On Steel

by Hector of the Black Height

As we look to a future Kingdom of Ealdormere, I think we have to consider very fundamental aspects of what we do and why we do those things. One of the basics of our culture is the wearing and carriage of weapons, generally referred to as "steel".

There are many other ways to refer to steel; weapons, arms, blades, and so on. Perhaps Her Excellency Sir Hillary of Serendip offered the most useful description during her tenure as Steward of the Society. In some of her T.I. columns she called blades "steel jewellery" and in the reality of play in the great game, that is what they are. Swords and their cousins are all decorative (whether aesthetically in themselves or as parts of a suite of clothes or costume); some steel is not functional/lethal, other steel is.

Steel represents in the minds of its users many different things, as is so often the case with aspects of the Society. For some of us, steel is just another costume accessory. For others it is a tangible reminder of a persona's ethic or profession. For others it marks a personal bond, between master and servant or Crown and vassal. For others steel is a vestige of the fantasy that makes the Society sparkle for them. With the introduction of schlager combat into the approved games of the Society, the lines between historical function, real-time recreation and accoutrement have blurred considerably.

Steel has a sparkle of daring and danger to it, which is at the root of steel's appeal for many (especially for young men. Let's not kid ourselves). Steel is for some a tangible link with past days when robust, martial adventure -- to our eyes-- seemed more real. Even if it is not functional, steel appears lethal, and lethality is deemed manly by many. One does not want to test this appearance; that would be a tragedy. However, if we never want to use our steel, what is steel's role in our culture?

In one of his novels Robert Heinlein wrote, "an armed society is a polite society". This premise assumes that arms borne may be wielded. If we actually were answering real or perceived offence with violence this essay would be unnecessary; we would have evolved well-framed customs regarding weapons and deadly force through bitter experience. As steel -- thank goodness! -- usually stays in its sheath, we must look at the message steel conveys within the scope of the historical recreation we perform and the great game we play.

To stab someone, one needs access to a stabbing implement; a sword or dagger on your hip offers convenient access to such a device. I think that threat is relative, based on the perceived lethality of the steel worn. A sword is a single-use, martial implement. A single-edged knife with a two-inch blade can be used as a weapon but it also whittles nicely, cuts meat and opens envelopes. We seldom need swords; we have far more need of eating knives. From this rationale, among other roots, came the length restriction on weapons as observed in Septentria.

Since Aeden and Kaffa were Baron and Baroness of Septentria (back when Septentria WAS Ealdormere) there has been a local custom that steel (defined as "a blade longer than the bearer's forearm") would be placed in a central location during feasts and guarded by the Baron's men. This gesture is courteous at a variety of levels. The bearer is offered a public opportunity to observe a custom deemed mannerly. As the central location is called "a point of honour" one infers that the surrender of steel in this fashion is deemed honourable; thus those who surrender their steel are to be deemed honourable by those present. The guest also does not bear steel to table. In many times and cultures, coming armed to dinner was a grave insult to the host. Such a reaction to an armed guest is a logical corollary to the host's obligation to protect his or her guests as part of basic hospitality.

Today, in the Baroness of Septentria's hall and at her table, the Baroness' peace is in force. The Baroness offers her guests a safe place to assemble and dine. She guarantees that peace and her guards maintain that peace, but that's all game-play. When a point of honour is run, those guards' real duty is to guarantee the security of the guests' property. In the past thirteen years I can only think of one instance where someone has put a sword down at a point of honour and, at the end of a feast, returned to find it gone. That's a pretty good record, especially as we have never issued "coat-check" tags for swords surrendered (which would for me detract from the honourable exercise of trust on all sides at the point of honour).

The surrender of steel is not enforced; how can you force somebody to put his or her property one place or another? How can one legislate manners? My experience has been that people like the idea that our society is polite without necessarily being armed. People just didn't come to the table with a yard of broadsword on their hips Way Back When, and providing a point of honour offers an answer to the awkward question of what you should do with the sword you're wearing during dinner.

So what, in terms of our culture? In the Baroness' hall is peace. Is the same rule in force in the Baroness' court? How about in the King's court? Should we offer a point of honour in our courts? This in turn begs a question; if we have a point of honour, what happens if someone is called into court who has NOT surrendered his or her steel? This somewhat abstract question cuts deep towards the nature of the relationship between the Crown and the populace and segués into the issue of fealty. The Crown has only one set of vassals that must be in fealty; the Chivalry. In some Kingdoms this is the only group of people permitted to approach the Crown armed. The Chivalry are the Crown's sworn, armed might. Should anyone in fealty be allowed to approach the Crown armed? How can one tell that a person is in fealty and therefore can be trusted?

