Dartmouth College Library Bulletin

‘King Arthur made new knights’:
The Founding of Casque & Gauntlet

JONATHAN GOOD

Casque & Gauntlet, a society for senior undergraduates founded at Dartmouth College in 1887, combined two popular late-nineteenth-century American phenomena: The vogue for fraternal societies and for King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table. The founders of Casque & Gauntlet were inspired by Alfred, Lord Tennyson's Idylls of the King, and dedicated themselves to the pursuit of what they saw as Arthurian chivalric ideals, including the metaphorical quest for the Holy Grail, the cup used by Jesus and his disciples at the Last Supper. Casque & Gauntlet was not the only Arthurian group founded in America at the time-others included The Ancient Order of Knights of the Mystic Chain, ‘a secret society, founded by Freemasons on the traditions and fancies which hedge themselves about King Arthur of England and his Knights of the Round table’; The Order of Loyal Knights of the Round Table, an Oakland, California, service club similar to Rotary International; and The Knights of King Arthur, a boys' group dedicated to instilling chivalric ideals into its young members.[1] Casque & Gauntlet, however, was one of the few such groups to be founded on a college campus, and represented an excellent adaptation of Arthurianism to undergraduate life.

The founders of Casque & Gauntlet produced little documentation of their efforts, although some reminiscences of early members do survive.[2] H. O. Cushman recalled that the members adopted the names of different knights of the Round Table, with the president being King Arthur, and that the society was to represent ‘truth, fidelity, and loyalty to each other, to the college, and the best that was in each of us; a challenge to all that was evil in the world.’[3] Warren Fenno Gregory remembered that Wilder Dwight Quint wrote the ritual and Fred Wesley ‘Bill’ Wentworth designed a pin for the society. Casque & Gauntlet was ‘for men known in various lines of college activity and prominence, and who liked each other, to make their friendship more enduring by organization.’[4] There was, he stated: no claim of perfection among these men. . . . None was a superman, but all were superior men. The Holy Grail was the focal point of their fraternal life and not the punch-bowl. There was not a prudish one among them, but they knew when to shed the common song and rise to a higher delight of lofty sentiment.[5] An immediate concern of the founders was perpetuating the society. They wanted ‘to be sure that the proper persons . . . in each of these classes [below] could be depended on to go along with us, and had the same hopes and ambitions that we had.’[6] Successors were chosen on the basis of their ‘excellence in their particular field during the three college years,’ 'but always character, loyalty, and good fellowship came first in our selection.’[7] The founders managed to recruit enough members from the Class of 1888, but were really hoping that a group of quality 1889s (who were ‘already organized') would eventually join them. The 1888s did recruit these 1889s, thereby establishing the society.[8] Casque & Gauntlet acquired a house in 1894 and, aided by the active participation of alumni, has survived to the present day.[9]

As mentioned, the founding of Casque & Gauntlet did not occur in a vacuum, but was informed by broader currents in late-nineteenth-century American culture. Higher education, for one, had undergone immense changes following the Civil War: both the number of colleges and the number of students enrolled in them had increased dramatically.[10] At many of these places the common classical curriculum had given way to an elective one and, more important, young men increasingly went to them for the sake of its socializing experience in preparation for careers in business.[11] Larger classes, lack of a common curriculum, and success defined by the acquisition of potential business contacts provided ideal conditions for the spread of student fraternities. Student groups, especially literary societies, had always existed at American colleges, and the first Greek-letter fraternities as such were founded in the 1830s, but in the decades following the Civil War more parent fraternity organizations and fraternity chapters were established than ever before. Unlike literary or debating societies, a fraternity existed for no other ostensible purpose than to promote friendship among its members. Fraternities were ‘secret’ societies in that their names, usually composed of two or three Greek letters, stood for a motto known only to initiates; and their rituals, the first of which were inspired by Masonic rituals made public in the 1830s, were private. Undergraduates, who joined freshman year and remained members throughout their college careers, were proud of their Greek affiliation and wore pins proclaiming so. An important milestone in the life of any campus fraternity chapter was the acquisition of a chapter house in which members could live and hold meetings.

