Bright Ideas and True Confessions: How and What to Do and Why


What Really Happens in Peers' Circles [1]

Non-peers are sometimes nervous about what's happening in peers' circles-those closed, confidential meetings of the orders of peerage. The laurels all flow by and talk softly for too long, the pelicans flap by and talk too loudly for a while, then the chivalry (the knights and masters of arms, commonly referred to as "the belted circle")-stay and talk and talk and talk. What are they doing, and how, and why?

The main purpose of these meetings is for members of the orders of peerage to advise the Crown concerning candidates for their order. Occasionally other topics of concern to that group are discussed, either at the king's request (seeking counsel) or the circle's (seeking clarification on the position of the sovereign) and often members will recommend individuals for awards other than a peerage, since the king and queen are there and it's a good place to unfold the merits of an up-and-comer.

All orders are looking for the same things, up to a point. Those are laid out in Corpora (the rules for the entire Society) and include obedience to laws, respect for the Crown, courtesy and noble behavior, knowledge of and practice of several courtly arts, etc. (See a copy of Corpora if you haven't already.) [2]

In the Outlands the circles begin with a physical ring of members-either a person's hand on the shoulder of the person to his right, or people's arms around their neighbors' backs. The king exhorts them to let what is spoken remain in that circle. "This circle" refers to the larger circle of the members of that order; a pelican can discuss with an absent pelican later what happened, but never with a person who is not a member of that order. Exceptions are sometimes specifically made on philosophical issues, but information on candidates is always confidential.

After the meeting is begun, the king will usually state the agenda, if there are matters for discourse, or maybe he will call for recommendations and discussion of candidates. A name may be introduced by the king and queen, either from their own feelings about a person, from having received a recommendation from outside, or from the name having come up in an earlier circle. A member of the order might propose a name to be discussed. If it's the first discussion of a candidate the king and queen will take notes and take the name to a circle, probably two or more, in other parts of the kingdom. If the candidate has already been discussed elsewhere, a summary of the comments from recent circles might be made.

Usually the king will start at one side of the circle or another and each member present has an opportunity to make a comment on the individual's works and qualities. Sometimes the member might say "I don't know the gentleman myself, but I'll watch for him," or "I hadn't paid attention to [this aspect] and I will in the future." Members of the order who live far away from the candidate might use their turn to ask someone who knows the candidate more intimately what they think. Occasionally the Crown will begin the discussion by asking particular individuals for their opinions, and later go all the way around the circle. THIS IS THE BIG SECRET PART OF THE MEETING, what is said and by whom. If it weren't so secret, people wouldn't be honest and the king would be wasting his time asking. Even if one says "I think he'll be ready in a couple of years but he's not ready yet," that could be hurtful to the candidate if it came back to him. "What's wrong with me?" is not a good feeling to have. Much more often than not, the comments are good ones, but occasionally someone knows something negative about a candidate that the other members of the order just hadn't known, and the circle is a better place to bring it up than out at a bardic circle or a pizza joint. There are enough honorable and knowledgeable people in each order that fabrications won't make it, and irresponsible comments are not tolerated.

At the end of the circle the people stand up again and the king makes a formal statement that the circle is ended, and that we are to let what was spoken in the circle remain in the circle.

Over the years I've received and overheard commentary from non-peers ranging from "What business is it of theirs what he does outside the Society" and "You have no right to judge a person as a human being," to "I can't believe you made him/her/it a peer!" and "Why didn't you ask around among the non-peers? The guy's awful." Because peers are being held up as examples for other people to follow, it's important that we ("we" the entire Society) are careful which individuals are elevated to that rank, because it's easy to get them in there and nearly impossible to get them out. The damage to a kingdom of not giving a peerage is teeny, even in a worst case scenario, but the damage done in trying to take one away, even when it's blatantly obvious that it's the right and moral thing to do, is much worse. The effect of having questionable peers is rarely discussed, but the confidence people have in their kingdom is often tied up with their perception of the degree of fairness, justice and intelligence involved. Unfair, unjust or stupid decisions in making peers affect the whole kingdom.

So what are the peers really looking for? In addition to requirements for peerage in general, the Order of the Pelican is looking for initiative, reliability, duty, direction, commitment and a good attitude about all of the above. They want people who can see what needs to be done and then do it well. Characteristics which have been counted against people in some degree at some time are such things as duplicity, lack of support for the kingdom, reluctance to accept responsibility for mistakes, and dishonesty. Disservice cancels out service.

