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Long Stewardship

Hilary of Serendip

©2004, Hilary Powers

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T.I. #81, Winter ’86


My cousins, this time I return to the thesis that the Society is no less courteous nor less true to its dreams than it ever was, despite all the essays you have read to the contrary. Yes, discourtesy exists. The authors who expound upon the point that people seem less attentive to each other’s needs than they did in the old days are observing some­thing real—but it’s not the phenomenon they think it is, and the action they take to correct it may well work against their true goals.
     Stripped to its essence, the argument runs something like this: “I remember a time when SCA people really did value each other. They used each other’s names and titles. They carried each others’ burdens. They went to court and they listened. Now there’s a lot of rudeness. People are sloppy and casual. They don’t even dress as well. If we don’t do something quickly to stop the trend, the SCA will be exactly like the mundane world before we know it.”
     The key phrase is “I remember a time....” For every­one who stays with the Society, there is a magic time to remember: the first year or so, when the contrast between the level of manners inside and outside the group is so great that everyone seems supremely courteous (if you expect rudeness to be the norm, as most of us do in the mundane world, occasional lapses from courtesy aren’t noticeable); when all the ceremony is beautiful and surprising and new (and if you’re in the front row at court, you’d never guess how many people aren’t there at all—you’re surrounded); and when everyone is authentically garbed (after all, it takes a while to learn that hot pink is out of period, and jeans’nT-shirts are invisible when there’s so much that’s novel and wonderful to look at).
     (Not everyone sees the magic side, of course. But the ones who get bitten by the Costume Squad for the zippers in their first gowns, the ones who get told it’s a private party, the ones who get barked out of the way of officious officers—they go away, unless they have some strong incentive to stay. If they stay, they probably forget the incident. And if they leave, they take all the work they might have done and all the joy they might have shared away with them....)
     After you’ve been in the Society a few years, you start to see problems. You can’t help it—your expectations are higher and your perceptions more clear than they were at the beginning. You may well conclude that the group has gone into a decline, and that you are among the last fortunate few to see the Current Middle Ages as they should have been. So you write an article warning people to stem the tide of decay before it’s too late. You’re sincere, you’re eloquent, you’re in excellent company—such articles have been written at a rate of several a year every year since AS III—and, all unwillingly, you may well be contributing to a reduction in the quality of behavior of those who read your message.
     Let’s look at the Good Old Days for a moment. All these incidents really happened, somewhere between five and twenty years ago, and they come from different parts of the Known World. Once upon a time:
     ◊ A new Baron lost his lands and title because he acted on the advice of certain great nobles, who assured him that the ladies of a neighboring area really liked nothing better than to be pinched in the behind, and he should ignore any protests as mere fashionable modesty.
     ◊ One of the senior Knights of his realm called the lady next to him in a Red Rover game a “careless bitch” when she allowed the line to break to spare her injured wrist. A few angry letters got written, but the Knight neither apologized nor suffered for his lapse.
     ◊ A Crown Princess published an impassioned letter rebuking various ladies who had criticized one of her dresses as out of period. (The dress in question seems to have been based on a sideless surcoat with no undertunic, so they had some provocation.)
     ◊ A King had so many different ladies beside him at various events that the Heralds found it difficult to determine who was the proper recipient of the Order of the Rose for the reign.
     ◊ A man falsely claiming to be a King visiting from another realm offered Knighthood to a couple of young fighters, who accepted the accolade from him.
     ◊ An Earl Marshal decked his kingdom’s Chatelaine with a blow to the jaw in the middle of the Lists field.
     And these are just a few of the mild ones, simple enough to reduce to a sentence or two and light enough to have most of the pain leached away by the passage of years. There have always been many lapses great and small, even though we’ve always had the same desire and intent to build a culture based on courtesy and honor. We come of the same flawed stock the founders did, and it is our nature to dream better than we achieve.
     The problem with the Lament for Vanishing Courtesy is that it breeds fatalism. If things are getting worse because the social tide is running out, no one can stop them. Our best efforts can not hope to restore the Golden Age—so why bother? Further and worse, if a reader thought things were really pretty good and the Lament persuades him we’re actually going to the dogs, the magic breaks for him before he would have grown out of it naturally, and he may well become more cynical and less careful of the needs of others than he might have been.
     Remember—every year is someone’s Golden Age. Find a newcomer and talk with him a while; you’ll see he’s as bemused and enthralled as you ever were. If you’ve reached the point where you can see the flaws in your environment, work to correct them. Take extra care with your own courtesy. Keep your own garb and encampment as authentic as you can manage. Speak quietly and helpfully with people you see going astray. With these steps, you’ll enhance the illusion of grace and wonder for those still wrapped in it and you’ll improve things for yourself. You can’t go back to your own magic time any more than you can make your next birthday as exciting as your ninth, but you can always make things better. There’s no weight of history dragging you down. The Society has always been a composite of good deeds and ill, and has always profited from the work of those willing to encourage the former and amend the latter.
     These are the Good Old Days. Help preserve them.

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