'Thus Does Man Prove His Fitness to Be the Master of Things': Shipwrecks, Chivalry and Masculinities in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Britain

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This paper critically examines the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century revival of chivalry in Britain, with a particular emphasis on chivalry at sea. It gives a history to the so-called 'eternal law of the sea', the chivalric code of 'women and children first' during shipwrecks. For most of the nineteenth century, chivalry at sea had been organized around national identity, as well as class and race divisions between men. For Edwardians, the new political claims of women encouraged a new shipwreck narrative, one in which all men, and not merely ruling class or white men, would put women first. The 1912 Titanic disaster can be situated at a historical juncture, a point of choice between chivalry as dividing men, or as distinguishing all men from women. I conclude that it is not appropriate to see the First World War as an abrupt curtailment of an otherwise flourishing chivalric code; chivalry was malleable, vulnerable and open to interpretation before the war, and was still in play after it, though with a new set of emphases that spoke to the concerns of interwar political argument. This paper, then, gives no simple narrative of the 'rise and fall' of chivalry, but suggests its continuing salience in interwar Britain, within a changing set of meanings attached to crises at sea.

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1191/1478003805cs044oa

Affiliations: King's College, Cambridge

Publication date: January 1, 2006

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