William the Marshall at work.
Glitzy, celebrity knights -- it sounds like a Monty Python skit. In fact, as Nigel Saul argues in History Today, the cult of celebrity, which we think of as uniquely modern, likely began with the chivalric tradition. In particular, Saul singles out William the Marshall, a twelfth-century knight who excelled in medieval tournaments and who may have been the first celebrity. William had "that certain glitziness which underlies and informs a relationship between the celebrity and an admiring audience":
Each year he and his friends would make their way round the tourneying grounds of France, practising their fighting skills, gaining in experience and winning names for themselves as they went. The Marshal’s exceptional gifts brought him to the notice of Henry II’s son, Henry, the Young King (1155-83), whose service he entered and with whom he achieved great things.... The Marshal made a point of playing to win. Wherever he went he was ruthless on the field, mastering tactics (such as grabbing his opponent’s horse’s reins) that eluded others. On the death of the Young King in 1183 he gained a place in the service of Henry’s brother Richard -- Richard the Lionheart (r. 1189-99) -- and on the latter’s accession scooped up yet more rewards. In 1189 he was awarded the hand in marriage of Isabel de Clare, heiress of the earldom of Pembroke, one of the richest inheritances in the kingdom. A great landed magnate, he was now on the road that would take him to the regency of England on the accession of the young Henry III in 1216.
The key fact is that everyone loved William: He was "someone whose appeal to the public transcends the sum of his or her deeds and achievements and turns as much on their personality and personal story." "Celebrity," Saul writes, "was found in that taste for showmanship, that touch of populism which gave the person who attained it a lasting place in the hearts of an adoring public.... It was in the Middle Ages... that the public adoration of famous men first bordered on what today we would recognise as ‘celebrity.’"
Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His last article for Ideas was about choosing Congress by lottery.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.