Laurels are looking for the makers of products which by their very existence enhance the quality of life. Extremely fine embroidery which doesn't look at all period could rank behind fair embroidery which is straight off a Holbein portrait. Knowing what "medieval" should look like / taste like / sound like is a plus. When someone who could (or does) make a living in the mundane world practicing his or her art-be it armoring, painting, music, sewing, or any other craft-the circle might lean toward service and teaching rather than just skill or physical proficiency in an art. There is some consideration given to progress made within the Society, and if a person comes in without much room for improvement, that progress can be manifested in teaching, either through workshops, published instructional articles or one-on-one assistance. Ultimately the effect of the candidate's works and skills should be growing over time to ever enrich the realm. Negatives could include being concerned only with making money and never donating works to the Society, or an unwillingness to teach the art or skill to others. A "sensitive artiste" attitude is never attractive, mundanely or otherwise, and chivalry in an artist can be shown by humility, a willingness to recognize other people's works and contributions in the same field, and the mature realization that not everyone likes the very art that you may love the most. Compared to the other peerages, Laurels work separately and diversely. (Pelicans know that autocrating is like holding an office, and laurels know that teaching madrigals is not like brewing or swordmaking.)

The belted circle looks for skill at arms, honorable conduct both on and off the field and enough experience and imagination that the candidate's fighting style is unique and not just an exact copy of his teacher's. Initiative and leadership on the field are good, and reliability off the field will be noticed. A future knight should be willing and able to accept responsibility. As with any of the peerages it behooves a candidate to have a commitment to the Society as evidenced by such things as having registered arms and name, having held office or autocrated events, attendance at events other than just wars and tournaments, participation in local activities besides just fighter practice, etc. Problems which may concern the circle might be a bad attitude about losing a fight, lack or respect for marshals or heralds (and thereby the Crown they represent), unwillingness to accept suggestions or pointers, or general integrity problems.

Are there some people who just never will be peers? Not every junior high school football player will play in college. A person who gets an "A" in speech class will not necessarily become a famous orator. Some people in the past have expressed the idea that if one stays in the Society long enough, peerage is guaranteed. Unfortunately there are still people who believe this. Peerage is the mark of ability, service and personal attributes all coming together. If one of the three is missing, there is no peer.

Nice, goodhearted, chivalrous people will not all become peers. They may have no special skill in arts, fighting or management. If they're truly nice and goodhearted they won't even care. There are other awards appropriate for such people (in our own kingdom, Walker of the Way and Baron or Baroness of the Court are prestigious awards).

Great athletes, fine artists or skilled administrators are not guaranteed peerage. One may choose not to offer his talents to the local group or kingdom, preferring to use the Society as a place of rest and amusement. Another may have no interest in developing his medieval persona into a well-rounded person, and no interest in courtly graces and chivalry.

I have in mind two close friends of mine whose mundane knowledge and abilities are well known to me. They are not interested in the SCA as a full-time, all-consuming avocation. They enjoy it but they come as an escape. Were they to do in the Society what they do in their mundane lives, just for one year, they would probably be made peers (one a laurel and one a pelican). I don't talk with them about it; I just know that when they come to events it is for rest and [personal] recreation, not to stretch a 40-hour week into 60 or 80 hours. They have enough success and recognition for their SCA-usable skill in the mundane world that receiving an award from this "kingdom" would pale anyway. They have the ability aspect and the personal attributes, but service is not to be offered. Knowing that they could earn peerage if it seemed important to them, they don't mind not having it.

This leaves another group - people who have skill and willingness to serve, but whose personalities, behavior or honor leave much to be desired. This is the only scary part of this article to write, and possibly the only part that will cause any good. Certainly there are people now within the three orders of the peerage who came in through lack of foresight of ancient kings. There are some who fooled dozens of people into believing their hearts and souls were good, only to reveal themselves as better actors than knights after the belt and chain went on. I myself was fooled, and my lord with me, and many peers beside, and it could happen again. Some people point at a peer who shows less self-restraint or a lower standard of honor than would be ideal, and say "If he's a peer I should be." Two wrongs don't make a right.

What do you do about peers you don't think deserved the peerage? When one is made a peer in the Outlands (and in Atenveldt, probably Ansteorra, and maybe other lands) the oath includes honoring your fellow peers (your own and the remaining two orders). This precludes the naming of names when discussing who might not be made a peer now if we were starting all over. You probably have some idea which peers are the most solidly respected. Everyone, inside and outside the orders, has some people they look up to more than others. Part of respect for the Crown is recognizing calmly and realistically that it is the right of the king and queen to elevate people to the peerage within the rules and according to their own consciences.

If you become king or queen, you have by law the right to make peers after consultation with the members of the order (and if the people meet the qualifications outlines in Corpora). Different kingdoms have different traditions (or maybe laws) concerning the manner of the consultation, but in any case it technically means that you have to ask their advice but you don't have to take it. Say you have a friend you think should be a pelican, but the pelicans don't really agree. You can go ahead and make your friend a member of the order, but if you think you've done your friend a great honor or righted some wrong, look at it again. Will the other pelicans be overjoyed? Will they respect you more as a strong king, and embrace your friend as one of them? They might continue to bow to you and perform their offices, and they will probably not shun the new member in their circle, but the stigma will last a long time. Would you want a peerage that could only be gotten against the wishes of the order you were to enter? An engraved goblet would be a much better gift to your friend than a questionable peerage, and would cost you less too, if you consider your honor to be of worth.

