The SCA Board of Directors has recently released data from the 2010 "census," on the SCA website. One of the sets of documents, in the section entitled "Release 2: October, 2011" concerns "New Martial Peerage Options." The BoD has stated that it "recognizes the possible need for change in both of these areas."1 I urge anyone interested in the subject to review the data.
The summary document includes several possible plans of action. These new plans, as well as the various options presented in the past when this topic has arisen, all fail, in my opinion, to adequately address the problem. 2 Mostly they fail because they fail to accurately identify the underlying issues. Many years ago, certainly last century, I wrote an analysis of what I think the issues are, and I do not find that the intervening years have greatly moderated my thoughts. Thus I present it again, somewhat rewritten and expanded.
Nota bene: the following is not, specifically, a proposal for a "4th Peerage" rather it is an analysis and loosely edited commentary. Hopefully it makes clear what are, in my opinion, the problems with the various proposals floated over the years.
Alexandre Lerot d'Avigné
23 October 2011 (with slight modification 17 November 2011)
nexus AT panix DOT com
Herewith, some analysis of the current situation, without which I claim that change is unlikely to be for the better.
PART I: Looking at the Peerages.
There are three bestowed Peerages. The Chivalry is a special case for several reasons, and for those reasons has little place in a discussion of any alteration. The Chivalry, alone of the three, was not so much created as it simply happened. The Pelican and the Laurel were created after the SCA had been in existence for some time and were created to acknowledge those activities which the Society did or should value. The Chivalry is also the Peerage which recognizes excellence in rattan combat; rattan combat occupies a unique place in the Society inasmuch as it is how we select our Royalty. Arguably, the way we select our Royalty is foundational to the SCA was we know it - a change to that would change the nature of the game in fundamental ways; since the Chivalry is so tightly bound to that process, any change there is nearly as fundamental. For these reasons, the Chivalry as currently constituted is unlikely to be subject to alteration.
The remaining two Peerages, the Pelican and the Laurel, were created after the SCA had been in existence for some time. They were created to acknowledge and reward those who contributed to the Society in ways that the society valued at that time. They have changed over the years evolving in various ways which are of historical interest but not particularly germane to this argument. What they represent now are ways to reward and acknowledge what the SCA values, and, by a strange but yet all too common twist, to define, in some ways, what we value. They are at the same time prescriptive and descriptive. As it is commonly articulated, the Laurel is for Arts and Sciences and the Pelican is for Service. No one, to my knowledge, has been able to adequately define either. Thus, while we know words for what these Peerages represent, we still spend much time debating what those words mean.
The activities that the Society values have changed over the years, perhaps not rapidly or in large ways, but steadily and in small ways. New activities arise, old ones are merged or splinter into sub-categories and so on. Some of those activities are valued by the Society but do not fit clearly into the paradigm of "A&S" and "Service." This, I feel, is where the problem lies, where the feeling of "unfairness" arises.
Non-rattan combat activities (hereafter NRCA) are exceptionally fertile ground for these feelings because of a certain superficial similarity they bear to rattan combat, which as previously discussed occupies a unique and privileged place in SCA culture. They are not, however, the only activities which live in this "problem area." This is why I find myself unable to support any proposal which does not address the larger problem, or conversely which seeks only to address the issue of NCRA; by doing so, I think the proponents are making a fundamental error concerning the nature of SCA Peerages.
There is one final point to consider when analyzing the existing Peerage structure. With the exception of the Chivalry, which as mentioned above is unique, the two Peerages do not recognize specific activities; the Peerages represent broad categories of activities. I suggest that any proposal which specifies lists of activities rather than categories is fundamentally flawed; at best it is a stopgap, at worst it will lead to a system where every new activity or change in old activity will require a new Peerage. (There may actually be an even worse case, but that one is sufficiently bad for me.)
PART II: Why culture is important
As discussed above, the Peerages exist to recognize activities that the SCA values. Values and activities are living things, they change as the SCA grows and evolves. The Laurel and Pelican are, themselves, recognition of this. Each was created in order to fill a perceived need. (Historical note: The Laurel originally included Service, but shifted to exclusively A&S when the "Imperial Pelican" was released to the Kingdoms from the BoD.)
