A common thread among SCA members is our fascination with the idea of Knighthood. Many of us got our first taste of the medieval world reading about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, or the exploits of Richard the Lionheart, or maybe the tragic but noble self-sacrifice of the Song of Roland. Even the least martial among us has probably thought about what it means to be a knight. Mistress Arianna of Wynthrope interviewed several members of Æthelmearc’s Order of Chivalry to find out how they view their role as Knights of the Society.

The Chivalric Virtues

When asked what being a knight meant to them, many of the knights of Æthelmearc referenced the Chivalric Virtues. Curiously, there is no real agreement, even in the scholarly world, as to what those virtues are.

gwayneThe tale Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, written around 1400, has Sir Gawain bearing a shield with a pentangle representing five knightly virtues. Duke Guillaume de la Belgique of the Kingdom of Caid, who writes frequently on chivalric topics, lists a set of six chivalric virtues. Count Sir Garick von Kopke of the Kingdom of the Outlands wrote an essay on chivalric virtues in which he lists eight knightly virtues from Le Ordene de Chevalrie, The Ordination of Knighthood, a 12th or 13th century anonymous French poem, and the 13th century work by Raymon Lull, Libre del Orde de Cauayleria, The Book of the Order of Chivalry. Most comprehensively, the Midrealm’s Middle Wiki states:

The Seven Knightly Virtues are much written about and there is no one authoritative list of them. Some historic accounts have four virtues, others have six. Even for those that list seven, those seven differ greatly. As Knights and Chivalry are important to the SCA, so does Chivalric Virtue play a part in our Society. Some of the commonly referenced Knightly Virtues are:

Chastity                                                   Compassion
Courage                                                   Courtesy
Faith                                                        Fortitude
Franchise                                                  Honor
Honesty or Truthfulness                             Humility
Largesse or Generosity                               Loyalty
Noblesse, Nobility or Noblesse Oblige          Prowess
Prudence                                                   Reason

It might be agreed that these virtues can be used to describe a person who is good and noble. But beyond that, what does it mean to be a knight in the SCA, where our Chivalry are not called upon to literally spill their blood in defense of the realm?

Duke Malcolm Duncan MacEoghainn, photo by Baroness Ekaterina Volkova.

Duke Malcolm Duncan MacEoghainn, photo by Baroness Ekaterina Volkova.

Duke Malcolm Duncan MacEoghainn, who was knighted by Æthelmearc in 2000, put it this way: “The short answer is it means I am expected to be everyone’s exemplar of the ideal at all times. You see, everyone has a visceral, almost instinctive concept of “Knight.” Our culture is inundated with the imagery and we all grow up hearing stories of King Arthur and Knights in Shining Armor. I would venture to say that there is no one that you could interview anywhere that does not have SOME concept of “Knight” and what a knight is supposed to be or how they’re supposed to behave. Our culture has created such a mythos around “Knight” that the word has come to be more of a concept of behavior rather than just a man.”

Duke Malcolm noted that there are a lot of expectations placed on the Knights of the Society. “When I put on my belt, everyone who looks upon me has an expectation of me: that I am a great fighter, that I am Noble, that I am Chivalrous (which also has an incredibly diverse definition) – that I am all these things, and many others, all the time. Along with this, any time anyone sees me that knows me as a Knight, expects that, not just in the context of the SCA world, but also in all their dealings and in all their interactions with me. Those of us who identify as Knights are held to that standard and are subject to the internal judgment of all we encounter.”

Duke Maynard von dem Steine. Photo by Baron Steffan Wolfgang von Ravensburg.

Duke Maynard von dem Steine. Photo by Baron Steffan Wolfgang von Ravensburg.

Duke Maynard von dem Steine, who was knighted by Æthelmearc in 2000, had a similar attitude. “To me, being a knight means putting others’ needs before your own. As a Knight, you represent the Crown and the Kingdom as well as the Society, so when you put that white belt on, you have to remember that you’re expected to live up to every kid’s expectations of what a Knight is, keeping the seven Chivalric virtues in mind at all times. A knight is the hand of the King, doing the King’s justice and following his word.”

Duke Eliahu ben Itzhak, who was knighted by the Midrealm in 1983, agrees that knighthood is not something one can put on or take off. “Most knights don’t consider themselves only knights on weekends, they don’t take it off with their garb, chain and belt. It’s inside, part of who they are. There are some exceptions who wear the accoutrements of the knight but I would not call them a knight because it’s not inside them, not part of who they are.”

