The Chivalric Oath of Fealty
As penned by Ephraim ben Shlomo, KSCA.
1 – Me.
Personally. I have taken this as my oath. If you would be a Knight, you must take it as your oath as well. Not kind of yours, mostly yours, or yours all except for one really hard part. Yours. In italics. Accept it as being in your every breath, your every move, even in your sleeping. You must identify it in the garb by which people know you, by those parts of your armor that allow friends to identify you across the field, in that blow or parry that no one else executes in quite the same way. And of course, completely and instantly in the image that looks at you from the glass. And if you think I mean a vessel that contains liquid, then read on, and understand that this is a burden you take up, far more than it is a privilege.
2 – Fealty
Fealty is a relation between liege and liegeman, a reciprocal bond. The Sovereign, as liege, owes duties of support to his liegeman. The Knight owes service to his Lord King and Lady Queen. Surely, this means service in time of war. If we are to be other than a Society of brute force, we must certainly serve the Crown in peaceful endeavor as well. If practiced in the arts and sciences, we should share that knowledge, just as we would welcome a Master of the Pelican, accomplished in the arts of war, training new fighters or those dependents in his charge.
3 – Homage
Homage, it must be understood, flows in one direction: from vassal to liege lord. It is an expression of placing yourself at the Crown’s disposal and discretion. One of the most difficult challenges for us, as Chivalry, is to decide under what circumstances our chivalry compels us to set aside this unquestioning subjection of ourselves. (For instance, if the Crown directs us -may the day never come- to act in a manner that is plainly immoral.) See the discussion of obedience, below, for more on this subject. As with fealty, homage is not to the persons of the King and Queen, but to the Crown, the office, as described below. If you find yourself with the awesome responsibility of the Dragon Throne, remember the duties You owe in fealty to those who offer themselves to You in homage, and do not waste these good liegemen and liegewomen.
4 – To the Crown
To the Crown, not to the person of the King or Queen. Our fealty and homage is to their office. This said, one who chooses to enter into fealty with the Crown may not choose those times when fealty will be sworn or recognized. When new royalty take up the burden of the Crown, it is not for you to choose whether or not to swear fealty to them. You have sworn your fealty upon your Knighting, and it is your duty (and privilege) publicly to reaffirm this fealty in each reign, save only those in which you do not come before Their Majesties in any court. By deciding that we swear our fealty to the Crown, we established a fealty that transcends the individual personages who sit the Thrones. Thus, in deciding what to do if those we dislike sit the Thrones, we are obliged to set their personalities entirely aside. If we have elected the station of knighthood, we step forward when called, and swear fealty before all. We owe it to the Crown, we owe it to the populace, and we owe it to each other as Knights. Most of all, we owe it to ourselves, and we may look into the glass and know that we have kept our word. As for Masters and Mistresses at Arms, I am not qualified to speak, for our paths are different. Neither is higher, neither is lower, and they are my brethren. But there are other challenges to be faced by those who chose to remain apart from the certainties and securities of swearing fealty. If you would know whether they should swear fealty in any given situation, you should seek them out. Wisdom lies on the path, and will be best understood by those who tread it.
5 – Ever
Ever. Always. At every moment. Without fail or respite. Every. Moment. Of. Your. Life. If this is the burden (and, yes, the joy) you would take up, then this is not a hindrance to your swearing fealty. If you want to be free to be untrue, or to be something other than good (say, to be just OK), do not take this oath. You are forever on stage, even when in modern clothes in a modern venue (say, a mall, or whilst driving). When you might do something unchivalrous, no matter when, no matter where, if it is noticed it will reflect badly not just on you, not just on your consort, but on all Knights and all Masters and Mistresses at Arms. To some, your every act will reflect upon all Peers. And to the newcomer, who knows enough of the Society to know that Peers are the most accomplished of our Society, and who may (erroneously) believe that our Order is more equal than the others, your every act reflects upon the entire Society. There should be no occasion for “best behavior”, because we are obligated always to exercise best behavior. Always. At every moment. Without fail or respite. Every. Moment. Of. Your. Life.
