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


What Is a Seneschal?

(If you're not interested in English, skip the first part.)

Historically, a seneschal was an official in the houshold of a sovereign or great noble, to whom the administration of justice and entire control of domestic arrangements were entrusted. The word "seneschal" has also been used to refer to the governor of a city or province, and of various administrative or judicial officers. (This is, sometimes verbatim, from the Oxford English Dictionary.)

We got the word "seneschal" from the French in the 1300's, but it can be traced further back through Latin to old Teutonic, where its "parent-word" meant, simply, "servant."

The older English equivalent of the French word "seneschal" is "steward." You might read that the origin of the word was "sty ward," meaning "keeper of the pig sty." The Oxford English Dictionary (the dictionary for historical use) mentions this story and disclaims it, saying that the first syllable is from an ancient word meaning "house." The word "house" in medieval times referred to more than just the building, it was the whole place. A pig sty was a place for pigs, or a house for pigs. The "keeper of the pig sty" was called a swineherd.

In Scotland in early times the first officer of the King of Scots was called the Lord High Steward of Scotland. He was given control of the royal household, great administrative powers and the privilege of leading the army into battle.

In England a steward was an official who controlled the domestic affairs of a household, supervising the service of his master's table, directing the household servants and regulating household expenditures. The word could also refer to one who managed the affairs of an estate on behalf of his employer, or an overseer of workmen. After the Norman conquest the words "steward" and "seneschal" were used interchangeably.

In Italy and Spain a steward was called a "major domo" (chief of the house). In the Spanish-speaking communities of northern New Mexico the major-domo [1] is the official in charge of an irrigation ditch. He collects the ditch-tax and regulates and schedules the use of the water. The less common and less glorious English term is "ditch-rider." I digress.

In SCA Practice, we parallel those medieval seneschals by being servants in charge of mundane and everyday matters. We see that our masters' estates (abstract though they are in the Society) are run properly and efficiently. We take care of routine paperwork so that the royalty and nobility we serve can see to other more pressing matters, and so that they will have time to enjoy some of the privileges their positions afford them.

The Ideal Seneschal

Ideally, seneschals should have

  • tact
  • diplomacy
  • discretion
  • the ability to organize and to inspire other people to get things done
  • the ability and willingness to write letters and reports
  • willingness to compromise
  • respect for the Crown and a healthy humility (or at least the ability to fake it convincingly)
  • sense of service and responsibility
  • ability to put the good of the group before personal desire

Physical Accoutrements Which Come In Very Handy

  • filing cabinet
  • word processing equipment or a typewriter
  • stapler
  • telephone
  • access to inexpensive photocopying income sufficient to support your office (Group funds/stipends are sometimes received, but you can't count on them.)

The Secret Society Of Seneschals

The seneschals are not a secret society. Explain what you're doing as often as possible to as many people as will listen.

The Seneschal As Servant

Keep in mind, always that as seneschal you are a servant. Let that affect your judgment and all your actions as seneschal. [2]

Some time back there was a new group whose seneschal's great enthusiasm was often misdirected and I feared an attitude was forming which could damage the group. On the way back from an event at which I'd spoken at some length with this seneschal, I composed a letter. It made me feel good to write it, but I never mailed it because it was cutting. A passage is excerpted here.

Virtues a gentleman or gentlelady must strive to attain:

  • courtliness
  • truthfulness
  • hospitality
  • courtesy
  • respect for the Crown.

We all must have these as our goals, particularly seneschals. Seneschals have much responsibility and little privilege; they receive much blame and little praise; they must be ever mindful that the shire is not theirs, but the prince's or king's.

Enthusiasm is good, but it must be balanced with careful and impartial judgment.

In a new group, the seneschal should set an example for the other members. One function of the seneschal should be to make peace and to discourage political in-fighting, not participate in it.

You are answerable for your actions, and for the well-being of your shire. This is a grave responsibility.

Reporting and responsibility

Shire seneschals: You report to the principality or kingdom seneschal, who will report your activities to the appropriate royalty. In our feudal system, the Prince or King is your lord, and in our bureaucratic system you approach him through your superior, his seneschal.

