Who Oils the Peerage Machine?

Essay 2 in a Series by Hector of the Black Height

In my previous essay I stated "as the Peerage seems to work right now, why fix what isn't broken?" So just what is it about the Peerage that I think works?

First, within the Society the Peerage is a goal to aspire to and a target to shoot for. For many people, that's necessary to bring the best out of them. Human nature dictates that someone will shoot for any target someone else sets up. So the Peerage is a target. Whoopee. What else works about the Peerage?

The Peerage is a college of expertise, an institutionalized collection point for the "race memory" of the group. People within the Peerage and without can look to the Peerage for answers. The Peerage is a means of avoiding the re-invention of the wheel and in a diverse, geographically dispersed group, any institution that can lessen repetition in research and development is a good thing.

Further to the idea of institutionalized collection of knowledge and skill, there's an implicit standard (of excellence, one hopes) associated with the Peerage. If a Peer tells you something, you can assume it's got some basis in fact and has some value. I assume a Knight can throw a blow effectively, that a Laurel in calligraphy can write in a particular script, that a Pelican can organize an activity efficiently. If you're good enough to be a Peer, if you've been recognized by a Peerage as having mastered your field, others can go to you as a safe and reliable source of information in that field. What's more important, as a Peer it's assumed that if someone comes to me and asks me a question, I'll answer the question accurately, truthfully, and for free.

Think about that for a second. A local Knight will teach you how to fight and not charge you a cash fee for that service. He or she may ask you for a contribution to pay for the practice hall, from time to time you may be offered the opportunity to buy pieces of armour that he or she has made, but that Knight won't charge you for the information that will allow you to practice your martial art. That is a profound gift in a world of karate-class subscriptions and publisher's mark-ups on do-it-yourself books. The same goes for Laurels and Pelicans.

I do not say that only Peers can teach: that would be blatantly untrue. Anyone within the Society can teach who has both knowledge to impart and an interested student to be taught. There are many, many wonderful teachers who are not recognized as Peers. The difference between them and the Peerage is that a Peer, in agreeing to accept a Peerage, promises to teach. Others don't have to teach; Peers publicly have said that they will teach. Implicit in that commitment is a pledge of intellectual honesty. Peers will teach; Peers will pass along correct information. If a Peer is asked a question which he or she cannot answer, he or she will tell the questioner "I don't know" or "I think Lady So'n'So would be able to answer this better than I can".

This obligation to teach goes much further than just being a walking library. Peers agree to take dependants and teach them. Peers agree not just to be general resources, they agree to take individuals as students, to concentrate their attentions on them and, through those individuals, to promote the advancement of their discipline. This does two things. One hopes it has a positive effect on the dependant, who will know more about swinging a stick or sewing a seam or balancing the local bank account than he or she did before entering into that formal relationship with his or her Peer. The second effect is corporate. Thanks to that formal relationship, one hopes that the Society will have one more capable fighter or costumer or exchequer within its ranks. Our Society becomes more diverse; our activities develop depth; we can replace the people who burn out, drop out, move away or -- sad but true as we as a Society age -- die. Peers agree to teach others what they know, so that there'll be more people in the Society who possess that knowledge. We are safeguarding knowledge, in many cases hard-won after centuries of neglect (just how many chain mail makers were working in the 1950s, anyway?), so that future generations of SCAdians and other living historians will have that wealth of knowledge and experience to draw upon.

Master Aaron Swiftrunner, the current Midrealm Seneschal, says that a Peerage is a license from the Society to take dependants. If you're a Peer you can be trusted to take care of the nurturing of the next generation of SCAdians; by recommending you for a Peerage the Order is approving you as a mentor for dependants and the Crown gives assent to this in public. I would take the Swiftrunner’s premise one step further. I agree that the Peerage, when bestowed by the Crown, hands you that license. If you accept the Peerage I think you've committed yourself to exercise that license in the best interests of the Society. Bestowed Peers have an obligation to take dependants and teach them, stated in a solemn, public ceremony.

The Peerage, as a status earned by an individual within our culture, is an ongoing testimony to the individual's knowledge and skill. The Peerage as an organization is a data bank and a "professional" organization which, though peer pressure (pardon the pun) keeps its members' technical standards high. The Peerage finally is an institution that allows people within the Society the sanctioned opportunity to develop relationships with other Society members in a specific, focused manner.

Let's look at that "specific, focused manner" in my next essay.

On to Part 3 

Copyright 1997, 1998 Arthur McLean. All rights reserved.