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Long Stewardship

Hilary of Serendip

©2004, Hilary Powers

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T.I. #101, Winter ’91


My cousins, one of the first of my predecessors in office proclaimed the principle Non Scriptum, Non Est (“If it isn’t in writing it doesn’t exist”) for Society administration, and it’s been an article of faith—or at least a common catch-phrase—ever since.
     It makes my skin crawl.
     Yes, it’s a useful message. Yes, it’s a good idea to get our history down in writing, and to write out agree­ments, disagreements and complaints so that all parties can be sure they’re talking about the same thing. It is perilously easy to go astray when people rely on their own separate memories of what was said and done at any given time.
     But whatever happened to honor? Whatever hap­pened to the assumption that a person of honor (such as all of us wish to be) will speak truly? Whatever happened to the idea of keeping your word?
     If you publish a rule that anything not written down doesn’t exist, you’re proclaiming that it’s all right to tell lies and swear falsely. After all, spoken statements are the same as no statements at all; they don’t exist. Now, I don’t think anybody in the Society would support that premise in those terms, but the message is there...and who can say it has no effect? I know of at least one case where someone based a formal defense on the grounds that the charges referred to things alleged to have been said and done—which obviously hadn’t happened, because they hadn’t been written down. A similar line of thought—perhaps subconscious—may well be pushing a lot of our bickering further and further from reality. When people fall into they-said-you-said-we-said-he-said, it’s hard enough to keep things straight even without a built-in excuse to forget what really happened!
     I believe the main purpose of the original “Non Scriptum, Non Est” dictum was to support long-distance control. The phrase was coined at a time when the people running the SCA, Inc. were desperately trying to ride the first great wave of growth and keep the organization on the course they’d set for it, and it’s surely true that if something isn’t in writing, you can’t do much about it from far away. Many of the works of that age of the Society have been swept away, and much of the tension we still feel between the kingdoms and the corporation stems from the residue of those old it’s either touching or heartbreaking (depending on your point of view) to see the battle-cry of central control enshrined in kingdom law and local charters across the Known World.
     Of course, it’s a clever phrase. Especially in Latin, it’s pithy and to-the-point and a useful mnemonic for some very useful administrative techniques. It’s a pity its implications are so wicked. But issues do exist, whether or not they’re written down. A blow or an insult or a kiss or a promise is real, hard though it may be afterwards to agree upon exactly what was meant, and it contradicts the basic principles of our Society to hold otherwise.

     We’d be far better off if we traded in “Non Scriptum, Non Est” on another phrase—“Get it in writing!” perhaps, or “If you weren’t there, don’t act on a complaint or an agreement unless it’s in writing and all sides have had a chance to read it and write their comments.” Lines like that aren’t as cute and clever as our old Latin epigram, but at least they remind us of the things we want to remember without denying our ability to live by the principles we admire....

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