Isn't it depressing knowing there are peers who might not have been made peers by current standards? It enhances the living history experience! Leftover things from olden days, be they costumes, scrolls, freon can helms or spurious peerages, all serve to let us see how far we've come. Seriously, the ideal to aim for is not admitting a person to the peerage when he's as good as the worst of them, but when he's better than the average of them. If every new peer falls in the upper half of the range (whatever hypothetical range one might imagine), then slowly and surely the average gets higher and higher, and so ten years from now it might be harder to become a member of any peerage order than it is today. There may be people who are well-received as new peers today who in twenty years will be seen as people who were let in before the standards were so high.

Why is confidentiality of the circles such a big deal? Two reasons: First, feelings can be hurt. What the peers say in those circles is not said to hurt people, but to maintain or improve the standards of peerage in the kingdom. A kingdom with good peers is a strong and well-respected kingdom. A kingdom that makes peers of just anybody becomes a place its own people, peers or not, are ashamed of. Secondly, the peers' feeling of confidence in one another can be destroyed. If the peers don't feel safe enough to be frank and honest with their opinions, advice will be watered down, if given at all. A good number of peers would rather say nothing than have what they say carried all over the kingdom and distorted. There must be trust of the Crown and the other members of the circle to respect the confidentiality of the situation. If that confidentiality were gone, the Crown would not be receiving honest advice, and we're back to the argument about the level of peerage, and people's pride in their kingdom.

If you ever hear details of who said what, who's a candidate, or who said what about one, and you aren't a member of that order, consider this: if you're hearing it from a peer, it's a very unchivalrous peer. If you're hearing it from a non-peer, it's at least second-hand and at worst fabricated. If you happen, by accident or through the indiscretion of someone with little respect for king or kingdom, to hear something which should be confidential, don't pass it on any further, but go back to that peer and say, "I shouldn't know this, please be more careful in the future."

Let me make a laurel example. If the first part of a circle's discussions concerns war points for arts, the results of the conversation are not then secret, but it would be unacceptable for laurels to go out and complain about the details of opinions of fellow laurels. This is a matter of discretion and honor. To tell one's friends, though, that we would be earning war points and the categories were thus-and-such would not hurt the circle.

How can people find out what's going on in there? If peers aren't careful, there are lots of ways. I know of people overhearing conversations between peers at camping events (peers who have forgotten that canvas and nylon aren't four inches of insulation) or in parking lots, who overhear one end of a phone conversation, or accidently pass so near a circle at an event that they hear a name. If you hear something please pretend you didn't. If it's a situation you can walk away from, that's best. If you can't (like you're at your own house and the conversation is in the next room), try "I can hear you guys." Don't quote back to them what you heard. They should be embarrassed enough.

There's a sneaky method I wholeheartedly recommend against, and I'm telling it here not so that people who hadn't thought of it can learn it, but so that peers who hadn't heard of it can be prepared to deal with it. This is fishing for information by planting bad information. If a person says "I heard Joe Bob voted against me in the circle," and you're a peer who was just lately in a circle, what are you going to say? Quick! What is it? And what's the expression on your face while you're thinking? You won't have long to consider what to do, and by your first response, the fisherman may be rewarded. Consider these plausible but dangerous responses:

"No he didn't."
"Who told you?"
"You shouldn't know that."
"He wasn't the only one."
"You weren't even brought up." AHA - that last one's the killer.

Even saying what isn't discussed in the circle is a violation of the circle. The polite assumption is that every Society member is a candidate for peerage. There are strong candidates and active candidates, and then there are future candidates or not-ready-for-prime-time candidates, but the business of who is at which stage of consideration is best kept secret.

Peers need to be careful of people fishing for information. The best answer might be to say in as neutral a way as possible that you can't discuss what goes on in the circle, or that you're not confirming or denying anything, but that it's just as inappropriate for you to verify any rumors as it was for the person to bring them to you in the first place. Don't bother to get mad if you can help it.

If the person says "Hiram says Joe Bob voted against me" it's harder. You might if possible make a joke like "and does Hiram know you'd come straight to me?" or "Hiram talks to you?" Continue to be impassive in your face so that you don't confirm or deny non-verbally. Then you head straight to Hiram or someone he'll listen to, or the king, and try to see what can be done. Consider that the non-peer may have just used Hiram's name to lend weight to a bluff.