Fraternities were not the only type of society founded on campus. Senior societies, where they existed, were different but had the same rationale. They could, indeed, serve a useful function where fraternities had proliferated so much that the prestige of being a member of one had deteriorated: They aspired to choose only the most likable, the most idealistic, the most sporting, or the wealthiest undergraduates at the college. The senior societies at Yale University, where new members were ‘tapped’ into Skull and Bones or Scroll and Key during their junior year by the membership preceding them, served as models. Undergraduates founded Axe and Coffin at Columbia; Owl and Padlock at Michigan; and Skull and Serpent, and Owl and Wand at Wesleyan.[12] Senior societies did not found chapters at other colleges, nor did they always achieve the social prominence they set out to gain, but their existence, complete with pins, secret grips, mottoes, rituals, and songs, was certainly in keeping with the times.[13]

Thus it was with Casque & Gauntlet. Fraternities were very popular at Dartmouth in the later nineteenth century, and other, less formal societies for freshmen, sophomores, or juniors had been founded throughout the 1880s.[14] Some of these societies tried to perpetuate themselves, while others were simply organized groups of friends, not intended to outlive their members' college careers. This explains the ‘already organized’ group of 1889s that Casque & Gauntlet wanted so badly, who called themselves the 'Phi Phis.'[15] A senior society, Sphinx, had been founded in 1886, and was to be continued. Some members of the Class of 1887, therefore, began secret discussions during their junior year toward the formation of another senior society, to be ‘based on somewhat different ideals, aims, and purposes.’[16] The group's leader, Albert Thomas, died in the summer of 1886, and this event, far from dissipating the group's energy, inspired it even more to create an association based on gallantry and service. Three members-Wilder Dwight Quint, Albert Emerson Hadlock, and James Clifford Simpson-early on advocated Arthurian legend as the theme for their society, and successfully convinced the others to adopt it. Quint, especially, was devoted to Tennyson's Idylls, although the ritual he wrote based on them is now, sadly, lost. The members chose the name ‘Casque & Gauntlet’ after much discussion, to represent the head-and-hand combination of idealism and service that the members were looking for. It also suggested 'Bill' Wentworth's pin-a simple, easily-recognizable (although, true to the times, internally ornate) design of an armored helmet overlying an armored glove.[17]

That the early members were committed to their ideals seems beyond question. One founder remarked that they had ‘wished to place [the society] on a higher plane than mere pleasure and companionship.’ He really believed that their ‘first motive was service,’ that is, that by example their group ‘could at least have some influence in strengthening the moral fiber and raising the standards of the student body.’[18] What, exactly, did they mean by all this? The early members seem remarkably imprecise on what their high ideals entailed, or what exactly their moral example was to be. How did student standards need raising? It does not help that the whole thing sounds quite alien to our own jaded era-could such a group be founded at a college today? To understand the impetus behind the founding of Casque & Gauntlet, we might do well to revisit another general movement of the late nineteenth century: Medievalism.

Medievalism was a general vogue for the art, architecture, literature, and social forms of the European Middle Ages. It was more than merely aesthetic. Alice Chandler, in discussing English medievalism, found that the ‘single, central desire’ of the movement was for an ‘ordered yet organically vital universe’ in the face of the industrial revolution and its attendant woes.[19] In arts and crafts (Ruskin, Morris), architecture (Pugin), politics (the Young England movement, socialism), literature (Tennyson), and religion (Keble, Pusey), the Middle Ages came to represent the lost ideal of a society based on ties of paternalism and loyalty as opposed to a modern and alienating one based on rational self-interest. In reaction to such features of the nineteenth century as slums, production concerned with profit rather than quality, dirty and dangerous work, and the death of God, the Middle Ages became idealized as a time of ‘faith, order, joy, munificence, and creativity,’ and to return to them was ‘a way of reorganizing man into a closely knit and organic social structure that could engage his emotions and loyalties in a wealth of traditions and customs.’[20]

