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Colyne’s Deed of Arms on Monday was a tremendous success. There’s a lot of photos of it about, including a beautiful gallery on Kyle Andrews’ website — Kyle is a SCAdian and a professional photographer who’s set himself to recording a visual record of events and who maintains those photos online. (It’s an irreplaceably valuable resource for the Kingdom of Ealdormere.)

Discussing the finer points of dagger-work.
One of those photos, showing me in full kit

There was an enormous turnout, which necessitated a slight change in the planned format: rather than ten counted blows with each of three weapons forms with each combatant, he ramped it down to ten blows with an agreed-upon matched weapons form… and then again to five. Had there been two or three challengers, the original format of thirty total blows per opponent would have been difficult, but possible. Had there been half a dozen challengers, ten counted blows per challenger would have been pushing it, but likewise possible. The requirement was dropped to five counted blows when it became clear that The Honourable Lord Colyne would be facing twenty-four challengers.

Knowing that it might be beyond his endurance (full-bore 10/10ths armoured combat is a shattering physical effort and Colyne was doing this for his 40th birthday, after all) he asked me, as his sword-brother, to be prepared to take over so that his Deed could still be done. I was deeply touched and honoured at the request, in a way that is kind of difficult to explain from a 21st century perspective… and one which doesn’t need any explanation at all from a 14th century one.

Let me try and clarify it: My sword-brother had placed his honour and reputation on display for public scrutiny by doing this Deed, and if it turned out he was physically unable to fulfil his vow he judged that I could be trusted to safeguard his honour and see it through.

Which is one hell of a compliment.

But you know what was even better than being given such a complement? The fact that it proved unnecessary: Lord Colyne was able to see it through to the end himself. He fought every single challenge with honour; with courage in the face of what was for him an extreme physical test; and with dignity and grace throughout. In short, he showed himself as preu. I was very, very proud of him.

THL Colyne Stewart
THL Colyne Stewart at his Deed of Arms

Preu is a hard-to-translate Old French word which means “valiant” or “worthy,” specifically in a martial context. Our word “prowess” descends from it (also “proud” and “proof.”) It implies more than just skill at arms, though: in the context of Medieval combat any warrior can show prowess but to be preu implies a deeper, more chivalric, worth.

A lot of non-SCAdians aren’t going to get why being preu (and being seen to be preu) is so important. Hell, a lot of people in the SCA aren’t going to get why it’s so important. There’s plenty of fighters — and many of them are very good fighters — who just don’t get into the whole High Middle Ages mode of courtly chivalry. Some players want to treat SCA heavy fighting as nothing more than a sport, and I can understand that: as a purely athletic pursuit armoured medieval combat is fun and endlessly engaging. Some people are more interested in focussing on the Migration Period, or the Crusades, which are both far more rough-and-ready contexts where the romance and trappings of courtly chivalry are less pronounced. Other fighters are interested in non-European cultures which had their own codes of martial discipline, similar to (but often fascinatingly different from) European chivalry. Some fighters (like me) want to understand High Medieval chivalry, but are still developing the context which will allow them the full appreciation of it.

What we think of as “chivalry” in the modern age is different than what Medieval people would have understood. The modern concept of chivalry — and this includes the much of the SCA’s definition of chivalry — is coloured and warped and altered by centuries of cultural evolution and various filters of hindsight. Much of what we call “chivalry” today is merely courteous behaviour, well-intentioned at best and tinged with with sexism at worst. But there is a large and hard-to-define difference between courtesy and chivalry (although of course courtesy was intimately tied to chivalry during the High Middle Ages.)

The best clarification I’ve ever run across of the difference between courtesy and chivalry is in an SCA document called The Dialogue of Chivalry of Duke Finnvarr de Taahe, where Duke Gyrth of Oldcastle was quoted as saying “Chivalry differs from courtesy because chivalry involves killing people.” (Emphasis mine.) Simply put, chivalry is a framework which allows you to acknowledge the humanity of someone that you may have face in an intensely intimate form of mortal combat.

You can condemn violence and insist that a world without violence would be ideal and I won’t disagree with you… but that’s not the world we live in. Certainly if you’re a student of history, particularly European history, you cannot reckon without violence. I suspect that violent behaviour is a deeply ingrained part of the human condition, which is why it always fascinates me that humans have spent a large part of their history placing restrictions of one form or another on that behaviour. The problem facing any martial culture — and all human cultures are martial ones, to a greater or lesser extent — is how can people train to be killers (or even to emulate killers, as in the SCA) but continue to remain civilized human beings.

For me, the High Medieval response to that question is endlessly fascinating: Chivalry. My understanding of the realities of High Medieval chivalry is continually evolving, but I find that effort to be deeply rewarding, in ways that are very hard to explain to someone not engaged in similar pursuits.