The last way that occurs to me that information has gotten out is security clearance confusion. If three pelicans are in a car and two of them are also laurels, and they're discussing the pelican circle of the weekend, it might happen that the laurels drop a comment in front of the pelican which was from the laurels' circle, not the pelicans'. It's embarrassing. It's bad. It's not as bad as accidently telling a non-peer, but it's not good.

Can't husbands and wives tell each other what they know? If they're both in the same order, yes. Spouses of knights have no more right to know what happens in belted circles than other people do, and so on around the circles. Knights can't tell their squires. Kings and Queens can't tell their roommates. Don't even tell your mom.

How can people in a circle get information about candidates without letting on that they're doing that? A thousand good ways. Being nonchalant and talking with people about everyday matters yields names by the dozens. People will name the guys who were best on the field, or who irritated them. Attendees reviewing events will detail what they thought went wrong, or what was incredibly fun and well-organized. People sitting on the sidelines during the dancing will comment on who's the most graceful, whose garb is most beautiful, whose hats stay on during dangerous dances, etc. Anyone with ears and eyes can see the reactions of people to one another. Whose performances are watched with the most interested looks? Whose speeches are met with rolled eyes and people sneaking out? Who stays to clean up after a feast? It's the duty of peers to pay attention to the world around them. Those who do will have their words heard and appreciated. Those who don't will find their opinions losing value over time.

It's practically a violation of the circle for a peer to go out and ask someone - even his squire or his wife - "So what do you think of Joe Bob's squire? Is he chivalrous? Did he dance the other night? How did he do in the chess tournament?" Such emergency information can be gotten in better ways: "Who looked good on the dance floor Saturday?" "Are there any people you think are about ready for knighthood?" (If you get any answers to the last question, it would be best not to indicate anything about the people yourself, like "Why him?" or "Well, yeah - but who else?" Just listen to the names and say "thank you.") If the name of the candidate doesn't come up in several such conversations, that's a fair indication that he's not seen by the populace as someone overdue for recognition. The information can be gathered without violating the circle.

What can I do to influence an order of which I'm not a member? People's recommendations always have an effect. While it's true that a person probably won't be given an award just on the basis of one single recommendation (and especially not a peerage), it will be considered. If the king and queen get a letter about someone they had never heard of, now they've heard of him. If they get a letter recommending a peerage for someone they had never considered, then they consider him. The consideration may be brief, but in our kingdom, anyway, it would probably be mentioned in the circle even if the Crown feels the candidate is not nearly ready.

If you have information, good or bad, about someone and it's not generally known, you might pass it on to someone in one of the peerage orders. This can be done in a polite and subtle way - not like tattling, not like calling the cops, not like writing to the king and queen and telling them they really ought to reward this person. Don't expect an immediate result, and if it involves a person's suitability for peerage, don't expect feedback. Once something is being discussed actively in the circle, there are aspects of it which can't be discussed outside.

Let's use me and you for examples. If you see an Outlander do something good at an event outside the Outlands and you think some Outlands peers ought to know about it, you could call me. (It has happened in real life-people just saying, "You know that so-and-so, the squire of Sir X, he was so helpful and polite at Pennsic.") If it were an arts or service activity, I would mention it in the Laurel or Pelican circle. If it were a fighting matter, or if the individual were seen primarily as a fighter, I might call the King and Queen, and I'd tell my husband, Master Gunwaldt, who could either bring it up or add it to the evidence if the person did come up. If the person you call me about isn't a near-peer, I'd let the Crown know about the call anyway, so they might consider a lower-level award, or at least talk to the person and say "I heard a good report on you." If you had a bad story to tell about an Outlander I would probably go to the Crown first, but not in a panicky way. If the person were in my area and I knew him well enough, I might talk to him a little myself, in as tactful a way as possible, and discuss the idea that people outside their own kingdoms are seen as representatives of their homelands. I could get back to you about that last part, and could tell you if I had spoken with the Crown or the circle, but what's said in the circle I wouldn't be able to discuss (unless you're a member of the order).

If you're a Pelican and call me, I'll bring it up in the circle as a recommendation from a Pelican in another kingdom, and will bring it up with as much detail as I have, even if I personally don't think the person should be a peer. I do this for members of other peerages in my own kingdom, too, when they suggest things about an order they're not in. When a peer makes a recommendation, I feel obligated to treat it as fully and elaborately as the situation allows. A recommendation from a non-peer will be mentioned, at least to other members of the order or the Crown, if not formally in the circle.

If you recommend someone for peerage, either to the Crown or through one or more members of an order, and if you wait a year, or two years, and nothing happens, it doesn't mean nothing ever will happen, and if nothing ever does happen, it doesn't mean they didn't consider it. (See earlier section on why some people might not become peers.) If you feel your recommendation may have gone by the wayside, make another one in a different reign, or to different peers. Each person is an individual and will treat things a little differently.