I got up this morning, went out to the backyard, and did my usual routine of pell-work. Then I came in, toweled off the worst of the sweat, and had my coffee while reading the news; I typically shower after I’ve cooled off and caffeinated a bit. One of the articles that came across my newsfeed was a Washington Post article about the whole Trump/Cohen feud, titled “‘I’m not going to be a punching bag anymore’: Inside Michael Cohen’s break with Trump”. I haven’t touched on Donald Trump very much on this blog, partly because I haven’t been writing much in the past couple of years and partly because, like everyone else, I’ve been overwhelmed by the constant flood of strident chaos from this administration. (Surprising nobody, however, let me state my definitive opinion on Trump: I despise him. That’s the short form. The long form is a whole blog post of itself and I’m not writing it today.)
However, I’ve also been reading a lot of stuff on medieval chivalry recently: de Charny, Froissart and Christine de Pisan as primary sources, for example. As secondary sources I’m re-reading one my favourite book series: Christian G. Cameron’s Chivalry novels; starting with The Ill-Made Knight, a series of books set during the 14th century and concerned primarily with – as should be obvious from the title – chivalry and knighthood. (If you’re interested in that subject, especially as a medieval re-enactor, then I can’t recommend Cameron’s work highly enough, and frankly it’s a much easier read than some of the primary stuff.)
The point that I’m working my way around to is that I’ve been reading a lot about loyalty and feudalism and service lately. And the contrast between the constant social-media deluge of 21st century craziness versus the ideals of 14th century chivalry is… well, it’s damned near schizophrenic. And reading this morning’s Washington Post article I had a fugue-moment of 14th century feudalistic realization: Trump is a bad master and you should not serve him. He simply doesn’t understand loyalty. He demands it for himself, infamously, but only a fool would expect to receive it back from him.
That’s not to say that 14th century European nobility were perfect — or even nice — by our standards or theirs; a quick reading of the life of Charles II of Navarre (known to history as “Charles the Bad” in an epic understatement) shows that treachery, caprice and callous self-interest are hardly modern inventions.
But loyalty, feudal loyalty, flows both ways.
One of the things we do rather erratically in the Society for Creative Anachronism is feudalism. Loyalty we do, don’t get me wrong: SCAdians are loyal to our friends, our community and our make-believe kingdoms, often to a fault. But the medieval structure of feudalism is somewhat lacking, at least here in Ealdormere. Part of that is the way our kingdom is structured; we’re not very large and familiarity breeds a certain friendly contempt. Part of that is that the SCA’s emphasis is not on strict historical representation. Part of it is the deliberately temporary nature of our royalty and sitting nobility. Part of it is that we’re simply not medieval people and our understanding of feudal loyalty is filtered through our modern liberal notions of equality, egalitarianism and social mobility.
Because of that the SCA tends to be very household-oriented, particularly in Ealdormere. In the absence of a territorial feudal state, SCAdians tend to glom onto Knights and Laurels and Pelicans as their dependents for long-term loyalty and stability.
And I’m not criticizing that. I think it’s a good thing, despite the occasional tendency to high-school cliquishness. If you’re interested in fighting, you learn from a local fighter, especially a Knight. If you’re interested in arts and sciences, you work with a Laurel. If you’re interested in being a martyr, you find a Pelican (*rimshot*). And after you work with them a while and you’re compatible and you’re both willing, you might take the plunge and swear fealty to them as a squire, or an apprentice or a protégé. And in the fullness of time, with a lot of work and some patronage, you may yourself become a peer of the realm and take your own dependents, and so on.
A lot of writing has been done on the form of SCA feudalism and loyalty (including two of my favorites, Master Hector’s essay Are Waffles Period?, and Sir Vitus’ The Anvil of Virtue) so I’m not going to re-hash a general overview of SCA culture and feudalism.
Instead I’m going to weigh in on a question that was asked of me a couple of weeks ago… “Why aren’t you a squire yet?”
That’s a complicated question. And frankly, it’s a question that I answered on this blog five years ago. But the TL;DR version is that “Squire” is not a rank in the SCA. It’s a relationship with another person. And because it’s a relationship, I’m very, very careful about getting into one. I’ve spent a lot of my adult life being loyal to things and causes and people who proved, in the end, not to be worthy of my loyalty whether through ignorance, indifference, or outright malice. And in response to that most annoying of job interview questions “What is your greatest flaw?” I would have to say it’s that I often give my loyalty too completely to people who might not understand how much I’m putting into it. Which is why losing my job doesn’t just suck, it hurts.
In fact, the main reason I’m not a squire yet is loyalty. I haven’t found a peer to whom I would wish share that loyalty relationship and one who would wish me to do so, too. I do, for the record, have a very short list of Knights that I would consider squiring to and a somewhat longer list of people whom I’d be willing to squire if and when they are Knighted, but reasons of geography, personal relationships and differences of modern-day opinion have kept me from forging any such relationship with a Knight. (And so, frankly, has the fact that I’ve recently taken a couple-three years off from the Society.) I’ve seen what happens when a Peer and their dependent aren’t on the same page when they start that relationship, or when that relationship changes, or when that relationship goes sour.
As I wrote five years ago (almost to the week), getting the right “fit” with a Knight who’d potentially consider me as a squire is not going to be simple. It’d be time-consuming, very personal, and not at all casual. You can’t force that kind of relationship. Frankly, it’d have to be someone who understands loyalty, and feudalism, and the fact that you have to give back to the person who’s giving to you. Not just in a business-transaction way: “clean my armour and I’ll teach you how to fight; help me in tournaments and I’ll sponsor you with the Chiv.” This isn’t – emphatically isn’t — a service-for-reward gig like a job, and as I said I usually end up putting too much emotional commitment into my job, so I really don’t want to embrace a one-sided Peer/dependent relationship.
It’s because I take the fealty relationship so seriously that I’m not a squire yet. I see other fighters being squired to Knights, and that’s fine, so long as it means something more than “here’s a fancy red belt to show off, bro.” If all you want from your Knight is a red belt, and all they want is to give you one, great; but that’s not all I want. And those few Knights I’ve met who understand this, frankly, have their dance cards not only full but over-full of squires and potential squires.
Maybe I’m looking for something that I’m not going to be able to find. But there it is.