[sca-comments] Comment on Peerage

Lynette Nusbacher lynette at nusbacher.com
Sat May 8 06:01:23 CDT 2021

I have noted the SCA Board of Directors’ recent proposal with reference to
changes to peerage.  The present proposal does not address the question
what peerage in general or peerages in particular are intended to achieve.
My response is almost entirely unchanged since I wrote the attached letter
in 2015, in response to the last query on the subject.  In summary, if we
don’t understand what peerage is and what it is meant to achieve, no change
will ever be satisfactory.

I am still willing to assist as I can.

With best regards,


Lynette Nusbacher MA DPhil
The Devil's Advocate
Nusbacher Associates

On 22 January 2015 at 00:39:53, Lynette Nusbacher (lynette at nusbacher.com)

To the Directors of the Society for Creative Anachronism:

I have been at a loss in understanding how to respond to the Board of
Directors' recent decision with respect to the 'Fourth Peerage'.  After
some consideration I have realised why.

For me as a strategist, corporate decision-making should start from an
understanding of the future and a vision of an organisation's future state;
and proceed through an understanding of how to achieve that future state.

I recognise that many organisations do not work this way.  Indeed, I make
my living helping organisations which don't work strategically to do so.

They say that to someone with a screwdriver every problem is a screw to be
driven.  My own bias towards the importance of strategic working could lead
me to analysing the SCA's years of havering over the place of steel combat
in the organisation as a woman with a screwdriver seeing a screw.

Nonetheless, I think it is worth asking strategic questions in order to
understand how the SCA can best take the question of steel combat forward.

*Context:  My Experience*

I joined the Society in 1980.  I fought in the 'heavy' list for about ten
years.  I was an early rapier fencer in the Middle Kingdom before it
accepted fencing, and consequently I was also an early fighter in the
Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) movement.  After a couple of
peaceful decades I have started in the past yeart to fence in HEMA groups
and in the SCA heavy rapier and cut-and-thrust lists.

I had a personal journey with respect to peerage.  When I fought stick I
was very focussed on aspiring to be a knight.  The oath I swore as a squire
was to 'always comport myself as the knight I hope someday to become'.
When, after ten years, I resigned my squire's belt; I explained to my
knight that I had come to realise that the sort of knight I aspired to be
wasn't made in that time and place.  I had absorbed a narrative about SCA
chivalry:  the white belt represented an ideal of knighthood.  As I
travelled and fought, some of the knights I enountered fulfilled this
expectation, and some fell short.  Some who fulfilled this expectation were
not knighted.  I came to terms with the disjunction I saw and adjusted my
aspirations accordingly.

The Society at large has avoided taking that journey.  It has never come to
terms with what chivalry and peerage are or ought to be.  There is a
strategic misalignment between a number of different narratives and a
number of different realities.

*Context:  Constructive Ambiguity *

The Society thrives on a constructive ambiguity about its aims.  When the
term 'The Dream' came into currency in the late 1980s this ambiguity was
thrown into sharp relief.  Everyone who talked about the Dream knew what it
was, but there were as many dreams as there were members.

In the SCA's early years 'peerage', along with the rest of the Society's
structures, grew rather haphazardly.  There was never a moment when the
Society decided on its aims and constructed structures to fulfil those
aims.  The three SCA-wide awards were not created because the Society is
all about the combat, the arts and managing the club.  They were not
designed around a system of progression like the Scouts and Guides.  They
were not designed to replicate the sports halls of fame.  They were not
designed to replicate mediaeval peerage.  They were not designed at all.

There are many things the Society's members do which are not recognised by
Society-level awards.  There is no peerage for people who play persona
well.  There is no peerage for heraldry.  There is no peerage for
roistering.  (I recognise that the peerages have been stretched to
accommodate some of these things, and some other honours have been likened
to peerages.)

There are many ideas about what peerage is and what it means.  In the
lively discussions surrounding the Board's decision on the Fourth Peerage
many have articulated strong feelings about these ideas.  For example, some
have said that peerage isn't an award, it's a job.

If peerage is a job, it is a very poorly structured and poorly managed
job.  The requirement for the job was never clearly articulated, and no job
description was created.  Peerage is not an equal-opportunity employer:
 diversity, especially in the chivalry, is appalling.  Recruitment is
poorly managed.  Selection and competition is far from transparent.
Retention is poor:  an astonishing number of peers become inactive in the
Society, and the words 'peerage' and 'burnout' are often uttered in the
same breath.  No good employer would long sustain jobs like these.