His Grace continued, “For me, Knighthood as a concept is the single best embodiment of the virtues I was raised with. I’m Jewish by background; I was raised with virtues of courage, honesty, and service, so chivalric virtues were the cultural ones I grew up with. My models were biblical stories of Hebrew warriors, and tales of knights. In many ways, those were the same thing.”

“My father said, to be a mensch, you need chutzpah and rachmones (courage and compassion). For me, that’s a knight. Knights may be admired for their prowess, but they are loved for their kindness. I’ve heard it said of a lot of knights, “Wow, that guy can fight, but he’s a real ass…” I prefer “Yes, that fellow can fight, but he’s a really nice guy.” People remember the knights who take the time to be kind, teach people things, be gracious. I may have had memorable exploits of prowess that I and other knights recall, but what most people remember is when I was generous with my time, kind, helpful, or compassionate.”

Sir Thorgrim Skullsplitter, who was knighted by Æthelmearc in 2009, also feels that being a knight is not something you do only at SCA events. When considering candidates for the Chivalry, he said he looks for people who are chivalrous both in and out of garb. “I like to see how candidates for the chivalry behave in their real lives, not just in the SCA when they think people are watching. Do they live up to those virtues 24/7?”

Being a knight is not about how hard you can hit, but about whether you stand up for people who need protection, who are being bullied or treated with discourtesy. – Sir Thorgrim

Sir Thorgrim continues, “The Knightly Virtues align well with the Boy Scouts’ creed, which I very much hold to. Prowess is not as important as being a good person. Without those other virtues, a fighter is just another thug.”

While every knight interviewed espoused the ideals of chivalry, they also acknowledged that it can be a struggle sometimes to maintain those levels of behavior every day. Duke Malcolm said, “To be a Knight is to strive to be that, and understand that it’s a sysiphic ordeal. Each day you awake and each day you rededicate to the purpose. Each day you do your best to be the best influence you can on those you encounter. No matter how hard you train, you can always train harder. No matter how much kindness you show, you can always show more. No matter how supportive you are, you can always give more. “

Viscount Bear the Wallsbane, knighted by the East Kingdom in 1989, agreed. “Of course we fail; we’re human. But true Chivalry get back up, dust themselves off, and try again and again.”

Aspiring to the Chivalry

There are, seemingly, as many opinions about what it takes to become a member of the Chivalry as there are knights and masters at arms. Interestingly, none of the Chivalry interviewed talked about technique or even general skill level. Instead, their emphasis was on commitment to fighting, but also on participating in all aspects of the Society.

Viscount Bear the Wallsbane, photo by Arianna of Wynthrope.

Viscount Bear the Wallsbane, photo by Mistress Arianna of Wynthrope.

Viscount Bear said “If you want to be a knight in the SCA, you have to dedicate your life to the pursuit of that white belt. Hit every SCA event you can, and fight as often as you can, not just to gain in prowess, but also to become known among the Chivalry. The Knights want newer fighters to hunt them and challenge them. I was disappointed to see several big name Dukes at the Delftwood Muster in February just standing around waiting for someone to challenge them, but hardly anyone did. I had to urge the younger fighters to go after them.”

His Excellency continued, “As far as candidates for the Chivalry, prowess is the most important element to me.” When asked about melee combat vs. tournament fighting, Sir Bear said, “That’s an area of disagreement within the Chivalry: whether a fighter’s primary skill area has to be tourney fighting. We’ve made knights whose abilities were primarily in melee combat, but I go by Corpora which explicitly says that a prospective Knight must be the equal of his or her peers in tournament combat. On the other hand, we’ve had some knights who started as primarily melee fighters but then improved their tournament skills over time.”

Duke Maynard looks for people who are persistent and work hard. “In candidates for the Knighthood, I look for people who are hungry, who are trying to learn. Anyone can be a knight. When I began in the SCA, I never imagined myself achieving everything I have accomplished. I had a couple of friends who had much more natural talent than I did as fighters, but I kept working at it while they dropped out. In my opinion, those who have to work hard to become good fighters are often better knights than those who have natural talent, because they’ve had to not only analyze their technique, but also maintain a certain work ethic that they can then pass along to other fighters.”

