Peerage, Then and Now

Written for The Clarion, Chronicle of the Barony of Ben Dunfirth by Hector of the Black Height

I have been asked by the Chronicler of Ben Dunfirth to look at the differences and similarities between Peerage in the medieval period and Peerage as found within the Society. My first reaction was to write a three-paragraph article on a pretty cut-and-dried difference (heredity) and then to press on with life. Then I thought a little more about the question, and it really started to intrigue me.

Let's look briefly at the period model. Peerage (as we'd call it) became an upper level of an hierarchical society, rooted deeply in the mechanisms of feudalism. The overlord was owed tax or tribute, and had a guarantee of service if the vassal was called upon to serve; in return the vassal received a living and status. Peers were important; they were the upper nobility and the upper levels of the governing party or faction in a particular country (or Duchy or County).

Peerage really wasn't a special status until an assembly of peers became useful. To quote Mistress Nicolaa de Bracton, in a response to a first draft of this essay:

" wasn't until the second half of our period where one even begins to think about "peers." One was an Earl or a Count, or one held a knight's fee, but as for "peers"--in a way, it became a way of saying "OK, you're important enough now to sit in the Lords at Parliament" or that kind of thing. In the early Middle Ages, sometimes land came directly from the king, sometimes the king just wanted to act like it did. It took a long time for France to convince its nobles that they held their land from the King; they weren't buying it.

"In England in the 13th century, one hears about "Barons". These "Barons" (none of them actually had that title) were a collection of earls (mostly), bishops, and one or two of the greater knights. These were the folks who vigorously defended their rights to be the natural counsellors of the king and who coined the phrase "To Runnymede!" When Simon de Montfort wanted to summon the simple shire knights to what would eventually be called Parliament, it was considered revolutionary--but in those two groups, you had the kernels of the two houses of Parliament--Lords and Commons (the knights being the latter.)"

As Mistress Nicolaa describes above, Peerage eventually became was a gift of the Crown (the same way that it is within the Society). The creation of Peers (more properly "nobility" in period) was a political function. Promotion within the Nobility placed more power in the hands of persons loyal to the Crown (or so the Crown hoped, but that's another essay or two!). In the event of rebellion or civil war, the rolls of what we'd call the Peerage or Royal Peerage would change as those who strove and failed were replaced by those who had proven loyal to the winning side. Peerage was a very practical institution.

Peerage in period was linked inexorably to land. Land was the source of one's power. Land provided food and raw materials, tax bases and tenants, knights and men-at-arms. Land was the source of income. As an example, the current Prince of Wales receives a small allowance from his mother's annual income, the Privy Purse. He receives far more in rent from the properties he holds as the Duke of Cornwall. With that Ducal Coronet come the Duchy itself, the land and the income accruing from it. That system, that flow of wealth, hasn't changed in over a thousand years.

With the privilege of land came the responsibility for that land and its occupants; way back when, the feudal contract ran both ways (unlike in the Middle Kingdom, as I have stated in several fora over the past few years). As an overlord (whether a Duke holding thousands of acres or a local Knight holding a few farms) one's vassals or tenants could and did look to you for help and leadership. During famine you would be expected to use some of your wealth to subsidize the unfortunate. During strife you would be expected to defend your lands, occupied by tenants. This was no doubt in your best interests (your work force was an investment, as was your land) but it also served the interests of your vassals.

Peerage, in period, carried many prerequisites, and these were guarded jealously through such institutions as sumptuary laws and the mechanisms of the feudal system itself. Peerage also was a job. You took care of your tenants, fulfilled your obligations to your vassals and upheld your overlord. If you failed to do your duty to your feudal partners, you would lose the support of those above you and below you. Your wealth and influence would dwindle and eventually you might just find yourself out of favour and out of the Noble power structure.

So what has this to do with the Peerage within the SCA?

Let's see. There are glaring differences between the SCA's institutions and feudal peerage. I am a Peer of the Realm within our Society. As a Master of the Laurel a medieval Noble would recognize me as an uppity guild-master. As a Master of the Pelican a medieval Noble might recognize me as an uppity cleric (civil servants were all clerics during much of the period we're interested in). I think a medieval Noble would recognize a Knight to be a Knight, but would wonder how big the Knight's estates were. It was land that provided one's riches.

Corpora requires that an SCA Peer uphold the Crown. You may not like the persons on the thrones, you may think their decisions are terrible, but as a Peer I and all the other Laurels and Pelicans are expected to not undermine the fabric of our culture; it is the same for the Chivalry, both Knights and Masters. Peers also are expected to have the authority within our culture to give wise counsel to the Crown. While the Crown can -- and must -- be able to refuse advice and maintain its own prerogatives, a Peer within our Society should be able to expect that the Crown will at least listen to the advice offered.

A medieval Peer would be most perplexed by our Royal Peerage. After all, Dukes, Counts and Viscounts hold no extraordinary prerogatives. They hold no lands. They have no vassals. The only "peers" (through in terms of the Society's Corpora they are not considered Peers as they do not receive their titles by Letters Patent, and don't get me started on THAT silliness) that we would have in medieval eyes would be the landed Barony. They hold "land" (or as close as we can get without upsetting the civil authorities). They have vassals in one form or another (fealty being a very flexible institution within the Society). They uphold the Crown. They have the power to reward the deserving, with Baronial awards. They have as close to "real" power as any titled person within the great game. In my estimation, they are the most powerful people in the Kingdom after the Royal Family itself. Corpora and Orders of precedence will tell you otherwise; this is only my opinion and does not represent the official opinion of the SCA Incorporated or the Kingdom of our allegiance. I merely know that when I meet my local Baroness and we greet each other, I know who is bowing to whom.

Having said all that, Peerage in the Society is similar to Peerage in period; both are jobs. Peers (Knights, Laurels and Pelicans) are expected to take dependants and teach them. In period, that's sort of like keeping tenants and taking an active interest in their well-being and progress. Most -- if not all -- of our Royal Peers have the experience, seniority and standing within our culture to assemble personal households and develop ties with junior people within the group, to teach them and show them things and introduce them to people. Our people, not our lands, are our riches.

Finally, are we all not noble (until we prove ourselves otherwise)? Are we not all lords and ladies, the junior Peers in the later feudal pyramid? In the Barony of Septentria, we have developed the practice of individuals within the group, regardless of formal status, giving rings as a sign of approval and a token of thanks. Bestowing riches is a prerogative of the wealthy, and the wealthy were powerful. Generosity, as typified by hospitality and by the sharing of knowledge, is one of the requirements for a Peer of the Society as set forth in Corpora. In many respects our Peers are first among equals, standing before the Crown as both leaders and followers. All may prove themselves noble by word and deed, and doesn't the Crown say that it doesn't "make" a Peer, it recognizes a Peer already among us?

So, if our Peers were transported back in time a thousand years, they soon would discover that without land as a base for wealth, nobody really cares what hat you wear. If medieval Peers joined us at an event, they would see people in hats behaving in ways they wouldn't understand, and they would see people without hats acting nobly, gracefully and generously. In both ages Peerage is a job. However, to really perpetuate the magnificent institution that survived a thousand years of upheaval and evolution, the individual has to bring something more to the job than just occupying a chair or wearing a tiara. That was true then; I think it's a safe statement today.

Think about Peerage, the job and the prerogatives. Think about the great Nobles -- the great Peers -- of history whose legends intrigue you. Think of the Peers and Barons of the Society whose deeds inspire you. As you emulate one set of Peers to enrich the great game we share, don't forget the other. Both sets may offer you more than you'd think at first glance.

Copyright 1998 Arthur McLean. All rights reserved.