From time to time, in one kingdom or another, someone suggests that the peerages should get organized and do something. In my view, this is usually a bad idea. If the peerages were better organized they would be less useful; if they tried to get together and do things they would get less done. The purpose of this essay is to explain why.
To understand the shape of a key, one must first know what sort of lock it is intended to open, so I start with the problem to which the peerages are one of the solutions-the problem of getting things done in a large, decentralized, volunteer organization. Given the present size and structure of the Society, if everything happens through channels very little will happen. If people only engaged in artistic activities after being told to do so by their local MOA who had been told to tell them by the regional MOA who had been told to tell them by the Kingdom MOA who had been ... we would have very little in the way of period arts. The obvious solution is for most people, most of the time, to ignore the official structure and just go out and do things. That is how most of what we make-garb and armour, weapons and songs-gets made.
One difficulty with this is that the individual member of the Society may have no way of knowing which other members are reliable authorities. If someone announces that he is holding a workshop on medieval cooking in his kitchen next Sunday, how can those who attend tell whether he is an expert on the subject or just making it up as he goes along? If one of the local fighters offers to teach you how to fight, how do you know whether he is really competent or someone the other fighters all regard as a blundering blowhard?
One solution is formal organization. If you learn about cooking at a class at a Royal University or from a T.I. article, there is at least a presumption that the information is reasonably accurate. If you learn fighting from the local Knight Marshall, the odds are reasonably good that he knows something about both fighting and training and is regarded by the other fighters in the group as a responsible person.
This solution, however, brings us back to the difficulty of getting things done in a hierarchical, bureaucratic, "organized" way. It is all too easy for people in a formal organization to end up spending their time writing reports instead of teaching classes, or for a group to consume its time and energy and its members' mutual good will fighting over who has what office.
The peerages are a different solution. If the person who has announced that he is teaching a class in his kitchen has a Laurel, there is a presumption that the information presented is reasonably accurate. If the person who offers to teach you fighting has been knighted, there is a presumption that he knows how to fight, how to teach, and is a reasonably honourable person. In both cases it is only a presumption. Doubtless there are Laurels who are not careful to make sure what they teach is true before they teach it, just as there are villain knights-and mistakes in T.I. articles. But these are the exception not the rule.
The orders of peerage ought, I believe, to be viewed not as organizations with corporate responsibilities but as groups of individuals, each with the job of going out and doing good in his particular way. The function of the white belt or the Laurel medallion is merely to make it a little easier to do certain kinds of good, by certifying the bearer's competence.
This is, incidentally, a period conception of knighthood, although not the only period conception. Consider the knight errant of the romances, the figure on whom our image of the knight is chiefly based. He is not someone who has received orders from the Minister of Giant Killing to go out, kill a giant, and send back a report in triplicate. Rather he is someone wandering around the countryside looking for deeds that need to be done, deciding for himself which of them to do and how, and depending on his position as a knight, at most, to get him a certain amount of respect and attention. That, I think, is what peers should mostly do. Hence the title of this essay.
Peers are not the only ones doing it - any more than knights are the only people authorized to kill giants or rescue maidens. A kingdom, a Barony, a Shire flourishes or fades by the number of its people who see themselves as having the job of finding things that need doing and doing them. We are all - sovereigns, peers, and people alike - knights errant.
"A Kingdom's no more solid than a sound That must be built on air eternally, And to that labour must the King be bound" (Cariadoc)
On one occasion Amr, still Governor of Egypt, came to Damascus to visit (the Caliph) Mu'awaya, who was now grown old and feeble. His freed slave Wardan was with him. The two old men fell into talk.
"Prince of the True Believers," said Amr, "what pleasures keep their savour for thee nowadays?"
"Women?" said the Caliph. "No - I do not need women any more. To go fine? My skin's so used to stuffs the softest and richest, I cannot tell what's of the best any more. And eating - I have eaten delicate dishes so many that I can no longer tell what I like. No, I think I have no pleasure keener now than drinking cool in summer, and seeing my children and my grandchildren go about me. And thou, Amr, what's thy last remaining pleasure?"
"A bit of cultivable land," said the conqueror of Egypt, "enough to yield me some fruit, and a little profit over and above."
Then the Caliph turned to the freedman Wardan. "Thou, Wardan, said he, what would be thy last enjoyment?"
"A noble generous deed!" said he. "Some deed that would live in the memory of all remembering men, and earn for me in Eternity."
"The audience is concluded!" cried Mu'awaya, "that's enough for today! This slave here, Amr, is a better man than thou or I."
(Quoted by Eric Schroeder in Muhammad's People)