His Grace also stressed the importance of having the right attitude. “When I was squired to Duke Christopher of York, he didn’t really teach me specific shots so much as a way of thinking about fighting, including having the confidence that I could win fights. I teach my own squires that same mental preparation, including analyzing both their opponents’ fighting and their own, but also believing in themselves. So much of fighting is mental rather than physical.”

Duchess Rowan de la Garnison.

Duchess Rowan de la Garnison, photo by Lord István Nyiregyhaz.

Duchess Rowan de la Garnison, who in 1998 became the first woman knighted by Æthelmearc, agrees that perseverance is key. “When I joined the SCA, I had this wench persona and was kind of a party girl. But as a kid I used to play knight errant and attack things with sticks, beating up all the boys so I could be Queen, so I guess it was kind of natural that I took up fighting. It took me three tries to qualify as a fighter, but I just kept plugging away at it. I only got serious about fighting a few years later, when I started going to more tourneys and to practices 3 times a week.”

Her Grace echoed Viscount Bear’s thoughts about hunting the Chivalry, both to improve and to become better known. “I was told to always challenge the Knights if I wanted to get better. When they beat me, I asked them to show me the shots they used to kill me so I could learn how to throw them myself. That’s what up and coming fighters need to do: show that you want it. Target the Chivalry, get on the field early, stay late, then ask for feedback from those you fight so you can learn.”

Duchess Rowan had the same experience as Duke Maynard, in not being the most naturally talented fighter but achieving a white belt through perseverance. “I had been a fighter for over ten years when I was knighted, so my path was always about persistence, about plugging away and figuring out how to improve. Once I got serious about my fighting I started working out, and learned the body mechanics that would allow me to increase the power in my shots so people would take them. As a woman with less upper body strength than the male fighters, I couldn’t just use brute force, so good technique was vital.”

Some women have trouble being aggressive, but those who get past that can be just as good as the men. – Duchess Rowan

She also had some advice on what fighters can expect as they improve. “The way the Chivalry fight you will change over time. When you’re new, you might be happy to be able to block a few shots before they kill you. As you get better, you might start to kill a knight or two, but when they get to know you and take you seriously as a threat, they’ll bring their “A” game against you. At that point, you will actually start losing more often against the chivalry. Don’t get discouraged – everyone hits plateaus, so it’s important to keep learning everything you can. At some point, eventually something will just “click” and your fighting will go up a level, sometimes quite suddenly.”

As the first female knight in the Kingdom, Duchess Rowan remembers that it was tough breaking through some barriers. “When I started fighting (in the 1980s), there was some discrimination against women. Some Kingdoms, like the Midrealm, even had rules forbidding women from fighting as late as the mid to late 1970s, and there were male fighters who refused to fight women because they felt it was unchivalrous to hit a woman. Other men refused to take our blows because they weren’t willing to admit that a woman could hit them hard enough to kill. These days there’s a lot less bias against female fighters – they’re not coddled but more accepted as equals.”

Her Grace continued with some advice specifically for female fighters who seek the accolade. “Duchess Elina of Beckenham, who was knighted about a year ago by the Midrealm, wrote a terrific book called The Armored Rose that explains the differences not only in body mechanics, but also in mindset between men and women in the martial arts. Duchess Elina’s book offers great advice for women on how to add power to their blows using their own natural movement styles. There are so many issues that women fighters face which men do not, beginning with the fact that women are trained from childhood to be nurturing and not to hurt other people. Just getting past their concern about injuring their opponents is a big hurdle for some women. In addition, women are more likely to have to take breaks in training, whether because of issues with their menstrual cycles, or because they get pregnant and have children.”

I think the most important attribute for a knight is ethics. – Sir Thorgrim

Sir Thorgrim prefers to focus on character rather that skill. “To me, prowess is not all.  Of all the knightly virtues, I believe only prowess can be learned as an adult. All the others, you acquire as a child from your parents. Call them your moral compass.” He continued, “I will take a fighter as a dependent in a heartbeat if they possess the other knightly virtues; I can always teach them prowess. Some in the Chivalry may feel that prowess is the most important thing, but I do not.”