For a variety of reasons, including a lack of a specifically American medieval past, medievalism was not as strong in America as it was in England. And yet the movement did cross the Atlantic, for the same alienating social conditions that England experienced were also to be found in parts of the United States. Jackson Lears notes that a ‘hovering soulsickness,’ a sense that modern life had grown ‘dry and passionless,’ emerged in late-nineteenth-century America, and that regenerating ‘a lost intensity of feeling’ was a cultural imperative. He notes that:

Pale innocence, fierce conviction, physical and emotional vitality, playfulness and spontaneity, an ability to cultivate fantastic or dreamlike states of awareness, an intense otherworldly asceticism: those were medieval traits perceived by late Victorians and embodied in a variety of dramatis personae.[21]

In America, King Arthur and his knights and ladies were foremost among these dramatis personae: Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is perhaps the best known American Arthurian work of the period, but it was one of many, and the fact that it is a satire illustrates how popular Arthurianism had become.[22] But on whatever figure America hung its medieval longings (other favorites included Joan of Arc, Francis of Assisi, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Dante Alighieri), Lears noted that:

In offering temporary escapes to a realm of innocence or wish-fulfillment, or in stressing action as an end in itself, some antimodern [i.e., medievalist] impulses revived the modern ethos of achievement even as they recast it in a looser therapeutic mold.[23]

In America, medievalism and its Arthurian avatar were not simply recast to the modern world, as Gothic architecture was for A. W. N. Pugin or handicrafts were for William Morris. In some instances the movement was a way of mitigating (or even re-invigorating) certain features of bourgeois capitalism while keeping its structure firmly in place. If young men competed for survival ‘of the fittest’ on the football field-the popularity of intercollegiate athletics exploded in the later nineteenth century-at least those who participated could think of themselves as knights in a tournament whose victory ought to be won fairly.

Alan Lupack has shown how American authors of Arthurian literature tried to democratize knighthood and chivalry in their stories,[24] and Jeanne Fox-Friedman proposed that Arthurian children's clubs, illustrated books, and popular journals propagated a version of Arthur who was not a ‘romanticized or eroticized English hero,’ but a ‘steady champion and a moral instructor.’[25] This combination of virility and civility, of valor and courtesy, was to save America from the dangers of ‘over-civilization’-and ‘re-energize its quest for progress.’[26] Perhaps the most glaring use of medievalism along these lines came in 1913 with the Woolworth Building in New York, the so-called Cathedral of Commerce: Consciously designed as a Gothic church, yet the headquarters of a capitalist enterprise.

Such a dynamic of being both a reaction to and at the same time very much a part of the modern world was at work in Casque & Gauntlet. As mentioned, the original members held the Holy Grail, and not the punch bowl, as the focal point of their fraternal life; that is, they were reacting to student groups that were simply about having fun or cultivating business contacts. Others at Dartmouth, however, saw them differently. According to Gregory, the original members of the Class of 1887 were not understood, and many sought to misrepresent them. People said that they were ‘held together for selfish ends in class matters;’[27] indeed, ‘two full-fledged senior societies now faced each other, and when class elections came it required cool heads and wisdom.’[28]

Needless to say, the reminiscences of Casque & Gauntlet's early members only mention this criticism in order to dismiss it as baseless. One would like to hear more from these critics, if not about the class elections, then at least about Casque & Gauntlet's desire to monopolize quality underclassmen for itself. But whether the members were held together for idealistic or selfish motives is moot: Arthurian legend, like medievalism itself, justified both. That the knights of the Round Table were formally equal-even King Arthur, in much Arthurian myth, is only the first among equals-underlined the idealism of the group. Yet they were also collectively superior to outsiders, for though the Round Table places all members on an equal footing, it simultaneously turns their backs to the world at large. The Holy Grail, too, is similarly ambiguous: It could stand for lofty ideals and moral achievement, and it could stand for success in business and life in general. A College song of the period, written by a member of Casque & Gauntlet, expressed the sentiment thus:

