On Furniture

by Hector of the Black Height

While I'm ruminating on philosophical issues surrounding ceremony and its part in our living culture, there's another issue I think we need to consider. This issue is very fundamental to how we play the great game, perhaps even more so than how we carry steel. I am referring to whether or not we will bow to the thrones of our Kingdom when those thrones are vacant. Reverence for the empty thrones is an important piece of our "local" identity as subjects of the Middle Kingdom; in some Kingdoms, Midrealmers are known as "the people who bow to furniture". We are Midrealmers now; we will always reflect some of our Midrealm origins. Is this one of the Midrealm customs and traditions we wish to perpetuate?

As I understand it King Thaid -- now known as Duke Tadashi -- set in place the policy of paying compliments to the vacant thrones over twenty years ago. That this custom has survived in the Middle is probably, in part, a response to the great trauma the Middle Kingdom endured during the disastrous reign and subsequent abdication of Thaid's successor, Michael of Boarshaven. I will not go into too many details of Boarshaven's reign over the Middle; if you are interested, complete details can be found in Duke Finnvarr's excellent Lives of the Midrealm Kings, available from Folump Press. For those with no background knowledge at all, Michael of Boarshaven's reign was singularly unsuccessful. His Queen, Zarina, abdicated in frustration halfway through the reign. The King abdicated (sort of), came back for a while and abdicated again, the second time for good. I am told the Kingdom ended up taking the King to small-claims court to retrieve the royal regalia. His courts were a mess; it's said Boarshaven sat the throne reading the Sunday funnies while business went on around him. The reign was, in short, a disaster. Boarshaven came to hate the Society and, by the end of his reign, it appears he did his best to injure it. That the Kingdom survived is a tribute to both the people who put up with Boarshaven's excesses and repaired his damage afterwards, and to the merits of the great game itself.

The strengths of the game and the good within it, I believe, are what inspired Thaid to act as he did before Boarshaven's reign and what led Albert the Good and later Midrealm Kings to perpetuate Thaid's custom. In the early days of the Midrealm, Thaid decided that the Crown and the Kingdom would be strengthened by emphasising the institution of the Monarchy instead of the individuals currently occupying the positions of authority. Accordingly, he declared that the Middle Kingdom's thrones themselves were to be shown respect, even if the King and Queen were not occupying them at the time.

When we look back at various stressful SCAdian situations we've lived through, the occasional reverence towards the thrones may seem like a minor concern. However, those bent knees and dipped heads reflect in a very basic, obvious manner our approach to the Monarchy and the Kingdom itself. Which is more important to us in terms of day-to-day game play, the institution of monarchy or the individual monarchs?

I often have complained that Midrealm fealty is a faceless, weak institution because of its ritualistic, one-way approach. The vassals offer unconditional service; the Crown accepts that service and gives nothing back to the oath-bound individuals. I am NOT saying the Crown does no work; that would be a blatant falsehood. What I'm saying is that there is no personal nature to the bond between the Crown and the people as vassals. In period, fealty was a dynamic contract between vassal and overlord as individuals. Both parties promised service and expected service from their contractual partner in return. In the Midrealm that two-way relationship doesn't exist, but how can there be a dynamic and demanding relationship between vassal and overlord when the culture emphasises the position the overlord occupies and not the overlord's individuality? How can you establish a personal contract with an institution? How do you ask an institution to do something, as opposed to asking the temporary incumbents? When a hundred people -- out of three hundred in the hall -- come up to swear fealty, how can the King and Queen keep track of who's said what?

My remarks reflect my long-standing personal reservations about Midrealm fealty. They also cut to the heart of this matter of bowing to furniture. If we in Ealdormere have personal relationships with our Kings and Queens, if we know them and are known to them, if we offer them service and they accept it in a spirit of contractual agreement, do we need to bow to furniture as well? Do we want to?

Let's flip the equation over. If we do want to bow to furniture and place the institution of the Crown above the temporary occupants of the office of King and Queen, should the temporary occupants of the thrones offer some form of compliment, however subtle, to their chairs before sitting in them? Should they offer some salute to their crowns before putting them on? If the King is the highest power in the land (within the realm of game-play, consistent with Corpora and law, always subject to the ultimate sanction of the withdrawal of service by the governed, a.k.a. by our voting with our feet) whom or what can be more respected than he? Is the King's throne an extension of the royal presence? Is the throne something less than the monarch, but something still important enough to bow to? If this is the case, what's not quite royal and what isn't? Within our great game can you, I or some object be sort of royal, or is that like being a little bit dead or kind of pregnant?

Michael of Boarshaven has been enshrouded by the mists of time; he's now a deep, dark trivia question, and we're better for that. We have been very fortunate; I believe we have been ruled wisely and well for many years. Even when we've had severe disagreements with our royalty, few if any of us have accused them of malfeasance (and I don't think such charges ever stuck). Only the most Jurassic among us can remember when the Middle Kingdom had to have the Ancient and Honourable Crowns repaired because the former King pried out the jewels to pawn them. In an atmosphere where I believe the vast majority of us trust, respect and work with our royalty, do the people of Ealdormere really need to bow to furniture? Do we want to?

Copyright 1996, 1998 Arthur McLean. All rights reserved.