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Long Stewardship

Hilary of Serendip

©2004, Hilary Powers

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T.I. #107, Summer ’93


My cousins, the recent Peerage Questionnaire addressed one aspect of the “fit” between the institution of the Peerage and the goals and structure of the Society, suggesting that combining the three branches into one might better serve our needs. As you’ve doubtless heard, no mandate for change emerged from the passionate response to that proposal, which you’ll find discussed elsewhere in these pages. My topic here is the other Peerage debate, which has been (with as much passion but less publicity) exploring the proposition that what the Society needs is not fewer but more orders. A while back, I received an enthusiastic letter from an archer who had heard the Board might create a Peerage order for his craft. My reply seems to me to touch on issues of general interest, so here it is, in somewhat edited form:

Gentle lord, I fear the grapevine has outrun reality in the matter of re-arranging the Peerage of the Society. I will forward a copy of your letter to the Board with this reply, but must advise that the Board is not currently considering a Peerage order for archers, and I believe it is unlikely that they would agree to do so.
     Peerage as it is presently defined is available to archers in the same fashion that it is available to autocrats and calligraphers and exemplars of all the crafts and skills and graces admired in the Society. Armored combat is unique in having a separate avenue to Peerage, and while that may not seem “fair” in modern terms, it is rooted in the archetypes of history and in the history of the Society. I do not believe it can or should be changed. Everything else we do can be viewed either as service to the Society or as artistic excellence. An archer, for example, approaches the Order of the Pelican when his work on behalf of the sport draws others to participate and enriches the life of the Society for them, and therefore expands and strengthens the Society itself. He ap­proaches the Order of the Laurel when his bowman­ship reaches the perfect heights of the craft, or when his skill as artist and artisan raises his equipment to the status of masterwork.
     The simplicity and unifying force of this concept is very valuable, and in my opinion we would lose far more than we gained by splintering the Peerage into a multitude of specialties. And that is the issue. Although you are addressing only one field of interest, the moment the Society opened a separate road to the Peerage for any single field, similar arguments would be advanced for many others...and those arguments would then be unanswerable. If archers, why not brewers, calligraphers, dancers, engineers....
     At the moment, some skills are more widely understood as fitting into our Peerage orders than others, and it would be a great benefit to promote the idea that every worthwhile skill and activity of the Society has a place in the Peerage. The established Peerages do sometimes seem to be slow to “open their arms” to new skills—but I believe the efforts of con­cerned members should be devoted to helping them widen their reach, rather than to urging the Board to set up new orders. An improved general understand­ing of the true scope of the Peerages would achieve your goal of giving each member an avenue to Peer­age through his own fields of interest, without subdi­viding and lessening the institution of Peerage itself. The more “Peerage-level” awards there were, the less recognition each of them would receive—and that would undercut the structural value of Peerage in the Society.
     As an institution, Peerage does far more for the Society than recognize personal achievement. The reward aspect is real, of course, and is the easiest to see because it echoes similar reward systems in other groups we’re all familiar with, from the scouts to the military. However, our experiment with historical social structures requires some mysterious and arbi­trary elements in order to function. There is a level at which it is impossible to be both “period” and “fair,” because we’re playing with one of the most unfair periods of history. It is our task to find a path that retains the flavor of the time we study in a fashion acceptable to modern sensibilities....

     Here I closed the letter, referring the writer to copies of my columns from T.I. #82 and #90 that were included with it. However, I’d like to take a few more paragraphs to address my concept of the “society” of the Society again in these pages.
     The qualities we in the Society admire most in the Middle Ages and Renaissance spring from the darker side of the culture. The beauty and pageantry had an iron core. The graceful gestures of deference and indulgence that marked relationships among persons of varying ranks were not empty formalities, they were the polish and lubricant that kept the system working smoothly—b­ut it was not a “nice” system. It was often brutal, and always mysterious and arbitrary in its control over the people caught in it.
     The Society has adopted a system of royalty and rank based on forms developed in our era, but we’re all children of an egalitarian age. We will not tolerate the constant threat to our lives and livelihood that was implicit in the original. As a result, our system hovers always on the edge of pointless play-acting. For our experiment with historical forms to have any real educational value, we must allow it some elements that are mysterious and arbitrary and important to us.
     The Peerage of the Society is one of the greatest of those elements. It creates the social differences we need in order to explore the reality of the past, and it provides something mysterious and important for the highest levels of our structure to control. Yes, we care about how it works, and we should care. To the extent that we can make it work well without making it either less mysterious or less important, we should of course do so. Everyone should share in the effort of identifying worthy individuals and pointing them out to royalty and the Peerage orders, and royalty and the Peerage orders should be prepared to recognize worth where they find it. However, we need to be very cautious indeed about tinkering with the sys­tem—as opposed to individual behavior within it—as those measures that would compel it to be fair and accessible all threaten to make it mechanical and trivial as well.
     We can and should be pleased when our Peerage system works well and angry when it works badly. But both the pleasure and the anger add to the richness of the experience of life in the Society. Unlike the first Middle Ages, our goods and our bodies and our families are all safe from the vagaries of the system; we can afford to leave a fragment of our emotional lives in its grasp. Refuse it that, and we’re back in the grey modern world to stay....

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