We will make our lives successful, We will keep our hands from shame For the sake of dear old Dartmouth And the honor of her name.[29]

The original members of Casque & Gauntlet may not have been cynical, but their group, set up in opposition to others on campus, of necessity shared some of the same functions.

Casque & Gauntlet's Arthurian theme has shown a remarkable resilience, although not an untroubled one. The organization currently bills itself as a forum for student leaders, and so the aspect of Arthurianism that stresses moral leadership retains its resonance for the organization. Arthurian myth, however, has come under attack on two fronts within the society. The Christianity of the Holy Grail has become somewhat embarrassing at the now-secular College, and Casque & Gauntlet repeatedly emphasizes to new members that it is to be taken only as a metaphor for one's own highest goals, whatever those may be. Following Dartmouth's decision in 1971 to admit women, the society had to choose between being a forum for student leaders and an all-male social club-at one point the two could exist together, but not anymore. Fortunately it chose to remain a forum for leaders and admit women, but as far as the theme is concerned the women members themselves have had to choose between identity and equality. In this case they chose equality at the expense of identity: Female members take knights' names, the rationale being that there are not enough female figures in Arthurian legend to go around, and that they are either not active enough for late twentieth-century taste or are repulsively evil. Despite these issues, however, the society takes pride in its now quaint theme, and shows no signs of wanting to reconstitute itself with a different one.


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[1] See Arthur Preuss, A Dictionary of Secret and Other Societies (St. Louis and London: B. Herder Book Company, 1924), 42, 354, and 514-515, for the first two societies, and 216 and 232 for other examples. The Knights of King Arthur was founded in 1893 by William Byron Forbush of Springfield, Vermont, Dartmouth Class of 1888, and himself an early member of Casque & Gauntlet. By 1922 the group had established chapters all over the United States and had had 130,000 members. The Knights and another group called the Woodcraft Indians served as the inspiration for Robert Baden-Powell's scouting movement, which eventually eclipsed both in popularity. See 'William Byron Forbush,' The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography 23: 346-347; Casque & Gauntlet 1887-1987: One Hundred Years at the Corner, ed. Robert Faulkner (Hanover: Casque & Gauntlet, 1987), 3; Alan Lupack, ‘Visions of Courageous Achievement: Arthurian Youth Groups in America,’ Studies in Medievalism 6 (1994): 50-68; and Mark Girouard, The Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the English Gentleman (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), 254

[2] H.O. Cushman, ‘The Beginnings,’ 4; Albert E. Hadlock, 'We were serious,’ 5; Warren Fenno Gregory, ‘The Founding of Casque & Gauntlet,’ 6 ; and Fred Lewis Pattee, ‘1888-Fiftieth Year Report,' 7, all in Casque & Gauntlet.

[3] Cushman, ‘Beginnings,’ 4

[4] Gregory, ‘Founding,’ 6.

[5] Gregory, ‘Founding,’ 6.

[6] Cushman, ‘Beginnings,’ 4.

[7] Cushman, ‘Beginnings,’ 4.

[8] Gregory, ‘Founding,’ 6.

[9] Jere Daniell, ‘Casque & Gauntlet: A History,’ Casque & Gauntlet, 56.

[10] Oscar Handlin and Mary F. Handlin, The American College and American Culture: Socialization as a Function of Higher Education (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970), 43.

[11] Frederick Rudolph, The American College and University: A History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965), 287-306. Marilyn Tobias, Old Dartmouth on Trial: The Transformation of the Academic Community in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: New York University Press, 1982), provides and excellent case study of this shift.