Thus a question that must be answered is, "Do the existing Peerages adequately cover the activities which the SCA values?" This is a subject on which reasonable people can disagree. I suspect that some of the disagreement stems from an inability to agree exactly on the definitions of "Service" and "Arts and Sciences," as touched on above. However, I also feel that that cannot explain all of the disagreement.
A point which is often raised is usually phrased something like this, "Person X has all the attributes of a Peer but their activity is not recognized, so a system which does not recognize them as a Peer is flawed." I confess to finding this argument to be fairly compelling, but in itself flawed. It hinges on the intangibility of "Peer Like Qualities," henceforth PLQs. While someone who excels in the PLQs, which are themselves subject to debate over kind and quantity, at first glance would seem to be a perfect candidate for a Peerage, that is to beg the question of what the Peerages are. I submit that they may be assumed to represent the virtues the SCA values, but must also represent an activity that the SCA values. Which returns us to the previous question.
Thus the question of "Coverage," which is most emphatically not the same as the question "Does it need to be fixed," but is a pre-requisite. I feel that the answer to the question "Do the existing Peerages adequately cover the activities which the SCA values?" is rather obviously "not particularly well." I hold as evidence for this the "4th Peerage Debate" which crops up with some regularity, as well as continuous debates about whether Person X deserves a Laurel or a Pelican even when both circles agree they deserve something, and also the strange cases which make some folks' eyes roll - such as the case of the Photography Laurel3 and phrases which crop up like "service to fencing."
To summarize, culture is what drives the SCA and the SCA award system. It is what led to the creation of the Laurel, the Imperial Pelican and then the change from Imperial to "regular" Pelican. That the Peerage system imperfectly reflects the culture seems obvious. Whether that is a problem is less obvious, and if it is a problem, a solution is positively opaque.
Part III: Subculture
The SCA, I feel, is not what it claims to be. The claim is to be "... an international organization dedicated to researching and re-creating the arts and skills of pre-17th-century Europe."4 While that is part of what we do, it is not accurate nor is it complete. The SCA is, ultimately, a sub-culture of people who a) have at least a passing interest in one or more of the activities that the SCA offers and no particular aversion to dressing up in archaic or pseudo-archaic clothing, or b) who have a lot of friends who fall into category (a). Note that I do not say that many members are not dedicated to researching and re-creating arts and skills etc., just that not all members are, and that the definition is incomplete.
The result of all this is a certain amount of cognitive dissonance about a number of things in the SCA, and the Peerage is one. If the mission statement there is our complete raison d'être, then certainly the Pelican - which is often given for things which have nothing at all to do with re-creation - should not be a Peerage! The Laurel should be revered above all. Since that is not the case, clearly the definition is incomplete.
Which brings us to subculture. Analyzing the Peerages without spending at least a little time discussing the subculture would be fruitless. So then, what is the SCA? (Another discussion which never ends.) To avoid getting into a discussion which will never end, I will speak only in terms of general characteristics.
The SCA is a corporation which exists in the modern world, which provides an outlet for its members to engage in certain activities which they, the members value and/or enjoy. The internal structure of the organization is defined by the subculture and its values, which are constantly in a state of tension and subtle modification.
While the above is true, it is also too general to be of much use. I will therefore postulate a few more things about the SCA. The SCA does claim to be about history to some degree; much of the tension in the SCA arises from disagreements about "how much about history" it should be and from the necessary constraints of living in the 20th and 21st Century.
I suggest that there are three basic components or axes around which the SCA revolves: 21st century constraints (insurance, finding sites, many officers, IRS reporting requirements, etc.), historical activities (pretty self-explanatory, I think), and the subculture which provides a framework for the others. An example may clarify things.
Consider a typical SCA event with, let us say, a focus on teaching calligraphy. The event operates under 21st century constraints of finding a site, setting a site fee to cover the costs and so on. People arrive and learn calligraphy in a period style, but they are doing so in a modern building and with modern tools in many cases. They are embedded in the subculture while they do so, wearing garb and using SCA names and titles, which titles are themselves sub-cultural since the title system itself is ahistorical. The King and Queen arrive and hold court, blessedly free of most modern concerns, and give awards which have value only in the subculture, some of which reward historical activity and some of which do not.