6 – Good
Good: look into your heart and your conscience. Look carefully, intently, privately, and with an absolute commitment to the truth. While what is “good” can be relative under certain circumstances, it is very tempting to equate goodness with expediency. The more convenient it is to be “good”, the harder you must examine your conclusions. The more popular the expedient choice is, the more important it is for one person, committed to the truth, to stand up and speak, saying “It would be nice if this were right, but it is not.” This is among the most difficult responsibilities of a Knight. But he who sees the truth and does not speak it lacks a courage more important than that required to stand in the van of the most hopeless battle. There is only one judge, save divinity, that knows when one has not stood up for one’s beliefs, and that judge is ruthless in punishment. Your attempts to compensate, with unrelated actions, for your misstep will risk leading you into error, and off the path of Knighthood. If such an error is written in your history, you must forgive yourself, and commit yourself absolutely to avoiding a repetition. But this is not a license for a misstep. It is an imperfect treatment to keep the ghosts of our mistakes at bay. The past is written; it cannot be changed. To fulfill the duty of a Knight, one must learn to live with that past as best one can. As to the future, a commitment to the truth will compel many of your choices, reducing the likelihood of trouble when you look into the glass, or when others look upon you.
7 – A good Knight
A good Knight: the qualities listed later in the oath, and earlier, in the charge (“Know that to wear the belt and chain of a Knight…” etc.), are our Kingdom’s definition of what makes a good Knight. But there is more. There is that image you held in your early days in the Society, when some part of you wished to be a Knight, but dared not breathe your ambition to anyone. These ideals, from the golden days of your “youth” in the Society, should bear heavily on what it means to be a good Knight. You must live up to the ideals you assigned to Knighthood from your most innocent days. (Surely this is more than being a good fighter. We know many good fighters who are not Knights. So it should not be primarily about combat. The willingness to go boldly into battle, on the other hand, is another story, discussed below.) More than that, you must strive to be everyone’s ideal of a good Knight, especially those who are so new to the Society that they don’t understand how things work yet. When they encounter you, they will form opinions about all of the Chivalry, and by extension, all of the SCA. An impossible task, of course, to be a model to all of the people all of the time. But to strive for the very highest ideals that can be embodied in the term “Knight” is a worthy endeavor. It is not required that we reach that lofty summit. Indeed, we are mortal, and it is certain we will fail. But we are Knights, and it is our obligation to strive ever toward that perfection which, in our humility, we know is unreachable. If it is not for the Peers of the Realm to undertake the impossible tasks, then how shall we ask for the faith of the populace at large?
8 – True
True: faithful. In a way, this is just another aspect of being “a good Knight”, but more than anything else, it might resemble (ahem) being a good dog. (“Fido”, after all, means “faithful” or “loyal.”) “True” here is about loyalty, not just to people whom you have assured can count on you, but to ideals. While I believe faithfulness is the point of this word’s inclusion in the oath, doth it not serve well to think of its other meanings? To be true is to be plumb, as of a house or a wall that you have built properly, so that gravity tends to hold it together, not to tear it apart. To be true is to be properly even, as with a wheel, that functions neither well nor safely when it is out of round. And true is, of course, not false. Your veracity, and doing what you’ve said you’ll do, are of the essence of Knighthood. By your prowess, you have demonstrated you are strong enough to get away with not doing what you’ve said you’d do. By your gentilesse, you have declared that it would never occur to you to do such a thing.
9 – Reverent
Reverent: Respectful of all religions, never offending others in the private exercise of their faith, much as our charge states. But reverence is more. We “reverence” when dancing, whether that courtesy is shown to our consort or to the stranger who has asked us for the dance. We give our respect likewise to the Regis Curia as we pass before the Thrones, even when they are empty. The word “reverent” shares the same root as the word “revere”, which is indeed the meaning of “reverence” when used as a verb. And when we reverence toward the Thrones, we ennoble them with our respect of them. Without our acknowledgement, the most ornately carved and ornamented Siege Royal is nothing more than an empty chair. With our reverence, the meanest sheet metal folding chairs are imbued with the awesome majesty of the Crown, and of the Kingdom which the Crown serves. The duty to be reverent thus is not intended to enhance our own stature, but to elevate the importance of those things we reverence. Do not mistake this for self-importance; the thing is worthy of respect, whether or not you, Sir, show your own respect for it. To be reverent is akin to an act of submission to the greater importance of that which we reverence. It is as fortunate a coincidence as may be found that, like fealty, which burdens and strengthens both liege and liegeman, reverence ennobles and enhances both the person paying respect, and that to which the respect is paid.