When asked about the path to knighthood, Duke Eliahu also was less interested in talking about the fighting itself than in the philosophy he wants to see in candidates for the Chivalry. “I tell people there’s a difference between wanting to be knighted and wanting to be a knight; wanting to receive the accolade and wanting to be worthy of the accolade; wanting to be seen as a knight and wanting to live as a knight.“

Duke Eliahu ben Itzhak.

Duke Eliahu ben Itzhak, photo by Lady Dianimh Ban.

He continued, “It’s appropriate to have the goal of becoming a knight, of living as a knight, being on the path of knighthood. Goals can be way points or end points. If the knighthood is seen as an end point, that’s not appropriate – they don’t understand what knighthood is.”

His Grace went on to explain how fighting is more about a process than a product. “I’m an adjunct professor of design and marketing. I teach both fighters and design students to work the process to get a good outcome. If you focus on the result, you’re less likely to get a good product. Art, design, fighting, whatever – work the process. “

He also emphasized the importance of individualized training. “The way I teach is to try to make it as individual as possible, see where someone is in their knowledge and ability, and help them find a path to success and improvement. What are their strengths and weaknesses? I push people to get better at their weaknesses rather than work on their strengths. I wouldn’t give someone advice until I understood where they are and what they need. I may give technical fighting advice to start if they aren’t getting it, thinking and strategy and movement. But being a knight takes too much work and has too many challenges for someone who doesn’t love fighting. If they want to be there, I won’t be able to stop them.”

Duke Malcolm similarly emphasized the soul-searching that aspirants to knighthood should do. “What advice would I give a fighter who seeks to become a Knight? That honestly would depend on who is doing the asking, but if it were being asked by someone whom I’d never met and knew nothing about, my first bit of advice would be to ask “why?” Why does she/he seek the white belt? Does she want to be that good of a fighter? Does he want to be acknowledged as one of the best fighters? These are the two most common responses, but in all truth, my advice is to sit down and think very long and hard about exactly *what* it is they seek, and why. If they truly have determined that they want to be a “Knight” and not just “the kick-butt” fighter, then the advice alters to guide them there. If they really want to be a Knight, then the advice is for the person to know to their core what being a Knight is – to them – and live it. It is said that you have to be a knight before you become a Knight. It’s true. Once you live it, you’re already there.”

It’s Not Just About the Fighting

Sir Thorgrim Skullsplitter. Photo by Sir Thorgrim.

Sir Thorgrim Skullsplitter. Photo courtesy of Sir Thorgrim.

Sir Thorgrim emphasized the importance of service and relationships in the SCA. “At one point I trained with fighters who had prowess as their goal, but over time I found that service to the fighting community was a better path for me. Originally I was squired to Duke Rurik Longsword, and I learned most of my technique from him. Later, I squired to Sir Kadan Chákhilgan Ger on Echen. Obviously, he and I have very different body types, so our relationship wasn’t so much about him teaching me technique (except some footwork) as it was about having the right attitude and philosophy about fighting. In particular, he taught me about the importance of family and friendships within the SCA, and I’ve tried to foster those kinds of relationships with my own dependents.”

Duke Maynard also felt that relationships are key. “It’s important not to take the SCA and rank within it too seriously. When the regalia comes off, we’re all equals and the titles don’t matter. Friendship is really the foundation of the Society for me.” That said, His Grace did not feel that a fighter must be a squire to become a knight, though it can help. “Your Knight can be an advocate for you in the order, and can also push you to practice when you might not feel like it.”

His Grace also wants to see candidates for the Chivalry who are well-rounded participants in the Society as a whole. “As a general rule, those who aspire to Knighthood should also take an active role in their shire or barony – be involved in service, get to know people who are not fighters. You can’t be a peer of any type if you don’t have at least a basic understanding of all the elements that make up the SCA: garb, heraldry, history, and so on.”

Having a diverse background and knowledge of all aspects of the SCA makes me a better peer and a better knight. – Duke Maynard

Duchess Rowan also felt that knowing more than just fighting is important. “We especially want to see service – go wash dishes, mop an event hall, help take down list ropes, marshal and train other fighters. When we discuss candidates, it’s really common for people to ask “What else does he do besides fight?” Pick up an art. Many fighters get into armoring, brewing, leatherwork, or blacksmithing. You can be knighted for being a hot stick as long as you’re reasonably well-rounded, but a solidly competent fighter who isn’t spectacular on the field can also be knighted if they have a really complete package of service, arts, and courtesy.”

