric trappings of the medieval world he inhabits so that he lacks the necessary freedom to commit himself to her truly noble ideas.  Hence Scott, through Rebecca, presents a nuanced but very definite critique of Chivalry as a social ideal.

Scholars have argued that in depicting the trial of Rebecca, Scott deliberately borrowed ideas not just from national politics but of a much more local nature. They have pointed to the obvious comparisons between her Trial by Wager and the notorious case of Mary Ashford which came to Scott’s attention while he was writing Ivanhoe.  According to this case, in 1817 a certain Abraham Thornton, who was accused of murdering a certain Mary Ashford, challenged her brother to settle the matter by the medieval ‘trial by battel’.  This was an appeal to the fact that English law in the nineteenth century still gave defendants in certain circumstances the right to demand armed combat as a way of determining innocence or guilt.  Although many were convinced by the circumstantial evidence of Thornton’s guilt, he was nevertheless acquitted because of testimony which showed that just after the murder he had been far away from where it had taken place. Subsequently, although Mary Ashford’s brother William Ashford called for a second trial, the law governing this appeal still included the defendant’s right to ‘battel’.  This meant that when the court upheld Thornton’s claim of the right to combat, it was obliged to abandon the case because Ashford was not physically fit enough to fight.

It is more than likely, given its romantic and Chivalric connotations, that Scott was fascinated by this case.  Yet as a Conservative he was deeply troubled by its conclusions since these appeared through English law to legitimize brute force as a way of settling a dispute in favour of a verdict which was contrary to the evidence.  Indeed it is possible that the Trial by Wager in Ivanhoe is an ultimately unsuccessful attempt by Scott, given his concern about the outcome of the Mary Ashford case, to legitimize reliance on strength as a way of solving moral problems and to reaffirm men’s role as the protectors of women from male aggression.  If we follow this line of argument, Scott was trying in Ivanhoe to make sense of a contradiction that could only be resolved by understanding the workings of power in regard to women in a male-dominated society, which he was not – as a Conservative of his age – comfortable either ideologically or politically to undertake.  Furthermore, the clumsily crafted victory of his hero Ivanhoe in the Trial by Wager prevents Scott’s attempts to legitimize reliance on strength and reclaim male dominance since it merely reveals his own insecurities when he tries to marry his idea of Chivalry with how nineteenth-century society actually operated.

R Rist, Walter Scott Rebecca - for 15.4.16 - Elizabeth Taylor plays Rebecca in the film Ivanhoe (1952).


Elizabeth Taylor plays Rebecca in the film Ivanhoe (1952)


Dr Rebecca Rist is an Associate Professor in Medieval History at the University of Reading.  She counts Walter Scott’s Rebecca among one of her heroines. Her article ‘Catholic Piety and the Crusades in the Novels of Walter Scott’ will be published in Reading Medieval Studies (2017).

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