Written by Duke Garrick von Kopke. Previously Appearing in Online BoP Volume 8, 2003
“How is Mercy expressed on the SCA battlefield and list?”
This seemed to me to be an excellent question, as the immediate notion of showing mercy to an opponent by refraining from ending his life really has no place in the SCA, where such issues are moot. Admittedly, the Kingdom of Ansteorra does seem to play a game of “the end of a fight by a blow well struck to head or body is a death, therefore mercy can/should be shown to an opponent struck on a limb by offering him an opportunity to yield.” This idea, however, is well outside of the mainstream of the SCA’s view of combat, in my opinion. Our combats do not end in deaths, but in victory and honorable defeat. Surely, no one is considered “dead” who has once been defeated in the lists, nor was the death of an opponent a goal in medieval tournaments, which is what we mostly recreate. There was certainly never a tournament in the middle ages in which all participants, save the victor, died. In a slightly more controversial veign, I do not see our “wars” as wars as such, but rather as tournaments in the original melee meaning of the word. Surely, we are fighting our friends and honored competitors, in a friendly atmosphere. No kingdoms fall, nor borders change. At worst, we are fighting honored enemies, whom we would be loath to actually kill. As such, I don’t see the “dispatch the defeated, or not” question of mercy to have any place in SCA combat.
What, then, is the place of mercy in SCA combat? Does it have a place at all? How could such an important medieval virtue, so often associated with chivalric combat, have no place in our own? Many ideas occurred to me, most chiefly the concept of mercy as the mitigator of justice. Determined that my thoughts were incomplete, and that such a wonderful topic should be shared, I decided to share this conundrum with the participants of the Calontir mailing list. Many people responded with great depth of thought, and a wonderful discussion ensued.
I would like to particularly thank Alban, Annalies, Edouard, and Tibor, who injected thoughts that I had not previously considered into the discussion, and Ariel, Goetz, and Finnvarr, who brought up for consideration some of those ideas that I had pondered that restless night. If you find any favor in this monogram, much of the credit belongs to them. Any strange interpretations, faulty reasoning, or poor communication that subtract from the ideas being discussed are my own poor fault.
The Meaning of Mercy
A subject that quickly came up in the discussion was the definition of mercy, especially in this context. It is true that mercy can mean “abstaining from a harmful act that one has the power to do.” Thus, one can imagine a brigand’s response to the pleas of a victim by simply robbing them, but refraining from threatened acts of violence, as an act of mercy. In its purest usage however, I see mercy as being a gift of mitigation from one who has power and a just (or, at least, perceived to be just) reason to use that power. Eduoard de Villaret (mka Edwin Childers) put it best in his Essay on Justice and Mercy in Medieval Europe, written in response to the discussion on these topics.
Both The Rule of St. Benedict and The Rule of the Templars seem to support conceiving of mercy as the giving or receiving of more, less, or other than what is deserved (with no negative connotation to the term “less,” particularly when what is deserved is normally undesirable–e.g. punishment) and we have already defined justice as the giving or receiving exactly what is deserved, no more and no less. All that remains is to determine how those terms are used, which we have already seen in the works examined. (1.)
Justice is used as a definitive term, in that what is deserved is absolute, exact; however, as is often the case with definitive terms, in application they quickly become subject to interpretation and so justice is perceived to vary from person to person, community to community, class to class, etceteras, and such interpretations are used to the advantage of whomever is applying them while conveniently overlooking the fact that their shadow of justice and justice itself are not one and the same. The fact that an absolute standard exists, whether it is met or not, renders justice definitive. Mercy, on the other hand, is used as a subjective term. While it is good to be just and better to be mercifully just, the question of how merciful one must be is left to the individual, though the texts seem to suggest that the amount of subjectivity depends on the requirements of justice in any given situation.
Using these definitions then, refraining from brutalizing a new fighter is not mercy. It is simply mitigating power, as the brigand in the example above, without the necessary factor of the use of that power being just. When, then, do we both mitigate power on the list field and find that the use of that power would be just?
