It’s Not About Chains

People often ask me why I care so much about the squires’ chain tradition and how it violates a rule that’s existed longer than I have.

“It’s just a tradition,” I’m told. “It really doesn’t hurt anyone. Why do you let yourself get so upset about it? Why devote so much of your time talking about it, writing about it, and harassing squires about it?”

Sit down. Pour yourself a drink. Let’s talk of heavy things.

SPOILER WARNING: It’s not about chains.

CONTENT WARNING: Discussions of privilege, systemic injustice, assault, and an unflattering portrayal of the Order of Chivalry and their students.

The Privilege of Armored Combat

So let’s start with the elephant in the room: The armored combat community is the most privileged group of people in the entirety of the SCA. No other group comes close.

Armored combat has two distinct peerage Orders exclusively devoted to it: the Order of Knighthood and the Order of Mastery of Arms, which collectively form the Order of Chivalry but which have separate titles, regalia, form of address, and membership requirements1.

More importantly, armored combat is the sole activity by which one may attain the throne of a kingdom or principality. This means that armored combatants have exclusive control over access to the power of the Crown.

And what power does the Crown enjoy? Beyond bestowing awards (Corpora IV.C.4, IV.G.1-2) and having a vote on the financial committee , the Crown is invested by Corpora with the power to create and amend laws (IV.F.1), enforce them (either directly or through Kingdom officers which they appoint (IV.G.4-5)), convene courts of chivalry to judge the guilt or innocence of Their subjects (IV.G.9), and sentence violators of the law to sanctions up to and including banishment from the SCA (IV.G.11, X.A).

To put that another way: The Crown has unitary Legislative, Executive, and Judicial authority over Their kingdom. And the keys to the Crown can only be obtained through armored combat.

In your own kingdom, there may be portions of kingdom law that curtail the powers of the Crown. However, I have firsthand experience with a Crown trying to remove all such restrictions by Royal decree, in open violation of the processes put into place to prevent such actions. The justification of the Crown, backed by an ultra-Royalist Kingdom Seneschal, was that Corpora supersedes kingdom law, and Corpora gives the Crown the right to change kingdom law at will. The only thing that stood between this illegal law change being forced through was me, as Principal Herald, refusing to read it into court and appealing to the Society Seneschal that the change would be disastrous for the realm.

And to be sure, there is Board oversight of some Crown decisions, and the Crown is required by Corpora to respect Society law and Society officer policies approved by the Board of Directors. However, the Board has been loath in the past to act upon sitting monarchs unless the situation is both dire and emergent.

So the Crown retains immense power over the authorship, execution, and adjudication of the law, and is subject only to social pressures that they will face at the end of their reign.

Abuse of Privilege

So what happens when someone breaks the law?

If an accusation of a violation of kingdom or Society law gets brought to the Crown’s attention, at Their discretion a court of chivalry may be called to decide whether the accusation is true and what to do about it.

If, to take a real-life example, a man impersonating a knight from Trimaris attended Pennsic, wore the white belt and chain, used the false name and title, fought in a Chivalry tournament, and took squires, the King of Æthelmearc may convene a court of chivalry, confront the impostor with the allegations, hear testimony, allow the accused to speak on his own behalf, then render a verdict, stripping him of the stolen valor, removing him from Pennsic, and banishing him from the Society.

But what if the Crown and the Knights of a kingdom have violated the same rule as the accused, and see nothing wrong with the activity?

For the Crown of the Middle Kingdom to enforce the Society-wide protection of unadorned chains against a Midrealm squire, the king (who is almost guaranteed to have worn a squire’s chain) must first acknowledge that the rule exists. He must then recognize that that he and the rest of the Order have been in open violation of the rule for decades. He would then be honor-bound to hold everyone – not just the squire in the dock – accountable for this violation.

That is to say, the King of the Midrealm would have to commit to challenging the privilege of his fellow knights and their squires, causing massive cultural upheaval, to meet his commitment to upholding the law. And at the end of his reign, the next person would likely undo all of the work the king had done, and the now-former king would become a pariah in his beloved armored combat community.

That’s a lot to ask for someone who only has the job because he won a tournament. Which is why for the last 40+ years, squires have enjoyed the privilege of breaking the chain rule with impunity.

Claiming New Regalia

The same privilege that gives Midrealm Chivalry and squires cover when using restricted regalia also gives the Chivalry the privilege of inventing new regalia restrictions that don’t appear anywhere in Society documents.

On paper, the bestowed peerage orders have a roughly balanced protection of regalia. The Knights have two (chain and white belt), the Masters of Arms have one (white baldric), the Laurels have one (laurel wreath), the Pelicans have two (pelican in her piety and cap of maintenance), and the Masters of Defense have two (three-rapier design and white livery collar).