And this, of course, begs the question: what do we, as individuals, and as an Order, revere? To what do we give offering and, indeed, sacrifice? If “fighting” is all that comes quickly to mind, then let us contemplate why we are called, not Masters of the Locker Room, but the Order of Chivalry. We must revere more than prowess. And I submit that this is of sufficient moment that we should discard the description of ourselves as “a fighting Order.” Does this concept bode well for those who are charged most profoundly to exercise unceasingly our skills in the peaceful aspects of Chivalry? This is not to say that combat is unimportant: prowess at arms is an essential component of the essence of Knighthood. (Masters and Mistresses of the Pelican have demonstrated their “prowess” in service, those of the Laurel their “prowess” in arts and sciences. Likewise we have demonstrated prowess at arms.) But let us be first an Order of Peerage, and then speak of that other essential, mastery at arms (note the lower case “m”; no intrusion intended, Masters and Mistresses), secondly.
10 – Generous to all
A knight must be generous to all, says our charge. It is often easy to be generous to the Crown, or a Great Officer, or to the Society. It is little burden to be generous to those who are influential, or when our generosity will bring us renown. More important is the generosity we show to those who are of common station, even in small things. It is a fact that Knights are accorded some leeway that others are not, and that our misdeeds, while often held under a microscope, may also be winked at. In this way, the populace “cooperates” with us to overlook our small failings, to the greater good of the concept of Knighthood itself, if not to the betterment of ourselves as Knights. “He’s only human”, they will think with some sympathy. In similar fashion, let us be most generous to those of modest station – as we all were – in small, but personal ways. Let the Knight hold a door for a stranger… and smile in the doing. Let him go out of his way to see where he may be of help. Let him ask how he may help even in those minutes of uncommitted time. Let him greet the newcomers, and enthusiastically encourage their stated interests in calligraphy and spinning. It is a small balance to how we must look as we rush off to the secrecy of our meetings, wherein we plot our iron-fisted dominion over the Kingdom.
11 – Shield of the weak
Shield of the weak: Especially when they are politically unpopular. For such people find the rules of little comfort to them when they are crushed under the relentless momentum of public opinion. Especially where innuendo or any falsehood has contributed to their unpopularity, it is our duty as Knights to speak out in their defense. If nothing else, we must point out when emotions have run away and taken the crowd along, and remind all to look at facts that can be verified. Rumor is one of the most insidious and blameworthy faults of the culture we have created in the Society. We must not contribute to it. Back to the top.
12 – Obedient to my liege lord
Obedient to my liege lord: Even if you do not believe your liege lord is worthy of your obedience. Even if you have philosophical differences with your liege lord. Even if your liege lord is a jerk. You took an oath, and this is in it. If you don’t want to do this because Lord Yucko may someday be King, then Knighthood is not for you. By your obedience to the King and Queen, you show the steadfastness that is Knighthood. You show the Kingdom that it may count on you, even if it must do so through the offices of one who is not to be emulated. It could be a matter of great debate to determine where we draw the line in our homage and obedience to our liege lord. Surely, we should come to battle when summoned, unless compulsion prevents us. Just as surely, we should not commit crime merely because – may it never happen – the Crown might ask us to. (Remember, this is a philosophical point – I know of no example in our history that fits this description, or comes anywhere close.) Somewhere in the middle of these two extremes we find the line we must not cross. Much like our individual ideas about the very point and purpose of Chivalry, the exact location of this line will no doubt be a matter of some varying opinion. It is a convenient reality that most who win the Throne by right of arms are themselves Chivalry, whom we may approach (or even privately reproach, if need be) as a brother or sister, even whilst they wear the Crown. As for those who are not Chivalry, let us continually strive to improve ourselves, so that they will aspire all the more to become members of our Order, and thereby take counsel, even correction from us.