Baronial seneschals also report to the principalty (if applicable) or kingdom seneschal, and include information on any cantons you might have. It would show great courtesy if you could give a copy of your report to your Baron or Baroness. They represent the King's presence in the Barony.

Principality seneschals report to the Prince and to the Kingdom Seneschal.

Kingdom seneschals report to the King and to the Steward.

Do as the Prince or King asks you to whenever you can. If you are pressed to do something illegal (SCA illegal, I mean) or that goes against your conscience, ask the kingdom seneschal or steward (your direct superior) for help. He or she can appeal to the King (or other applicable character) on your behalf, and otherwise mediate. If it comes to an appeal to the steward or board, that would come best from the kingdom seneschal. In any case, if you must be stubborn, do so respectfully and as pleasantly as possible. Some of the seneschal's responsibilities at the various levels:

keep records
preside over officers' meetings
keep peace and foster prosperity
report your group's activities
all of the above, plus help assure that the Baron or Baroness is treated with respect
see to all of the above
serve the king coordinate activities within the kingdom
keep the calendar (this may be delegated, but is ultimately the seneschal's responsibility)
keep the Steward and the Crown informed of activities and problems within the kingdom
try to see that each group has a warranted seneschal who is well-meaning, functional and compatible
properly register new groups
see that subordinate seneschals are educated and have access to necessary documents, reference works, blank forms, etc.

Every seneschal should strive to foster respect for the Crown by example and through education.

  • Shire officers - make your shire look good. Make it a group the whole kingdom is glad to have.
  • Barony officers - make your baron and your barony look good.
  • Principality officers - make the Prince look good, and make the principality something everyone involved is proud of.

There is never anything to be gained by making your ruling noble or the Crown look bad. Consider public relations work part of your job - public relations within the Society. When politics become public, it spoils the illusion for those who are not even involved. If there is difficulty between you and the Baron, the Prince, or another officer, do the best job you can of covering it up in public. (See the section on "Illusion" in the Considerations chapter.)

By "serving the Crown" above and elsewhere I mean being cooperative, doing things they need done or want done, or arranging for someone else to do them. If the king says "I'd like to have a scroll made for that event," don't think "that's nice" and assume he'll know how to get one. At the very least, check back in a few days and see if he's arranged for the scroll. If the situation requires it, you arrange for the scroll and let the king know you have.

Dual Responsibility

By all this "respect for the Crown" business, I don't mean that you must unquestionably obey any goofy whim of the Coronet or the Crown. There may come a time when you need to tell the Baron, Prince or King you serve that he is in violation of Law or Corpora, or you may feel strongly that a certain plan or action is likely to be against the best interests of the populace. If such a situation does arise, it should be handled with all possible tact and respect.

Barony, Principality and Kingdom seneschals all carry a dual responsibility. Say you are a kingdom seneschal. You should always serve the King, being medievally his servant. Sometimes the King does something which is not exactly according to the laws and you have the task of bringing this to his attention. When that happens, you are fulfilling your responsibility to the Steward and the Board of Directors and acting as their servant. [3] If you're kingdom seneschal and you ask a principality seneschal to do something, and the prince wants something contrary to that done instead, the poor principality seneschal is in a tight place. Be patient, be rational, be respectful. This isn't life and death stuff, but it can and should be done as smoothly and as productively as possible.

Who's In Charge Of What? Sca Structure And Hierarchy

Here's an illustration of the structure as it affects seneschals. By reading this chapter you'll get a clearer idea of the interactions involved. Similar charts could be drawn up for the other major offices.

[The image in the 1993 edition of Bright Ideas and True Confessions is out of date. A new one may be provided at a later date. - Webmistress]

Dignity And Gravity

You know we're all dressing up and playing, but beneath the surface there is the spiritual vestige of a real medieval court. Encourage dignity. This is not to say that there's no place for humor or silliness, only that there are certain places where humor or silliness should not be - such as coronations, fealty ceremonies, and the like.

What should I do if the royalty wants me to do something I really don't think is a good idea?

There are different parts of the problem here:

  • ensuring that the rules are followed
  • maintaining your personal honor
  • keeping up a good front
  • supporting your group.

First off I advise against holding out for "do it my way or I quit." If you decide to quit or get suspended over a little irregularity, will the person they put in after you just ignore big ones? Look at the bigger picture when you can manage to.