However, the Chivalry (sometimes just the Knights, sometimes in conjunction with Masters of Arms) have convinced the Known World that spurs are also protected regalia. The bestowal of spurs is in every kingdom’s knighting ceremony, with some (like Lochac) claiming “In our Society, is the right and privilege of the Knights alone to wear spurs, for gilded spurs are the ancient badge and symbol of knighthood.” Where kingdoms have regalia and sumptuary laws included in kingdom law, such as Trimaris, spurs usually appear.

Spurs are even included in the Known World Handbook, which states on page 36 that “[knights] wear a white belt, symbolizing chivalry; an unadorned closed loop of chain, symbolizing fealty to the crown; and often spurs indicating their lineage back to the mounted Knights of old.”

This seizure of spurs as regalia has caused problems for members of the equestrian community, who use spurs for their intended purpose. I know several equestrians who’ve been confronted by knights for wearing spurs at wars and other equestrian events. If it weren’t blatant harassment based on a false claim to ownership of regalia, the irony of a non-rider telling a rider they weren’t allowed to use riding equipment would almost be entertaining.

In a similar manner, squires using red belts have moved from a useful indicator of a private relationship between a peer and non-peer into de-facto (and sometimes de jure) protected regalia. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a newcomer be told that they couldn’t wear a red belt, lest they be confused for a squire.

You’re still complaining about regalia. Why does this all matter?

Let’s go back a bit to the squire in the dock, who has demonstrably broken a Society policy. The king is tasked with deciding whether the behavior of the accused, behavior which he and his fellow Chivalry have also done, merits convening a court of chivalry and imposing sanctions.

But instead of wearing an unadorned chain, let’s substitute something more serious.

In this new scenario, the squire is paired off against a fighter who’s a total rhino. He calls every blow he deigns to acknowledge as “light,” and ignores the rest. The squire loses his temper and decides he’s going to teach this guy a lesson. He winds up, swings with all of his might, and hits the other guy with a blow to the side of his head, leaving a noticeable dent.

I’ve heard stories like this from countless fighters. It’s very common behavior that is, if not actively taught, then at least tacitly condoned by the Chivalry. The behavior that leads to the anger and excessive force is justified by everything from rhino-hiding to boorish behavior off the battlefield, with examples both of passion (such as this scenario) and of planned “trips to the woodshed.”

The SCA Marshall’s Handbook makes it clear in rule 1 of the Rules of the Lists that “Each fighter, recognizing the possibilities of physical injury to themselves in such combat, shall assume unto themselves all risk and liability for harm suffered by means of such combat”. However, that assumption of risk is predicated on everyone following the rules, including rule 6 which states that “Combatants shall behave in a knightly and chivalrous manner and shall fight according to the appropriate Society and Kingdom Conventions of Combat.” II.B.5, which clarifies this rule, states that “Engaging in any Society combat activity with the deliberate intent to inflict bodily harm to an opponent is strictly forbidden.” In the Conventions of Combat, III.B.1 states that “Striking an opponent with excessive force is forbidden,” and III.B.3 states that “Each fighter shall maintain control over his or her temper at all times.”

If a fighter intentionally breaks these rules and conventions, they have stepped outside of the structure of SCA armored combat, and their behavior should be judged accordingly.

Outside of a traditional martial arts tournament context, this behavior is the textbook definition of aggravated assault.

If this had happened outside of the lists, and especially if it happened between non-combatants, it would be an open-and-shut case. If, for example, a lady responded to a sexist comment from a jerk at a party by slapping the jerk across the face, the kingdom seneschal would make it clear to the Crown that this was assault and battery, and the lady should probably be banished for it. The Crown could issue such a banishment without worry of social or institutional reprisal.

But would a king punish the squire above with the same sanction? Probably not, unless his opponent was seriously injured, because it would implicate the rest of the combat community. And if the squire’s opponent decided to push the issue, he would likely be shamed and shunned by his fellow fighters.

The squire’s chain complaint is a stand-in for the much larger issue of the complex institutional deference given to the armored combat community, the ill-advised bestowal of unilateral legal authority given to the Crown, and the larger cultural damage that these two facets of our Society cause. If we can’t get the Crown of the Midrealm to uphold the clear Society policy that chains of all materials are the exclusive regalia of the Order of Knighthood, then we can’t rely on the Crown to uphold the law at all.

[1] The Order of Chivalry as a Society-wide entity was created by Board approval of a proposal presented by Wilhelm Laurel to clarify the Knights and Masters/Mistresses of Arms were equal, around the same time as chains were first protected as regalia. See the proposal in the October 1981 LOAR Cover Letter and note of its general approval by the populace in the April 1982 LOAR Cover Letter No other mention could be found of its implementation in heraldic records, but it was not policy as of April 1982.