13 Foremost in battle
Foremost in battle: On and off the field. Of standing in the gap and holding off the enemy alone, I need say little. We are all prepared to do so, proud of the Kingdom we serve. If that means we are in the melee for seven seconds, so be it. (And remember, someone must guard the baggage wagons. If that is you, show the Known World of what stuff a Midrealm Knight is made, and do so with the same pride in your Kingdom that would have you fly to the enemy, no matter how they outnumber us.) There are, of course, other battles, harder battles. The hardest are the battles with yourself. When you face a novice who gets through your defense, the battle may be with your pride. When a friend is wrongly accused, and has become very unpopular, you must stand for the truth, whether it makes you disliked as your friend, or distances you from him.
There is no pain of war, no sting of offense, greater than knowing that you have been untrue to your principles. When you know you should take a stand that will be opposed by many, you must satisfy your values over popular opinion. (I trust these are the values that strengthen the station of Knighthood, consistent with your oath and the charge laid upon you.)
You may be faced with a choice between what is popular, and what is right. Is this not the same as choosing between your reputation and your character? (I was asked the difference once. Your reputation is what others think of you. Your character is what you think of yourself.)
14 – Courteous at all times
Courteous at all times: At all times. And to all people. Most especially those who have shown that they deserve no courtesy. As Peers, it is our duty to lead by example. It may be that your courtesy toward a boor or scoundrel will be the epiphany that turns his heart. This is rare, but invaluable when it happens. More often, though, you might be seen by one of that great number of polite persons who feel too shy to shed their modern facade of indifference. By extending your courtesy to those who do not deserve it, you show others the path that they may take toward making our Society the assemblage of Ladies and of Gentlemen that we should be at all times, and that we must be when we take up arms.
15 – Champion of the right and good
Champion of the right and the good: As with “foremost in battle”, it is easy to defend the right and the good when everyone wants to. And when no one wants to defend the right and the good, that is the most important time for a Knight to step forward and do so. Indeed, we have no liberty merely to “defend” the right and the good. We are to champion the right and the good. We are not free merely to redress things wrong and bad. We must take the initiative to advance what is right, and what is good.
16 – Swear
We use the word “swear” twice in this oath, and I submit that we do it on purpose. It is to emphasize that this is an important thing we do, not just a bunch of words to say. To express extreme negativity, Chaucer, for instance, used multiple negatives, without any mathematical “canceling” as in modern English. (“He went not never away, nowhenever nohow”, or words to that effect, to mean “He always stayed home.”) And likewise, we say, “I swear. I really swear.” Not “I promise.” Again, this is no slight to those who elect not to swear fealty, and we must ever stand ready to defend all those who are taken to task because they “merely” promise their service, lest they be thought to be second class citizens. Our Brethren Masters at Arms are among these, and let no one say there is any less chivalry in them. Let us stand resolutely with them if ever they feel the need to respond to such a base and ignorantly-spoken charge.
With that said, we choose to swear because it means something to us. We must imbue it with meaning whenever we do it. Not least in this is the recent trend toward swearing our fealty to the Crown without the prompting of the court herald. This prompting has its place, to be sure. It is better, generally, to speak the oath properly with prompting than improperly without. But is it not better still to know it, know it so well that no prompting is needed? To have learned it because it is what you are. It is, if I may, your job description. If we agree that Knighthood is not a trivial thing, that it is an embodiment of the highest ideals we might hope to achieve in our lives, whether in or out of the Society, is it not deserving of the slight effort needed to put it to memory? Those who aspire to the burdens (and joys) of Knighthood should know it, not as an end in itself, but that they might always be able to meditate upon it, whenever a quiet hour may present itself. Our oath we swear as a way of expressing, among other things, its value to us as our publicly-proclaimed obligation. Let us show that value by knowing it. Not just its words, but its meaning also. And not just to know it, or recite it, but to be living examples of something greater than ourselves, that we can admire as we did in our youth, and as the youth around us do in our time, now.