Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Knight's Surcote

The Knight's Surcoat

The hardships a knight will face
in the service of chivalry

A coat is given to a knight in significance of the great hardships that a knight must suffer to honor chivalry, for likewise as the coat is above the other garments of iron, and is in the rain and receives the strokes before the hauberk and other armours, right so is a knight chosen to sustain greater travaille than a lesser man. And all the men who are under his nobility, and in his guard ought to be when they have need to have recourse to him. And the knight ought to defend them after his power. And the knights ought rather to be taken, hurt or dead, than this happen to the men under their guard. Then as it is right and great chivalry, therefore the princes and barons in such great travaille to keep their lands and people. (Lull p. 74)

This is part of a longer treatise on knighthood and chivalry, written in the last years of the thirteenth century by Ramon Lull, a knight who later underwent a series of visions and became a lay Franciscan. In it he details the various parts of a knight's equipage and what each part stands for; the entry on the surcote was the one which appealed to me.

The duties of a knight included the protection of those weaker than him as well as the duty to serve his master by martial means. Lull as well as Geoffroi de Charny (another chivalric author, writing in the mid 1300s) were very clear that this would at times involve personal discomfort and indeed danger; Charny was emphatic on his opinions of knights who slept late in soft beds, ate rich food, and indulged in other such unnecessary comforts. Contrariwise he was fulsome in his praise of those who were willing to undergo physical discomfort:

It is quite the opposite for those who want to win honor, for they adapt to the seasons: when it is cold, they endure the cold, and when it is hot, they put up with the heat...and in relation to this we learn from the above-mentioned men of worth that honor is not achieved through spending much time in keeping the body delightfully comfortable. (Charny p. 69)

Many of the accoutrements of a knight -- the sword, signifying justice; the hauberk, signifying strength against vices; the spurs, signifying diligence and speed -- carry over well into our modern lives. Justice is still justice, though it's carried out differently; diligence is as important in the most mundane of modern jobs as it was for the knight in the height of the Middle Ages. But the surcoat? What of that?

There are indeed times still when it's necessary to go through some physical discomfort, indeed danger, to do the thing that's right. The soldiers on the front lines in Iraq; police officers and firefighters everywhere. But for most of us, the necessity -- the opportunity -- to put ourselves in danger for someone else's sake come rarely enough.

Perhaps, then, what's needed is not so much the willingness to endure physical as emotional discomfort -- the willingness to risk mockery and disdain to stand up for the unpopular person, the unpopular opinion, the unpopular stand: as long as that stand is the one that's right. The courage to go to your manager at work to confirm someone else's testimonial that she was sexually harassed; the nerve to go to the teacher, or a counselor, to tell them what you know about the bomb threat that emptied school out last week. The audacity to stand up to someone making bigoted comments and tell them that they're wrong, even though you know perfectly well that everyone else they're talking to agrees with them and you'll just get laughed at, or worse.

'Or worse' was the fate Martin Luther King, Jr. faced in his stand against injustice. Even before his April 4, 1968 assassination, he faced arrest and death threats, violence directed against his marches, and at one point his house was bombed. But he kept up in his strategy of nonviolence and continued to march despite the death threats.

Nonviolent civil disobedience was the strategy embraced by Mohandan Gandhi as well, not only in his well-known quest to free India from British domination but also in his involvement in the civil rights movement in South Africa. His principles inspired Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as Steven Biko and Aung San Suu Kyi. And he, too, was assassinated, on January 30, 1948.

We don't all have to aspire to such great heights. Just doing the little things -- extending the hand of friendship to someone who's different or standing up next to them when they're facing injustice -- makes a difference.

I have a hard time with this; it's a thing I'm working on. Plain and simple, I'm afraid -- of getting laughed at, or worse. I can sit down and think about it, and know that I'm pretty unlikely to get beat up; and that if I do get laughed at, well, that's their problem, not mine, and I can survive a little laughter. It's still tough. I don't always have the nerve to speak up. But sometimes I reach out and pull my surcote closer around me, and then I can speak what's on my mind.

And when I do? I've heard people say 'yeah, she's right' and 'yeah, that's a nasty thing to say' and 'maybe this isn't the kind of conversation to be having here'. And then I've accomplished two things -- I've stopped someone saying bigoted things, and I've done a bit to convince myself that I can.

Charny spends quite a bit of time after the above quote going on about those who, through overly pampering their bodies, come to fear possible physical harm a little too much. 'As soon as they leave their abode, if they see a stone jutting out of the wall a little further than the others, they will never dare to pass beneath it, for it would always seem to them that it would fall on their heads...if they suffer from a slight illness, they think they are about to die. (Charny p. 69)' I suspect that in the same way the overly-strong avoidance of conflict will make one fear any conflict at all, even when it's the best thing to do. I know I've had that problem, and it's been a lot of work getting to the point where I can say anything.

But I put on that surcote; I pull it close around me to protect me from those who'd do me harm. And to remind me that sometimes it won't protect me, and it's my duty to face those hardships anyway, in order to honor chivalry and do the right thing.

--

de Charny, Geoffroi; tr. Elspeth Kennedy. A Knight's Own Book of Chivalry. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.

Lull, Ramon; tr. Brian Price. Book of Knighthood & Chivalry. Chivalry Bookshelf, 2001.

3 comments:

Plain Foolish said...

This is beautiful. Thank you.

Canine Diamond said...

Plain Foolish send me over here. What a great post. Thanks for writing.

--Thee, Hannah

seeking chivalry said...

Wow - thanks to you both.