Expressions of physical mercy
Some said in the discussion that refraining from hitting a valid target that was unarmored in favor of a well armored, and thus less painful, target was an expression of mercy. If we accept for them the thesis that “it is a legal target, and thus valid to hit” as just, then this is indeed mercy. However, is it just to do so when one could easily accomplish either? This is a fine line, showing that Eduoard’s precept that the “absolute” of justice is quickly subject to interpretation is quite true, which makes the subjectivity of mercy even greater. In my mind, this is not an act of mercy if it is easily accomplished, but one of simple justice. If, however, it would be easy to hit an unarmored target, but difficult to hit the armored one, and a fighter still eschews the painful shot, it is clearly an act of mercy. Whether it is an appropriate act, is a different question that must, as Edouard has shown above, be left to the individual and the situation.
Both Ariel and Goetz brought up the idea of how a combatant does combat with one whom he clearly outclasses. Both implied that it would be just for the skilful fighter to fight for the victory, but that he could mitigate his power by the manner in which he approached the combat. Each had a directly opposing view of what would be a merciful approach, however. Ariel asserted that the merciful approach would be for the skilful fighter to quickly and efficiently dispatch his opponent, thus not “playing with” him and “making him look like a fool.” Goetz, on the other hand, advocated that the skilful use only slightly more skill than that of his opponent, thus “allowing him to learn from the fight” and, if he were to stretch himself to a higher level, perhaps even “giving him a chance.” Which of these is mercy? Why, they both are.
The appropriate act of mercy clearly depends on what gift is more valued, in this case the learning and perhaps the chance to win, or the respect of being given one’s “best fight” and the absence of embarrassment. What one gives with the intent of being generous may well be seen negatively by the recipient. I’ve witnessed this numerous times. The same highly skilled fighter is often praised by some newer fighters as being a “fun fight” from whom they learn a lot and a disappointment to others who see themselves as being “toyed with.” Conversely, some fighters are praised for “always giving me everything he has,” by some less skilled fighters and dismissed by others as being “no fun to fight, cause he just blows me away instantly.” The answer to this dilemma lies in intent. If a more skilled fighter can clearly communicate to their opponent the comradely intent of their actions, then whichever choice is made will usually be seen in the manner that it was intended, rather than its disdainful interpretation. As the recipient of such “mercy,” it is certainly appropriate to let the more skilled fighter know if you’d prefer “their best fight.” If you’d prefer the chance to learn, it’s not the best thing to ask in a tourney, but is certainly appropriate to pick-ups, fighter practice, etc.
Another idea that was put forth (by Finnvarr?) was that we show mercy by refusing to raise the power of our blows to painful and dangerous levels against those fighters who do not acknowledge our reasonable blows. This was a controversial notion. The crux of the matter was whether or not such a response would be just, and therefore whether abstaining from it would be an act of mercy under the definition of mercy being a mitigation of justice. While there are obviously some fighters who do believe such a response to be just, I would say that the fact that such actions are specifically prohibited by the rules of the lists indicates that our societal contract is that such behavior is not justified. Still, how we respond to those we feel have wronged us is our greatest opportunity to express mercy upon the field.
The Gains of Combat
Clearly, in the SCA we are not fighting for our lives. Even when there is a valuable tourney prize, it is not for the tangible worth of that prize that most fight. Why, then, do we fight? I submit that we fight for three things. Whether for ourselves, our consorts, or even our kingdoms, we fight for fun, for honor, and for renown. Fun is an obvious concept. Honor and renown are a bit more slippery. Without going into a whole additional essay, I would say that honor is doing that which is worthy, and that renown is the reputation of doing that which is worthy.
Obviously, whether someone is, or is not, doing that which is worthy is an absolute (although it won’t seem so, as worthiness, like justice, is subject to interpretation). One cannot take away someone’s honor. Honor is gained, or lost by the individual alone. (One might ask then how someone else’s actions could, for example, dishonor one’s consort? All flowery speech aside, a champion’s actions cannot dishonor the consort. The consort’s acceptance of those actions, or of the champion that performs them, can dishonor the consort, however.) Renown, however, can be very external. One can gain renown for one’s consort by performing worthy actions in their name. Renown can also be quickly lost by the response of those who see one’s actions as unworthy, whether they are indeed, or not. To those who care about the good opinion of others (which really means almost everybody), fun can also be quickly taken away by someone questioning their worthiness, or even worse, accusing them of unworthiness.
