Conversation With: Dr. Elizabeth Morrison (J. Paul Getty Museum “Chivalry in the Middle Ages”)


This illustration of a 15th century feast, on display as part of the Getty’s “Chivalry in the Middle Ages” exhibit, shows the best and worst of table manners in a medieval dining hall.

Movies, books, paintings, and even video games can – in their own ways – help to transport us back in time, and allow us to imagine what life in the age of chivalry might have looked like, as well as how the ideals of chivalry might – or might not – have influenced the men and women who went about their daily lives in the social and political landscape of medieval Europe.

But no matter how much research a modern author or Hollywood technical advisor may have done, no 21st century depiction can match the real images we have of life in the middle ages – depictions that come from the many rich, beautiful illustrations found on the pages of medieval manuscripts. Far from presenting a world that was drab, dull, and grim, these elaborate illustrations show us a culture full of color, activity, and elaborate customs – and many of those customs are rooted in the rituals and lore of chivalry.

As you might expect, chivalric characters and scenes can be found in illustrated manuscripts of tales of King Arthur’s knights, and the adventures of Robin Hood. But perhaps a bit more surprising are images that show the ideals of chivalry playing out in real life on the pages of manuals of hunting and feasting etiquette, rolls of legal and financial disputes, and strategy guides for popular games like chess. Even in the Middle Ages, it seems, chivalry’s effect was felt in many aspects of everyday life, not just events involving jousting and sword fighting.

Anyone wanting to get a look into the ideals and practices of chivalry in medieval manuscript illustrations will certainly want to consider a trip this summer or fall to the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California, to check out their new exhibit, Chivalry in the Middle Ages opening July 8, and running through November. The exhibition features a variety of wonderful pieces of medieval artwork that you can view up close – but also an ongoing series of engaging presentations and activities that will get you imagining, talking about, and taking part in the culture of chivalry – since part of the purpose of this exhibition is to bring the notion of chivalry out of the Middle Ages, and right into the modern world.

Just how does a collection of 500 year old drawings bring us a greater understanding of chivalry’s role in the medieval world, as well as in the 21st century? Dr. Elizabeth Morrison, curator of manuscripts at the Getty Museum, joins host Scott Farrell for a conversation about that age-old question.

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