The peerages could be considered to be professions:  self-governing,
self-sustaining and self-replicating; each possessing a common ethos (at
least within kingdoms).

Arguably peerage is a club-within-a-club.  Arguably peerage is a mark of
achievement in selected areas.  Arguably peerage has no function at all
with the SCA and is purely ornamental.

It is clear in the lively discussion of what peerage is that the ambiguity
about the Society's purpose does not interfere with participants' enjoyment
of the club.  The Society does not rely on a robust understanding of
peerage to achieve its corporate aims because the Society does not have
corporate aims as such.  That is to say, the peerage itself can never fail.

*The Case In Point:  Steel Weapons*

When the Society first considered permitting fencing there was opposition
on safety grounds and opposition on the grounds that other fighting systems
would diminish the role of fighting with rattan batons.  The SCA
constructed a narrative of its combat system which elided the fencing
equipment at the First Tournament in 1966:  Society combat had, in the
terms of this narrative, always been built around rattan batons.  As HEMA
developed as a hobby outside the SCA, the Society kept steel combat systems
(which entered the SCA under the labels 'fencing', 'rapier' and 'cut and
thrust') at arm's length.

The concentration on fighting with rattan batons as a sort of 'national
sport' in the Society has had equality and diversity implications.   While
women are theoretically eligible to compete at the highest levels in the
'heavy' list and are theoretically eligible for knighthood, women royal
peers in their own right and women knights are very rare birds indeed.
Women's participation in the steel-weapons lists is far more widespread at
a far higher relative level than among the 'heavies'.  The Society has
never consciously faced this structural inequality.

Constructive ambiguity permitted fencing as an 'ancillary' activity,
permitted the SCA's structures to protect stick fighting from the scholarly
preoccupations of HEMA and from gender equality.  This insulation is
necessary because fighting with rattan batons is the underpinning structure
of the Society's kingdoms.  Unlike arts competitions, unlike elections,
unlike anything but lottery; rattan combat offers the appearance of
certainty.  There is a narrative that a killing blow is a killing blow
everywhere in the Society, that 'the slain man say if he be slain' and that
victory in crown tournament is unambiguous and fair.

It has become apparent in the harsh response to the Board's actions and
non-actions following on the Fourth Peerage consultation that the ambiguity
might no longer be constructive.

*The Way Forward*

The Society has no unifying purpose.  Consequently, peerage has no agreed
role in advancing any purpose or aims.  There is no rhyme or reason as such
attached to the presence or absence of a peerage award for a particular

The Society has never, until the recent Fourth Peerage consultation,
conducted a systematic analysis of peerage.  It has never done so because
it has never needed to do so.  There has been evident discomfort among both
fencers and non-fencers with the way the Directors received the Fourth
Peerage study, the ambiguous response which the Directors made.

The Society prefers to be rather vague about its purposes.  Even so, if the
SCA were my client I would suggest that the Board should answer some basic
 questions.  The answers to these questions are the basic strategic facts
which establish the conditions for making strategy in any organisation:

- What is the relevant time frame for change in the Society?
- Over the course of this time frame how will the context in which the
Society operates develop?
- By the end of this time frame, what does the Society need to be?
- What does the organisation need to be in order to create the conditions
for achieving the future state?

If the Society were a client I would suggest that the Board should embark
upon a time-bounded period of focussed, facilitated consultation intended
to determine what the Society wants from its peerage.  Rather than single
out steel fighting, the Society should ask its members and participants
what Soceity-wide recognition can achieve and should achieve.  With due
respect to past practice and the manifold variations found across the Known
World, the Society should be empowered to reshape peerage.

Based on an understanding of what the Society needs to be and needs to
become, the Society can re-create its peerages into something less
ambiguous and more useful.  It could be that no particular peerage, for
fencing or anything else, will come from such an exercise; but if that is
the case then the Society will know that it has made a decision and it will
know why.

I wish the Directors well in their work and offer such help as I can
provide in achieving its aims.

Yours aye,

Lynette Nusbacher MA DPhil (Oxon)

Devil's Advocate
Nusbacher Associates
Nusbacher.com <http://nusbacher.com/>
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