Are you in fealty? In some situations that in itself may make a difference. Is this a problem of legality or smooth logistics? If the former, read below. If the latter, make your recommendation and then just do the best you can and if really pressed for a "why" say it was a compromise situtation, or you were being as supportive as possible, or whatever's most true and least harmful to the situation.

If it's truly a situation of the proposed plan being in violation of the rules, don't just say "You can't do it" - propose a legal alternative. If it's a violation of kingdom rules that many people agree is a reasonable plan (i.e., an exception to the rule that many people would like to have made) maybe the rule is not great, and you could propose a timetable and plan by which the rule could be changed enough to allow the new idea but still to maintain the rule in whatever degree (if any) it should be maintained. If it's a corporate rule or a mundane regulation that can't be changed on your end, propose an alternative plan that's legal.

If you just say "You can't do that," it can sound like a challenge to which many would come back with "oh yeah? just watch me." If you respond with something more like "If you really want to do X, what if we were to do it this way. . .?" the situation is set up so that you're on the side of the royalty trying to get the thing accomplished, rather than in the adversarial role you could easily fall into.

If it's important enough and your cajoling doesn't help, try getting assistance from someone within your kingdom that the king and queen respect who'll explain your position in different words (and maybe without saying you asked them to), or who'll go along with you to a discussion and help defend your points. If that doesn't help, you could follow the complaints procedure - put your objection in writing, with the copy of the second letter (if necessary) going to the steward (or superior seneschal, if you're not at kingdom level). You might call and ask the steward or your ombudsman for ideas or support. [4]

Some issues are worth going all the way over and others aren't.

Every case is different - the relationship between the officer and royalty will change from reign to reign and maybe from issue to issue. If you know the people really well, you can say whatever you want and don't need any outside ideas. If you really don't know them at all or don't like them well enough to remain calm in all situations, articles like this might help.

The worst and last thing to do is to go out and blame the royalty for the big dumb idea. If an idea doesn't work and you don't want to be blamed you can get out of it in a graceful fashion without letting people know there was a big controversy over it in the first place. You could say things like

  • "I didn't think it would work but they wanted to try it anyway."
  • "Now we'll know for next time."
  • "It wasn't my idea; I would've done it differently."

None of these statements says the king is a jerk. There's not a lot to be gained by making the king look stupid, and quite a lot to be lost. People will lose faith, have less fun, and might think less of you for saying mean things in a situation where the guy has already done something unpopular in public.

Corpora's long. I want to learn it but it's hard. Read it with a highlighter or other colored pen and mark it up. Mark the parts that surprise you and that seem important and that you think ought to be changed when it's revised. Mark things you need to remind other officers of; mark things new kings need to know. Carry it around with you to events. If it gets dog-eared, buy another one; they're cheap. Read it three or five times (which will be easier with your marks in). Leave it in the bathroom or the livingroom or somewhere you can read it in spare moments. If you know that book forward and backward no one can ever pull a fast one on you, and people will try. They'll bluff and say "Corpora says. . ." and then they'll say something they wish it said. You need to be able to know that they're bluffing, pull out your copy and say "Please find the passage for me" and if you say it really sweetly you've won the argument already. [This is lifted from a letter from me to a new seneschal of the Principality of the Sun, in 1982.]



[1] In the title of the ditch-official it's pronounced the same as English "mayor." Both are from the very same Latin word.

[2] Mundanely, as president of your branch, and in dealing with the outside world, you're president of a local club. Within the Society, though, "in persona," in the medieval structure (however is easiest for you to think of it) you're a hotshot servant.

[3] I have known seneschals who picked and chose among the items in Corpora that they would acknowledge or enforce, only using corporate policy when it suited them. I don't consider this to be honorable. If a person is a seneschal he should learn the rules and teach them to others in the course of everyday life.

[4] The "ombudsman" I'm talking about is the board member currently assigned to pay special attention to your kingdom. A current issue of Tournaments Illuminated should have the board members listed, and one name should show your kingdom's name in parenthesis following. I do not advocate calling the steward or the ombudsman unless you can't figure out something better to do, or unless it's the sort of emergency which could be considered threatening to the Society itself. They're rare.

Copyright © by Sandra Dodd, 1991
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