As it stands, things which are high on the "21st Century concerns" axis tend to be rewarded with Pelicans; things which are high on the historical axis tend to be rewarded with Laurels; activities which are on the subcultural axis are the problematical ones.5
PART IV: Paradigm
The above is, more or less, the paradigm under which the SCA operates. Existing as we do within the paradigm, it is hard to articulate it accurately. However, as the above example illustrates, one thing does seem to become clear. The activities which are not well covered by the SCA Peerages tend to live in the subculture; they are the activities which we value (to whatever extent we value them) as part of the subculture and not for their historical accuracy, per se. The "strange cases" mentioned above illustrate this quite well, particularly the Photography Laurel. The subculture values photography and documentation of the SCA and its history, although it is not a medieval art or skill. Rapier combat falls into this category as well, at least the way it usually phrased in "4th Peerage" discussions: skill-at-arms and PLQs, not necessarily period styles and recreations - which, quite rightly in my opinion, have resulted in Laurels. There are other examples that come to mind, some obvious, some not. (See below for more examples.)
A new Peerage, therefore, would need to provide the coverage that old ones do not. I contend the best choice would be one which recognizes PLQs(naturally) and those activities which we value which are not covered by the others, to wit, those we value as a subculture. No list would of activities would or could be generated, and some activities which have been recognized under the old paradigm would probably fit more properly in the new Peerage under the new paradigm. (Historical note: as was the case when the Pelican was released to the Kingdom and some Laurels "traded in" their Laurels for Pelicans.) There would certainly be a settling out time while the new boundaries and conceptual space reoriented themselves, but things would relax after a while. I cannot, as of this writing, think of any activity which would not fit conceptually into a framework such as that outlined above. Although some activities might fit relatively easily into more than one space - indeed, as some do now.
I do not claim that such a change is needed, but I do claim that without some more thought and with analysis similar to the above, any proposal for a 4th Peerage will almost certainly be flawed.
To those who object that such broad scope will make circles unwieldy and result in rapier fighters polling on photographers, I would note that we already have a system where potters poll on calligraphers in one circle while accountants poll on web designers in another, and it seems to work out in the end.
Since originally writing this analysis (sometime in the mid-90s, I think) a number of other cases have come to my attention which also illustrate the problems with the current system.
Cookery is a problematic case currently. Two persons in the East Kingdom received Laurels and Pelicans simultaneously. Both were cooks. I suggest that this indicates some confusion about where cookery lies, especially SCA feast cookery, which often must sacrifice some historical accuracy in order to meet constraints of modern hygiene, event budgets, allergies and the like.
Many aspects of SCA courts also present difficulties. Is Court Heraldry an Art or a Service? What about writing scroll texts? Since our SCA scrolls often have no historical model, given that that are subcultural artifacts like the award structure itself, these questions are not as clear as they might seem.
Another thorny subject is that of musicians who are writing songs about SCA figures and events, sometimes with post-period instruments or set to post-period melodies. They are celebrating our history, as a subculture, but not medieval history.
Indeed, I suspect that most companions of the Pelican or the Laurel, or Kingdom orders for A&S or service, can readily think of other candidates and activities where heated debate occurs about what award is appropriate even when all the parties agree that some recognition is appropriate. Many of those cases fit rather neatly into a subculturally-valued category.
Submitted by Alexandre d'Avigné for (heh) peer review
(1) In an email to the announcements list, on Friday, October 21, 2011, with the subject "Letter from the Board of Directors," and available in the archives of that list (only to subscribers).
(2) If, indeed, there is a problem.
(3) I would like more documentation of this case. It is references on wikipedia, without citation. SCA Peerages on Wikipedia There are references to it on the West Kingdom history page.
(4) Straight from the front page of the www.sca.org website.
(5) I sometimes think of this as: Pelicans make things happen, Laurels make them historical. Which is more about trying to define "A&S" and "Service," than anything else. The problem is that making things historical is service in an historical organization.