Therefore, it is my thesis that the greatest expression of mercy that we can show upon the field is to refrain from calling our opponent’s worthiness into question, even if we feel justified in doing so due to their actions upon the field, most often in their calling of shots. While we may feel that their actions have merited this justice, to mete it out would do great harm to their renown and to their fun. Thus, we should weigh carefully the requirements of justice and mercy in any situation in which we feel our opponent has acted less than perfectly. I have written before on the importance of giving your opponent’s motives and actions the benefit of the doubt (2.) Before you even get to the point of feeling justified in the feeling that your opponent is wrong, consider whether your sword is mushy, the shot may have been lessened by your fatigue, etc. Then, even if you do feel that in all justice your opponent is wrong, consider mercy before you damage their renown and their fun.
Addendum; Determinant Marshalling
Here my essay was to have ended. As I was working on it, however, I read Edouard’s essay quoted above. In it, he quotes extensively from St. Anshelm and from Thomas Williams’ article on St. Anshelm’s writings. Coordinating the messages of St. Anshelm’s “On Truth” and “On Freedom of Choice,” Williams writes:
“Justice is best defined as ‘rectitude of will preserved for its own sake.’… It is both necessary and sufficient for justice, and thus for moral praiseworthiness, that an agent will what is right, knowing it to be right, because it is right. That an agent wills what is right because it is right entails that he is neither compelled nor bribed to perform the act.”
We have already accepted that justice is a prerequisite to mercy. Now I find myself compelled to accept that not only is free will a prerequisite of justice, but also that that free will must be acting out of what it knows to be right for it to be possible to express justice or mercy.
I think that this is one of the strongest arguments against determinant marshalling in SCA combat that I have come across. For those unfamiliar with the concept, or the term, determinant marshalling is a practice used in some SCA kingdoms in which the marshals have the power to adjudge a fighter as “dead” if the marshals feel that the fighter has erred in not doing so himself. I have long argued against this practice, as I feel that our unique self-judged defeat is one of the greatest strengths of our combat system, and indeed our entire Society. While the Crown, and the marshals as the Crown’s representative have the power to remove a fighter from the field for safety reasons or for violation of the Rules of the Lists (under which failure to call blows falls), only the struck fighter may call themselves “dead.”
Thus have our tournaments, and especially Crown Tournaments, been referred to as the “crucible of honor.” (3.) The fighter’s honor is tested by the fact that abandoning it can bring a “great prize.” Of course, we almost universally recognize that this “great prize” is nothing beside our honor, and overcome these base temptations. Thus, we prove and test our mettle. Determinant marshalling, I have long argued, not only takes away the chance to earn honor through correct decisions, it even encourages giving one’s self the benefit of the doubt as “I don’t have to worry about it, if it’s good, the marshals will tell me.” In fact, the story has been told that one of the founders of this insidious system was quoted as saying “the marshals are the holders of the fighters’ honor.” This could not be more impossible. Honor is internal, as I have stated above. The marshals cannot possibly save the fighter’s honor, nor can the fighters earn much under such a system.
If forced to do what is right, one gains no moral praiseworthiness. Further, if your opponent is forced to do what is right, there can be no justice involved in your response. Therefore, not only is the one who might potentially do wrong denied the opportunity to make their own decision of honor, the one potentially wronged has no opportunity to make their own decision of the balance between the virtues of justice and mercy.
As honor is the norm within the Society, the virtue of Mercy is a virtue much more rarely required on the SCA list and battlefield, especially if one is conscientious in the application of the chivalric virtue of Generosity, than most others. It is thus that it took so much thought and discussion to determine where and when it applies. Nonetheless, it does add to our experience and protect fun and renown.
May your actions on the field never cause your opponent to feel the need to remind themselves of the importance of Mercy.
Garick von Kopke,
Honor Virtus Est
1. Emphasis [Halvgrim]
2. The Virtues that Appertayne to Chivalry, available in various sources, including online at http://www.chronique.com
3. Price, Brian; The Book of the Tournament