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Knighthood, Beyond an Award
[01/25/2012] [Medryn]

The subject of knighthood is one that is dear to my heart, and I have spent a great deal of time thinking about its value, what it means, and how to improve it. This article shares the thoughts I have had and the conclusions I have reached and hopefully will prompt readers to not only consider what exactly knighthood represents, but to take active steps to elevate knighthood beyond an award.

I believe that the institution of knighthood can be the embodiment of the very best of our game and the society we have created that surrounds the playing of that game. At the same time I acknowledge that it can showcase many of the worst aspects of our society. Knighthood is a lens through which our successes and failures are magnified and brought in to sharp focus. When a person exemplifies the right and good, and is recognized as a knight, that lens helps show that we value those qualities and magnifies them as an example for us all. Unfortunately, when a knight acts in a manner contrary to the right and good, when knighthood is awarded to someone undeserving, or when the knighting process is tainted or even appears to be manipulated, these failures are also magnified. And to some extent they are magnified to an even greater degree than successes are, because when a knight lives up to our ideals, he or she has simply done what we expect, but when a knight fails or a monarch knights someone unworthy, our disappointment is huge. This is because, though largely unwritten in our governing documents, we have character expectations associated with knighthood. It is, as it should be, more than just an award. Knighthood carries with it expectations: Expectations regarding service, behavior, excellence, and character. Though rarely codified, one only need look at the discussions surrounding knighthood (both of success and failures) to see that it is a different animal. For example I have never heard someone complain about the behavior of a Master Lion, Warlord, or Duke saying "I expected better from a Master" or "Can you believe that jerk is a noble?". Replace those titles with "knight" and I'm certain we have all heard something similar.

So, if knighthood is more than an award, what is it? There have been (and will continue to be) countless debates on this subject. As I've stated above I think it is apparent that, explicitly stated or not, knighthood is viewed by many to be more than just an award. I'm not going to rehash the debate on whether it is or it isn't. Rather this discussion stems from my thoughts on what knighthood SHOULD be, if it is to be more than just an award. I believe that knighthood should be more than a simple accolade, so treat the rest of this as my call to action, addressed to all of us, populace and peers, to elevate knighthood beyond being a simple award or reward for services rendered and instead to recognize it as a calling, a challenge, an office.

In pertinent part Webster's defines an office as: "A special duty, charge or position..." or "a position of responsibility". Explicit in that definition is the notion that the one holding an office owes a duty or some responsibility. What makes knighthood a responsibility? First and foremost, we call this office "knighthood" and those holding it "knights". The very word knight, in its old English root, means servant. So at its core being a knight means being a servant, one who serves. That alone makes it clear that our "highest award" carries with it duties and responsibilities. But our governing documents also speak to this to some degree. The award standardization says "Whereas Masterhood is recognition of skill, Knighthood is also recognition of character." This is far from detailed, but I believe our culture is such that we expect knights to be not only foremost in their fields, but to be good people as well, committed and worthy of being held up as exemplars of best parts of our game. This is the responsibility I believe is associated with the office of knighthood, but I further believe that we should go beyond this unspoken expectation if we are to truly make knighthood an office. The Iron Mountains did this to some extent. Our Corpora recognized knights as keepers of the peace and charged them with that responsibility at our events. Even so, I believe that we can and should go even further.

To understand how I think we should accomplish this, let me tell you about the event that inspired this belief, and then how I think this belief can be implemented.

At Rakis 2009, Zumat was knighted in the order of the Sword by Emperor Kezgar. Just before dropping the sword Kezgar said the following, quoting from the movie Kingdom of Heaven: "Be without fear in the face of your enemies. Be brave and upright that God may love thee. Speak the truth always, even if it leads to your death. Safeguard the helpless and do no wrong. That is your oath." and then he slapped Zumat across the face, hard, saying "and that is so you remember it."

I didn't realize it at the time, but the more I thought about it, this was inspiring. It was more than mere words. Kezgar had laid an obligation on Zumat, an obligation that came as part of the accolade, and with a physical reminder. This was the essence of what knighthood should be. Remember that knighthood was at its heart a contract of fealty, mutual pledges by the knight and his liege. It is in that bond, in that oath, that the difference between empty award and office lies.

I started discussion of the idea of an oath on our knight's list, and while the response was mostly positive little action was taken and I must admit I didn't push the issue and it faded. It wasn't until Emperor Darian offered me peerage in the order of the Flame that the idea resurfaced for me. He asked what I wanted in my ceremony and I told him that I wanted to take an oath.

I had done some research on the subject and admit that I borrowed heavily from the SCA Middle Kingdom's oath in drafting my own. The oath I swore is as follows:

I here swear fealty and do homage to the Crown of the Empire of the Iron Mountains

To ever be a brave knight and true

Courteous and generous

Shield of the weak

Obedient to my liege lord

Foremost in my fields

Honorable and fair at all times

Champion of the right and good

So swear I, Medryn Harlequin, and pray that my peers will assist me in the keeping of my oath.

Kneeling and speaking those words before Sir Kezgar dropped the sword on my shoulders helped bring home to me that this wasn't the culmination of my time in Amtgard, but rather the beginning of an undertaking. An undertaking made tangible by the speaking of an oath.

My oath is wordier than Z's, because that’s the kind of person I am, but it hits the same points. A knight is a servant, tasked with righteousness, integrity, and the defense of the weak. It's not the specific words that matter. The words give us something to hold on to, but it is by the outward public commitment to the service of the right and good, through service to our kingdoms and the game, that we can elevate knighthood to the place it deserves.

In the greeting line, shortly after my knighting, Zumat came up to me and said "an oath without a physical reminder means nothing" and he slapped me across the face, hugged me and said "You keep that oath." Of all the awesome gifts I received for my knighting, that one meant the most.

Will I always keep my oath? I hope so, but simply having an oath lends power to the nebulous ideals that surround knighthood. It gives me a touchstone by which I can measure my actions, and having made a promise I am more likely to abide by it than if I had made no overt commitment. Furthermore, my oath actively seeks the assistance of my peers in helping me to keep it. It's a public statement that I want my peers to hold me accountable.

As I said, the specific words don't matter, but by the very act of committing ourselves with words we take a step towards making knighthood what it can and should be. To return to Kingdom of Heaven as an example, the Patriarch of Jerusalem asks the main character "Does making a man a knight make him a better fighter?" His response: "Yes." This is, of course, not because of some magical grant of fighting prowess, but rather because of what the power of standing for something does to a person. It is this same power that we can tap in to by taking an oath as knights. By committing ourselves to an oath, and striving to keep it always, we become the visible exemplars we should be as knights. We take a stand, promising to serve our kingdoms and the game, promising to be leaders. And step by step, knight by knight, we elevate the institution of knighthood.

"Be the change you want to see" is a phrase that has recently become popular in the Amtgard lexicon, and this is what I call you to do. You want knighthood to be more than an award? Make it so. I am certainly open to other ideas, but I believe that taking an oath of knighthood is the best way to walk that path. I urge other knights to demonstrate their commitment by pledging themselves to something more than the false glory of an award and by doing so to take one more step towards making knighthood more than an empty title.

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