The Worst Question You’re Likely to Ask

Note: If you have struggled in your journey to Peerage, this article may have content that is both relatable and difficult to read.

I was first asked the question in 2010.

I hit the ground running when I joined the SCA in 2002. Within three months I had founded a College. I’d run my first event and started teaching classes a few months after that. I became a kingdom-level officer and deputy herald for Great Western War the following year.

Eight years in, I held three different positions within the Caidan College of Heralds, was running an average of two events a year in addition to being War Herald, and was feeling really good about my contributions to the Society. Sure, I’d seen how the sausage was made far too early to fully immerse myself in the magic of the SCA, but what mattered to me most was finding new ways to make the magic happen for others.

And then people started asking the question.

“Why are you not a Peer?”

As I discussed in a previous essay, the awards system in the SCA is a mix of merit and whimsy, where expectations for any given award are made intentionally vague to disguise the hard truth that bestowal of awards is left to the will and pleasure of the Crown. One cannot simply earn these honors by meeting certain requirements; one’s efforts must then be recognized through the structure of recommendation by friends and bestowal by a pair of monarchs that may be only vaguely aware of the recipient.

“Why are you not a Peer?”

Almost every time the question is asked, the intent is genuinely benign. The speaker is expressing amazement at the listener’s qualities, and either confusion or frustration about the capriciousness of the award system. The speaker wants the listener to know that their efforts have made a substantial impact, and that they deserve far more than the SCA has offered. But instead of telling them all this, they ask:

“Why are you not a Peer?”

There’s no answer that allows both parties to save face. There are a few reasons why the person might not be a Peer. They may have been offered and chose to turn it down. They may have held membership in a Peerage Order and resigned it, or were made to resign it. There may be a long and painful backstory of being offered the accolade only to have made an absolute fool of themselves between the offering and the elevation, and the Crown might have rescinded the offer.

But these are outliers, and rare. The most common answer to the question “Why are you not a Peer?” is this:

“Because the Crown and the Order have not chosen to recognize me with that honor.”

“Yeah, but…why?”

The Crown as an institution tends to be pretty secretive, and most Peerage Order discussions are confidential in nature, so the listener is unlikely to know the last time they were discussed, or whether they were discussed at all. If they were discussed, there’s almost no way for the candidate to know the reasons for a negative vote without someone betraying the confidences of the Order. So there they sit, without an answer to the question, and without a way of finding out.

But just because a question isn’t answerable doesn’t mean it doesn’t keep getting asked. And I was asked. Frequently.

Even when I convinced my friends to stop asking, the question had already taken root in my own mind.

“Why am I not a Peer?”

Despite widespread belief, it’s okay to want to be a Peer, to aspire to attain a level of mastery in your chosen field to be respected as an equal, and to exemplify courtly and chivalrous behavior. In fact, most Peers want people to aspire to be Peers. We encourage it.

But that’s the problem with this question and how it’s so often phrased. It’s not about aspiring to lofty ideals, or striving to improve behavior, or honing skill. It’s framed to ask why a person has not been recognized as a Peer. The speaker assumes that the listener is already at the level of skill and behavior required to attain Peerage, and that there’s some other factor at play.

“Why am I not a Peer?”

A year after I was first asked this question, I was appointed Crescent Principal Herald and took on the massive task of rebuilding after a College-wide implosion that left a lot of heralds crispy. I made mistakes in my first year in office, and despite getting a Court Barony three months after stepping up, I knew that there were some who were unhappy with me.

At the Crown Tournament following my Court Barony, my best friend was offered membership in the Order of the Pelican. I was so happy for her, but the question was still at the back of my mind. Surely, my friend had served well, had a sizable body of work, and was (and is) one of the most wonderful human beings on this planet. She was a worthy addition to the Order of the Pelican.

But when I compared my body of work to hers, I had a longer and more distinguished CV. She had held one kingdom office, while I’d held three, including a Greater Officer position. I’d served as personal herald for more Royals than she had, stewarded more events, taught more classes, staffed more wars. I’d founded one College and saved another from ruin. Based on my friend’s admission to the Order as a current measure for the expectations of the Order, my service should have been more than sufficient. So the question remained.

“Why am I not a Peer?”

If it wasn’t service, I told myself, the only other option was that I had displayed a lack of Peerlike qualities. Since at this point I could not conceive of a reality where I had not been discussed by the Order, this meant that several of my Pelican friends had sat in Council and heard complaints about my poor behavior. And rather than telling me how my actions had harmed others’ experiences in the game, they had chosen to stay silent.

I talked with my friend about this, but she hadn’t been in those meetings, and so couldn’t know what I had done that was so problematic that it had disqualified me in the eyes of the Order.

“Why am I not a Peer?”

After my friend was elevated, I went through a long, dark night of the soul. I tried to figure out who I had wronged, what I had done, or what mistake from years past was still fresh in the minds of the Pelicans who had said they couldn’t support me. I started talking with some of my other friends in the Order, at times begging them to tell me what I was doing wrong. At this point it wasn’t even about qualifying for the Order. I knew that something I was doing was hurting people, and I was convinced that I was a horrible person not only for doing it, but also for not being aware of the damage I was causing. The question had convinced me of that.

There’s no way I could have known during these conversations that my friends were desperate to tell me that they’d already voted me in, and that if I could just keep it together until Crown Tournament, the Crown was going to make the offer. All my friends could tell me was that I just needed to keep doing what I was doing, stay the course, and to find contentment in the game.

But the question frames everything. Instead of my friends’ intended encouragement in these vulnerable conversations, I just kept hearing “We refuse to tell you how you’re harming other people, no matter how much you beg. Your moral failing is a secret of the Order.” This feeling of stonewalling and betrayal stayed with me until the day I was offered the accolade. And even now, seven years after my elevation, I’m still working out my feelings on the matter.

“Why are you not a Peer?”

Of all the questions you’re likely to ask someone in the SCA, this one is probably the worst. Despite your best intentions, the question demands an answer from the one person who cannot know. The damage your question does may not be readily apparent to you at the time, but it can last.

So instead of asking your dear friend why they aren’t a Peer, talk to a member of the Order you think they belong in. Talk to their own Peer, if possible, or to another Peer that you trust. Tell the Peer all of the awesome things you’ve seen your friend do, and how inspired you are by the way they comport themselves. If you’re feeling especially bold, feel free to ask the member of the Order whether they feel your friend is ready. And don’t forget that the ultimate decision rests with the Crown, so write a letter of recommendation.

And be sure to tell your friend that, in your eyes at least, they already are a Peer.