So something rather special happened to me this weekend: I got an incredibly powerful compliment from a fellow SCAdian whom I happen to regard pretty highly. Long story short, a friend of mine expressed his admiration for my contributions and asked me to stand as his sword-brother.
If you’re not in the SCA that might not mean very much to you but knowing this gentleman — and knowing how seriously he takes this game — I understood instantly that I was being paid a very high honour indeed. I was deeply touched, and tried to respond with the kind of dignity and gratitude that the request deserved, although I suspect surprise may have garbled my response somewhat. But it was a hell of a thing, and I’m quite moved by it. (I wasn’t sure how private the request was, but then he mentioned it in his blog, so I figured I was OK to write about it.)
This sort of thing is what makes the SCA so fascinating to me. There are very few formal interpersonal relationships that have actually been codified by the rules of the Society, and whose that have been tend revolve around the Throne and the formal duties of Peers, landed nobility and the Great Officers… but the game is replete with relationships that aren’t backed by the rules, and yet are an essential part of what we do. The Knight/Squire relationship, for example, appears nowhere in the rules, and yet is a universally-recognized and acknowledged part of the Society (likewise the Laurel/Apprentice & Pelican/Protégé relationships.) Households are not “official” in any way, shape or form, and yet are traditionally quite important. Those squired to the same Knight refer to themselves as “squire-brothers”, those apprenticed to the same Laurel are “apprentice-sisters” and so on. The rules don’t prohibit these relationships, of course, and therefore as the Society’s developed over nearly half-a-century custom and usage have given these traditions a weight of their own.
There are other informal roles that exist (student, man-at-arms, etc.) and I find it fascinating that most of those roles fit more-or-less into the pseudo-Feudal structure that the SCA has developed, being relationships between of suzerain and vassal. (Bear in mind, of course, that my experience of the SCA is largely centred on the Kingdom of Ealdormere, with some knowledge of the culture of the Midrealm and the Kingdoms deriving from it; Inter-Kingdom Anthropology might yield examples of different relationship-frameworks in other Kingdoms.)
Sword-brotherhood is actually a relationship that owes more to 21st-century fantasy novels than to high medieval realities, but its nonetheless an important one in the SCA. It also recalls the Norse proverb “bare is back without brother behind it” which in turn ties in rather neatly with the Saxon/Norse inspired culture of the Kingdom of Ealdormere.
(As a quick aside: Partly in response to the problems surrounding gaining Kingdom status Ealdormere’s founders established a culture emphasizing individuality rather than conformity and deliberately demystified the Throne: sure we have a King & Queen, but Ealdormere is so small that it’s very hard to put them on some distant pedestal… both literally and figuratively.)
The closest relationship I can compare sword-brotherhood to within the Society is that of squire-brothers, although without a Knight being involved. The gentleman in question is a squire, and of course I am not, but I understand that he owes leal service to his overlord whereas I am somewhat more footloose and fancy-free (given the number of jobs on my plate at the moment I have a rather nonstandard definition of “footloose and fancy-free”.) But even in the absence of shared obligations of feudal service (or perhaps because of that absence) being asked to be someone’s sword-brother means a lot of things in that not-formally-defined sort of way that seems to happen a lot in the SCA.
There’s no checklist involved: the meaning of the relationship depends on the people in it. For my part — and I suspect from his — I understand that being a sword-brother means standing together on the field; supporting each other both in and outside of the Society; and making a pledge of loyalty and solidarity. Rather than the feudal relationship of lord and vassal it is a bond between equals, no mere alliance of political convenience but a sincere pledge of friendship… and one which I’m proud to make, considering the person who asked me to make it.