She also likes to see fighters who can lead troops on the field or generate enthusiasm among the fighters in their area. “Because we choose our Kings and Queens by combat, we expect our Chivalry to be leaders, not only good individual fighters. You need to prove that you can be a leader on the field of battle, and learn to be at least a little charismatic so others will follow you. We look to the next generation of Chivalry to bring others into fighting, to build enthusiasm in their fighting communities.”

After You’ve Been Knighted – Continuing on the Path

Once you do receive the accolade, the journey continues with new responsibilities.

Sir Mord Hrutsson the Green, photo by Baron William Widefarer.

Sir Mord Hrutson the Green, photo by Baron William Widefarer (Les Berkley).

Sir Mord Hrutson the Green, who was knighted by the East Kingdom in 1993, commented from Gulf Wars, “We all try to be chivalrous; we all succeed in one form for a brief moment. We all fail in another – sometimes for longer times. For instance, I am sore and tired today. I don’t feel too much like fighting. Yet, my king will be on the field today. Fealty, oaths, chivalry require that I be there.”

Sir Thorgrim explained how his approach to fighting has changed since he was knighted. “Since becoming a knight, I’ve felt much less urgency about fighting in tournaments. I don’t have a huge desire to be King, and I believe I’ve proven myself in the list field. My primary interest now is in training new fighters and helping to build Æthelmearc’s army through melee work. I can have a greater impact that way, building enthusiasm among younger fighters. When I became a regional commander, I went from being responsible for training 20 people to 120 people. I love seeing these younger fighters’ passion.”

Sir Bear’s focus has also changed since he is now medically prohibited from fighting. “I consider my role to serve as an inspiration and to teach, not just my squires, but everyone who’s interested. I also try to instill the chivalric values in my squires, including support of the Kingdom. Right now some of them are annoyed with me because I’ve told them they all need to take up archery so they can shoot in the Pennsic War Point. This Pennsic in particular, Æthelmearc will need all the war points it can get, and our job is to support the Kingdom in every way we can.”

Duke Maynard talked about how the SCA has changed his life outside the Society. “I found that the SCA, and especially being a knight as well as having been King, made me a better person in real life. I’m a better manager and a better public speaker. I’m more confident. As a knight in the SCA, I feel responsible for helping others. As a group, the Society has the ideal of what everyone should be – chivalrous and courteous – and that ideal carries through to real life, so I find myself more courteous to the people I work with, too.”

Duke Eliahu feels that one of the roles of the Chivalry is to be, like all peers, the problem-solvers in the Society. “Every organization has people with institutional memory, people who know how to get things done. In the SCA that’s the peers and the officers. The peers can fix social problems, hopefully recognizing them before they become big problems and blow up. The best servants of the Crown and Society get things done in a way that is professional, without causing additional drama.”

His Grace also mused on the issues faced by Chivalry as they age. “Being a knight and getting older is increasingly a challenge for a lot of people. A knight who was physically gifted but not very technical will see their ability decline, and if they don’t replace that with strategy, technique, and wisdom, eventually they can’t do what they did when they were younger. Some of them stop fighting and drop out of the SCA, which is a shame.”

SCA fighters need to understand that the real fight is about controlling the bout, not about a trick or technique. – Duke Eliahu

Duke Eliahu recounted how he realized 15 years ago that his fighting style had not kept pace with developments in the field. After some consideration, he went to some of the best technical fighters he knew and asked them to help him start over. “I worked with Duke Ragnvaldr and Duke Brannos (of the Midrealm) to relearn how to fight. They taught me how to stand, move, breathe, throw blows, everything. I practiced once or twice per week plus some pell work to make the new style automatic. If I hadn’t done that, I would no longer have been on the path, I would have been sitting down on the path.” Eliahu says he also organized what he learned from them into a teaching methodology so he could pass it along to others. “It was frustrating sometimes, but also exciting because at every practice I was learning something new,” His Grace said.

Duke Malcolm summed it up: “Knighthood is more than just a meaningless word that references some particular achievement in a 45+ year-long running social organization. To me, being a Knight means making a commitment to a way of life. The Code of Chivalry isn’t a checklist or even something that is the same from one moment to the next. Like the Zen concept of Beginner’s mind, it is by its very nature unable to be specified beyond ‘Doing what is right.’ The hard part is defining that ‘right’ and living up to it.”