I hope we don't go to the extremes that some Kingdoms have reached, where those called into the Royal presence stand up, walk forward in court, stop in the aisle and literally frisk themselves for weapons, visible and concealed. Not all will agree, but this strikes me as graceless and a waste of court time.

I think that, in part, we must rely upon common sense. If you don't think you should enter the Royal presence -- or any other place -- armed, leave your steel behind, perhaps with a friend. When you hand off your blade, understand that from some points of view you do the friend a great compliment. Some think that if you trust someone with your steel, you're trusting that person with the equivalent of your life and honour. That's a rather nice thing to be able to do.

If you want to bear your steel everywhere, be aware of the sensibilities of those around you. Peace-bonding (tying a blade into its scabbard and, effectively, rendering it inert) is seen by many as a reasonable substitute for surrendering steel. This allows the individual to do honour to the host (by binding the steel) yet allows the individual to wear that steel. This seems very important to some with oriental personas, though based on some very preliminary research I am not convinced that Samurai carried their swords everywhere. How the sword-bearing party sees his or her actions must be taken in context: if Milord Samurai hails from the local group, I'd assume he could feel at home during a feast. If our Samurai is from far away and considers the rest of us to be strange and barbarian, he might just want to hang onto his steel, as insurance. Fair ball: how I deal with that view of my world is my business, though. Thus started the arms race, many centuries ago...

Based on conversations I've had with Mistress Nicolaa as well as a bit of research, Europeans in the Middle Ages didn't always wear swords, much like hunters today don't always carry guns with them. Wearing a sword sends a message. What message do you want to send?

As for me, I wear a sword from time to time; I'm an (all too occasional) fighter, a former Constable of Ealdormere and, culturally, a member of a martially oriented culture (west islands Scots). If I am offering armed service, say to my Baroness as guardian of a point of honour, I'll wear my sword. If I am coming to the dinner table I'll leave my sword in my car for convenience, or I'll place it at a point of honour if such is offered. If I have court business involved with the Peaceful Orders of Peerage (the Laurel or the Pelican) I'll generally ditch my sword as I go up. My sword strikes me as an inappropriate accoutrement in that peaceable setting.

At Pennsic I may wear my sword, as at War a sword strikes me as appropriate for wear. In recent years I've usually left my sword in camp until the Crown declares War on the field. At that stage I put my sword on and leave it on, at least until the "hostilities" end. If I am a guest in another War camp (especially a camp where my host is from another Kingdom hostile to my Kingdom) I'll either arrive unarmed or I'll leave my sword at the gate as a sign of good faith in my host.

If I am in martial service to the Crown or Coronet at War, I'll generally leave my sword on as I enter the Royal encampment or, in extreme circumstances, the Royal presence. If I bear arms for the King or Prince on the field, I see no inconsistency in bearing arms in the King's or Prince's presence off the field. My belief -- I said this once in a Principality court when challenged -- is that if the Royalty will accept my martial service, I might as well tote my sword. If my armed presence is offensive while I serve the Royalty in question, my sword and I will withdraw from the Royal presence, to avoid offering further offence.

If I do not like the Royalty at War (as has happened a couple of times; no names, no pack-drill) I leave my sword outside that Royal camp. This has nothing to do with leading myself not into temptation! I don't want the Royalty to assume that, because I wear steel in their war camp, I am in armed service to them. That would be dishonest of me to suggest by my manner or dress. I may fight on their side, but I do so because I serve someone else or because I stand with friends who happen to serve the Royalty in question.

Incidentally, one should NEVER go armed while working as event staff, especially as security staff. Event staff represent the incorporate Society, part of the modern, mundane world. What use is steel while working at an event? Will you stab somebody who doesn't have the correct change at Troll? When I was on staff at Pennsic XXIV I left all sharp things, even my little eating knife, in my tent for most of the event. Steel is part of the game we play; if you're event staff you're supporting the game, not playing it.

When looking at rules about steel I am an awkward example to cite, because I am not now, nor have I ever been, in fealty. I have served the Coronet and Crown, but never while bound in personal fealty. The way I handle arms in the presence of Royalty and others has nothing to do with fealty and oaths; it has to do with my ideas about good manners and the way I use the carriage of steel to demonstrate my beliefs. If you are in fealty, I think you have both a right and an obligation to examine your relationship with the Crown and decide what that entitles you to do -- or demands you do -- with whatever arms are appropriate to your origins and station.