[12] Henry D. Sheldon, Student Life and Customs (New York: Appleton, 1901), 177. See also Preuss, Dictionary, 161.

[13] Fraternalism extended far beyond college. The popular anti-freemasonry of the 1820s and 1830s was long past and, never more popular, the Masons themselves served as the inspiration for a host of imitative societies, such as the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, the Independent Order of Foresters, the Improved Order of Red Men, or the Knights of the Mystic Chain mentioned above. Most orders restricted their membership to men, but other criteria for membership could include race, religion, descent, or profession; and parallel organizations often existed for wives, daughters, and sons of the members. The fraternal lodge became a fixture in all but the smallest of towns (at one point there were 70,000 lodges across the country), and in 1896, out of a total adult male population of 19 million, 5.5 million were members of fraternal organizations. Arthur Schlesinger Sr., characterized the United States of the period as ‘a nation of joiners.’ See W. S. Harwood, ‘Secret Societies in America,' North American Review 164 (May 1897): 620-23; Arthur M. Schlesinger, ‘Biography of a Nation of Joiners,’ American Historical Review 50 (October 1944): 2; and Mark Carnes, Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 2.

[14] Daniell, ‘History,’ 56.

[15] Gregory, 'Founding,’ 6.

[16] Cushman, ‘Beginnings,’ 4.

[17] Cushman, ‘Beginnings,’ 4.

[18] Hadlock, 'We were serious,’ 5.

[19] Alice Chandler, A Dream of Order: The Medieval Ideal in Nineteenth-Century English Literature (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970), 1.

[20] Chandler, Dream, 1, 5.

[21] T. J. Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture 1880-1920 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1981), 142. Compare this with Alice P. Kenney, 'The Necessity of Invention: Medievalism in America,' The Literary Review 23 (1980): 574: 'To correct the inequities created by the Industrial Revolution, European critics depicted the Middle Ages as an ideal society where labor was respected, while American critics held up idealized medieval examples to inspire individual efforts to correct abuses.'

[22] See Beverly Taylor and Elisabeth Brewer, The Return of King Arthur: British and American Arthurian Literature since 1900 (Woodbridge, Suffolk: D. S. Brewer, and Totowa, N. J.: Barnes and Noble, 1981), 347-350, for a representative list of American Arthurian literary works. Despite the subtitle, the book deals extensively with Arthurian literature from the nineteenth century as well as the twentieth.

[23] Lears, No Place, 151-158, 179.

[24] Alan Lupack, 'American Arthurian Authors: A Declaration of Independence,' in The Arthurian Revival: Essays on Form, Tradition, and Transformation ed. Debra Mancoff (New York: Garland, 1992), 170. See also Lupack, 'Visions of Courageous Achievement,' 55, in which he proposed that Arthurian children's groups 'democratiz(ed) the Arthurian legends by making them accessible to anyone willing to live a morally noble life,' and Alan Lupack, 'The Figure of Arthur in America,' in King Arthur's Modern Return, ed. Debra Mancoff (New York and London: Garland, 1998), 121-136.

[25] Jeanne Fox-Friedman, 'The Chivalric Order for Children: Arthur's Return in Late-Nineteenth and Early Twentieth-century America,' in King Arthur's Return, 138. Fox-Friedman follows Lears in applying the 'genteel and robust' combination of American medievalism to Arthurian childrens' groups. See Lears, No Place, 149.

[26] Fox-Friedman, 'Chivalric Order,' 148.

[27] Gregory, 'Founding,' 6.

[28] Pattee, '1888,' 7.

[29] 'Dartmouth Twilight Song' (1897), words by Fred Pattee and music by Benjamin Gillette, both Dartmouth Class of 1888, in Dartmouth Songs: A New Collection of College Songs, comp. Edwin Osgood Grover, and musically ed. Addison Fletcher Andrews (Hanover: Grover and Graham, 1898), 34-35.