Chivalry & Circus

February 9, 2019
May 13, 2019
The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art
5401 Bay Shore Road
Sarasota, FL 34243
circus, knights, chivalry, museum
circus, knights, chivalry, museum

Imagery of knights in shining armor are woven throughout the history of American popular culture. Founded with the democratic values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, from its beginning, the United States has idealized the traits of courage, piety, and civility that are embodied in images of knights of the Middle Ages. The stories of heroes like King Arthur, St. George the dragon slayer, and Joan of Arc are still well-known today.

The term chivalry is derived from the French word cheval-horse. Given the central role of equestrian feats in the earliest circus performances, it is not surprising that show owners would happily incorporate the noble figure of the knight on horseback in their performances and advertising. The daring feats of bareback riders paralleled the bravery and combat skills of medieval knights as did the close relationship between a performer and their horse. The lavish wardrobes and courtly settings that define the Middle Ages in the popular imagination were also well suited to the presentations of 19th and 20th century circuses.

Many shows, such as James Robinson's Champion Circus, opted to open their performance with a Grand Entrée which included the entire troupe in an organized equestrian dance. In the poster, men and women costumed in courtly outfits of pantaloons and gowns circle together in an organized choreographed scene. The spectacle of medieval scenes was also incorporated into the grand street parades that American circuses staged from the 1840s through the 1910s. Whether it was riders in full armor like the knight depicted on the Barnum & Bailey poster proclaiming the pageants of the show or more courtly heralds announcing the beginning of the parade, the visual references to chivalric figures were regal additions to the spectacle. Some circuses even added extraordinary wagons with glittering gold gilding and awe-inspiring figures out of mythology to entrance the townspeople with the richness of their production.

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