I guess that comes full circle to the question of rules regarding steel. After several years I have sorted out my own set of rules that I believe meet my persona requirements and the needs of the segment of the Society in which I play. My rules may not be your rules. As I hope others will deduce that I behave in a sensible, sensitive manner with regard to steel, I must give others the benefit of the doubt. Away from Ealdormere, as a guest, I will abide by the customs of my hosts, as that's good manners. I assume that such mannered hosts would abide by our rules and customs, whatever they are (thus this essay), when here with us.

I think it is right and proper to allow people an opportunity to develop common standards of behaviour, which may become custom and tradition and part of who we are. The point of honour offers one such opportunity, which is something observed in Septentria for at least fifteen years. The way I see it, if I surrender my steel at the point, that's my business. If I don't, that's my business. If I choose to hang onto my steel, I must accept that the way others (Royal, noble or common) behave towards me may be influenced by that decision. In a like manner, if I am sitting at feast and somebody sits down beside me with a six-foot greatsword slung over his back (or, for his own convenience, lays it across the table), I may well inquire as to the nature of the threat perceived, so that I too can arm myself against the common foe. If there is no threat perceived by my neighbour, I may arm myself just to make sure that I remain part of a polite society.

Steel sends a message. As we come together as a Kingdom, we should be aware of what messages we send and receive through things as basic as our carriage of steel. This will be important for visitors to our Kingdom; it will be more important to people who find us in the future and try to grow into our culture. There may be no right or wrong answer, but as we consider such issues as this I hope we'll all come to common understanding about more and more of our culture. I believe such common understanding will make the great game more enjoyable for all.

How to run a point of honour:

First, do you want to do this? Do you want to deal with somebody whose sword gets damaged, lost or otherwise misplaced? Think about this before going on.

If you want to do this, pick a spot out of the way to store the steel. This is especially important if you want to lay edged weapons on the floor; you don't want people stubbing their toes against the edge of a potentially sharp thing.

Lay a cloth, sheepskin or some such down. You're asking people to make a very significant, symbolic gesture, so make the point of honour look attractive and special. A cloth or skin also protects the steel. If you have the wherewithal, arrange a rack from which swords can hang. This gets the blades off the floor and makes the arrangement somewhat decorative.

An example of the announcement used to establish a point of honour is:

My Lord and Ladies; in our Baroness' hall is peace. In that spirit, I invite those who bear steel longer than your forearm to bring it to me, that it may be placed in a point of honour.

Further, the announcer may wish to add:

I am NAME. In the name of Her Excellency Septentria and by my right arm (OR "upon my honour" or "on pain of my body" or some such) I shall guarantee the safety of your steel and this hall. I welcome those who will stand with me and defend the peace.

You can try to issue "baggage checks" to prevent mix-ups, but this is an administrative burden. It also slows clean-up as you fumble with tags. It does help guarantee a lack of mix-ups and theft, if you really feel the need to protect against that off-chance.

Once you make the announcement, open the point and accept steel from people. Someone should be physically present watching these valuable and desirable goods (placed in your trust) at all times. If possible, arrange shifts of guards so people can eat dinner and go to the bathroom. If people don't want to help, you said you'd guard the steel, so make yourself comfortable.

At the end of the feast, announce something along the lines of:

As the feast is over, I invite all to come forward and retrieve from the point of honour their property. I thank you.

After at least two announcements, any steel that hasn't been retrieved must be handed to the event autocrat to go into the event's lost and found. Do NOT chase people trying to hand back swords or knives. Just as airlines say all baggage looks alike, in a dimly-lit hall all swords start to look alike after a while, except to their owners. Let the owner pick up his or her own steel. Don't take on the added responsibility of operating a sword delivery service.

On forearms:

People occasionally ask if a particular blade is the "length of the forearm". "Try it and see" is the only possible answer. Have the bearer use his or her own forearm. Does the "length of the blade" include both hilt and blade? It can, if that's what the bearer wants. Does the forearm begin at the point of the elbow, the inside of the elbow or at some other point? It begins where the bearer wants it to begin, and it ends no later than the tip of the longest finger on that arm's hand. In other words, let the bearer decide what fits within his or her particular version of an honourable definition of length, and then all concerned should accept that definition with good grace. In my opinion what matters is that the bearer cared enough to ask the questions and measure the blade against a standard.

Incidentally, over the years I've seen swords, daggers, axes, spears and even a crossbow surrendered at a point of honour. The issue is not the form of weaponry; it's the understanding that weapons are not appropriate at the dinner table that's important in itself.

Copyright 1996, 1998 Arthur McLean. All rights reserved.