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Long Stewardship

Hilary of Serendip

©2004, Hilary Powers

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T.I. #82, Spring ’87. The multiplication of rules is still a temptation and a risk, at every level of the Society. We do need to put more specifics in writing to maintain our identity as we grow...but the rule-making process itself can threaten our identity....


My cousins, the modern democracies—whose children we all are—pride themselves upon being governments of laws and not of men. They teach us to expect laws to guide and protect us at every turn. So when we meet injury or injustice in the Current Middle Ages, our first thought is usually to devise a law against the offending acts. The problem is that yielding to this impulse may well damage the fabric of our Society.
     Now, the emphasis upon law and safety and mutual regard among strangers has enabled the modern democra­cies to offer a life of dignity to a far larger proportion of their people than has ever been achieved before. I have no desire to give that up. However, if you bear with me, I think I can establish that the approach used in the democracies is neither necessary nor desirable for the SCA.
     The SCA is more than a research and debating society, more than a calligraphy club, more than a stick-fighting league. The SCA attempts to explore the techno­logical and cultural reality of the past, to try out things and ideas in the hope they may show us what life was like when they were new, and give us new insights into our lives today. It’s this complex of the physical and meta­physical that gives the SCA its identity.
     The activities the SCA sponsors are rewarding in themselves, but they’re all available elsewhere, or things much like them. When people talk about what holds them in the group, they tend to recall the “magic moments” when setting and mood blend together into a breath-catching sense of history come to life, and the way they feel part of an extended family, sharing a way of life with friends they haven’t met yet. I believe that both these experiences depend at least in part upon suspending modern reflexes and adopting an older way of looking at the world.
     The aspect of the Middle Ages I find most appealing is its personal quality. Social bonds and obligations ran between individuals. When John Farmer left his strip-fields to go to war, he went because his family owed a certain amount of military service to the lord of their manor, and the lord owed service plus retainers to the lord above him, and so on up the line. Duties and honors passed literally from hand to hand. The class structure did grow more rigid with the years, preventing certain people from entering into certain kinds of obligations, but the basis of society through most of our period was a web of individual promises of service, protection, and reward.
     In the SCA, we bypass the invidious aspects of the class structure by declaring everyone a natural member of the highest class. Then we turn around and build a class structure of our own, based on the ranks and awards we have created, because we need a living hierarchy if we are to begin to appreciate the reality of the Middle Ages. The medieval hierarchy mattered to the people in it; it was a pecking order for birds with steel beaks, backed by sanctions against fortune, body or life itself. The whole magnificent panoply of feudal society, the gracious defer­ence of speech, the rules of noblesse oblige, the etiquette of honor—they’re all based on the grim reality that a misjudged word could get you killed dead, and everyone you loved with you. For us, hierarchy is a game. We’ve exchanged the low, middle and high justice for a set of emotional sanctions and rewards which have meaning only because we choose to care about them, but we do need to care about them, and we need them to be somewhat arbitrary and perilous, or the game simply won’t work.
     The linchpin of the Society worldview is the hierarchi­cal structure based on the Crown as the font of law and power. We know it’s a game. We know the King pays traffic tickets like anyone else. We deliberately grant the Crown the power to mess with our emotional lives, and then close our eyes and pretend the power is real, because we need an element of danger to separate our pageantry from playacting. If we are to respect our rulers, we must give them enough leeway to rule badly—without that, they cannot rule at all. If there’s no room for choice, there’s no virtue in virtue.
     However, we are and remain citizens of the modern democracies to the core. We call the royal power abso­lute, but we build strong and subtle curbs upon it. The reigns are short and the sanctions available to the Crown are severely limited, and royal decrees tend to disappear with mysterious but utter finality unless the populace is predisposed to obey them.
     A wise royal couple does very little to the law they inherit, clarifying or eliminating points they find seriously out of tune with the needs of their realm, and introducing things which already exist in the belief system of the group. They’re not required to treat the law as a form of codified custom—but they face the near-certainty that their successors will reverse any radical and unwelcome changes as a matter of public hygiene, and that their own reputa­tions will suffer as a result.
     It’s awkward to combine law reflecting the broad principles of popular consensus with the sort of regulations our mundane legislatures devise to address specific problems. If a situation comes up so rarely that people will forget how to handle it, some detailed procedures are useful, but consensus law should stick to generalities most of the time. For example, our medieval activities work best in places that include few forcible remind­ers of the mundane world, and a law mandating a period appearance in such areas can help to remind everyone of what they really want. But that’s enough—if the Crown goes on to outlaw Coleman lanterns, soda cans, and running shoes, it’s an invitation to assume that fluorescent lamps, paper milk cartons, and plastic thongs are all right, because if they weren’t, the sort of modern law that tries to cover every detail would have listed them too.
     Consensus law does operate unevenly, depending on the wisdom of the people in charge at the moment—but that’s part of the variety and interest of life in the Current Middle Ages. Real-world laws protect our lives and property; Society laws only promote the medieval illusion and help us work together. We don’t need absolute pre-dictability for that...and we can’t get absolute predict­ability without abandoning the cultural side of our medi­eval reconstruction.

     Personally, I would rather put up with an occasional royal jackass than have to watch an endless succession of wind-up toys on the throne. The principle of government of laws and not of men is vital in the mundane world, because mundane society is so huge and diverse. Our little Society, by contrast, offers a strong consensus and a great deal of face-to-face interaction with our rulers. We can afford to choose drama and danger rather than security. We don’t need a law for every problem that crops up; we can simply demand solutions from our leaders—and judge their leadership by their success. Unlike the mundane world, we can leave much of our government in human hands, and still prosper and rejoice.

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The West Kingdom History Website was created by and is maintained by Hirsch von Henford (mka Ken Mayer).