by Hector of the Black Height
I was re-reading Lord Cynred's insightful comments on the carriage of steel in Ealdormere, and he said something that struck me. He wrote:
"Master Hector also mentions the Baroness' Peace which reigns during feast and he wonders if this 'Peace' extends to Her court as well, I say it does. If you have shared bread and salt as a guest at feast you are honour bound to uphold 'The Peace' throughout your stay in Her hall."
In these brief words I believe Lord Cynred has struck to the quick of how we play the game. With resonant images and implicit challenge, he has raised the issue of hospitality. This is an issue well worth examining.
Cynred's comments have made me realize just how little I know about the observance of the hosts' and guests' obligations in the various cultures we recreate. I am aware of the obligation that sharing bread and salt places on our Mongol friends, especially when one considers the way the Dark Horde plays the great game. Baron Durr al-Jabal has tried to explain to me (and over many years has demonstrated, ceaselessly and elegantly) the hospitality of the Arab peoples. From my own research I have some sense of the roles and obligations of the host in West Islands Scots culture. There are so many cultures and times to learn about within our Society, and Cynred's position is invulnerable when he challenges us to live up to our status as an educational society and learn about each other. However, learning about many cultures suggests that there are many different things to learn and many differences to compare. Are there really that many differences in the games we play?
Is hospitality part of a cultural "lingua franca" we all observe and abide by? I believe so, and I hope this is especially true in Ealdormere. Hospitality is part of the Society's structure; according to Corpora, offering hospitality within one's means is one of the behaviours required of a Peer by Letters Patent. More fundamental to the great game, every full-status SCA canton, shire or college is expected to host an event once a year. Is this not the institutionalized exercise of hospitality? Isn't the SCA's vaunted motto of "Leave every site cleaner than we found it" in itself a simple and elegant code of conduct that any guest, in any period of history, could try to abide by?
We worry so much about our personas and about the territoriality of our Society's administrative organization (Kingdoms and Baronies and so forth) that we forget the blatant mechanics of what we do and who we are. Just as the people of the Middle Ages traveled, we travel to events to visit our neighbours in their lands, close to (or for those who crash overnight, in) their homes. At small events we really are visiting the hall of our hosts; there is a sense of intimacy that strikes me as a nice parallel with, for instance, the travels of Queen Elizabeth I to the homes of her courtiers. At larger events -- especially at camping events -- it is as if we are travelling to a market fair or a tourney (there have been some excellent articles written on the parallels between our Wars and medieval tournament societies, one I believe by our own Mistress Nicolaa). Event staff and local nobility are our hosts in these cases, and at many weekend events there is a temporary infrastructure of gate-keepers, sheriffs and trash-collectors to provide guests with some degree of "civilization".
So, if we agree that our Society's ongoing series of events really are a series of rotating visits, what are the obligations of the guest? First, there is an expectation that we as guests will be polite, that we will keep the peace and put our collective best feet forward. Second, we must make all efforts to see that our fellow guests are as comfortable as we are. Third, we are expected, within reason, to offer to assist our hosts whenever and wherever we can.
As hosts we endeavour to make all welcome, treating our guests as we would wish to be treated. Second, we are expected to provide accommodation (even a site that holds us for a few hours) that is safe, secure, clean and comfortable. Finally, we are expected to be sensitive to our guests' needs.
In short, attending an event is much like visiting your friends at home. Guests abide by the host's rules, make sure the door to the room with the cat-box stays open and smokers go outside to indulge their habits. Guests police the living room for dirty dishes and offer to wash or dry after dinner. Are events so different? Don't our hosts seek to facilitate the game we play? Don't our guests agree to play the game we present on that day and in that site?
Therein lies the bridge between the great game we play and the social mechanisms we've evolved. Regardless of whether you are a fop or Gronk the Barbarian, it's assumed you'll leave the rented event site at closing time and won't steal the silver. That's a real-time, 1990s requirement. As, say, a Mongol, if it helps you play your game to break bread with me, as your host who am I to refuse you? As my guest, if it makes the game I'm running (e.g. the hospitality I'm offering) work better if you leave your sword at a point of honour during dinner, who am I to refuse?
Some people we bump into at Society events (especially at larger events) are consumers of entertainment; they pay a site fee and expect amusement in exchange. They haven't bought into the fundamental social contract of host and guest, which I think is a root cause of why some outside groups don't mix well with the SCA at "open" events. I believe that for those within the Society, whether or not we overtly acknowledge the host-guest relationship that permeates our structure of rotating events, people who "play nicely" at events abide by the fundamental rules of ether a guest or a host.
I've written on the Culture of Generosity as practiced in my home Barony of Septentria. Isn't the host's primary duty to be generous, within his or her means? Isn't the guest obliged to accept generosity with grace and to return generosity in a generous manner when the situation allows?
Within the dynamics of the great game, reflecting many cultures within the broad scope of our period of interest, I think that there is no more sacred obligation than that of a host. Given the structure which under-pins our great game, isn't this inevitable? It's no coincidence that the "First Event" -- which evolved into the SCA as we know it -- was a theme party, I believe with an eclectic guest list.
Having written this essay, I now am resolved to do some research on customs of hospitality in the various cultures that many of us recreate. What a fascinating field of study, and what a challenge and joy to recreate these. If we resolve to honour both guest and host -- as King or pauper, autocrat or seneschal -- if our leaders articulate this resolution and our exemplars show us how, I believe issues such as how we carry our steel (and even how we treat unoccupied chairs) will resolve themselves.
Unfortunately one cannot legislate good manners, nor can one enforce the exercise of common sense. However, we can guide and counsel and suggest. "Peer pressure" is period. Everyone is important; everyone is empowered to make the great game better. Anyone can set an example of grace and good manners. Anyone can propel our corporate culture towards a comfortable place where guests of all descriptions are welcome and games of many times and places are played carefully, amicably and well.
If we take the bonds of bread and salt seriously, if we believe in the Baroness' peace and the privilege of the Point of Honour, I believe we can let this spirit of hospitality permeate all aspects of our game. It's always there; sometimes it may need help rising to the surface. When we invite the Known World to join us in our King's hall on Ealdormere's first Coronation day, let us all be aware of our obligation as hosts. On that day let's open our Kingdom's new chapter in the style that Elizabeth I, a Mongol chieftain or a Scots clan chief would recognize; with hospitality.
Copyright 1998 A. McLean. All rights reserved.