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Paganism and Noblesse Oblige (Or What's With This "Lady" Thing Anyway)

Every year, I see more and more people in the pagan community with titles like "Lady Chickenspider" or "LordWolfiepoo", or whatever. According to a British pagan friend of mine, this is strictly an American thing. Over there in the islands, where there are real, actual people with a legal right to the Lord and Lady and Earl and Duchess sort of titles, they don’t have the same kind of fascination that they do over here. On this side of the Atlantic, America’s insistence on equality for all - in the sense that we are a nation of peasants with no nobles - makes nobility seem like tantalizingly forbidden fruit.

I can understand the impulse, just as I can understand the other impulse, however foolish, that keeps us pulling things like our "traditional" robes and clothing and aesthetics out of the European Middle Ages, a time famed for its persecution of anyone not of monotheistic origin. (Let’s get it straight, folks, once and for all; nearly all medieval people were loudly, devoutly, Christian, and highly xenophobic.) Yet even with this in mind, the images still haunt our collective unconscious, where they have taken on a dreamy glow, nothing like the grittiness of their actual era. And it’s not just because far too many of us came out of the SCA, either.

Still, I am made nervous by the idea that anyone can slap on a title of nobility at will like donning a hat. It’s not that I am against using such titles to show honor to someone, but let’s face it: titles that have legal usage today don’t just get slapped on by anyone who feels like it. You can’t call yourself a captain or a lieutenant or a president without being either involved in the military or political system, or being part of an organization that has adopted such ranks and voted you into them. Well, you can, but it’s kind of like calling yourself Napoleon for all the good it does.

And sure, you can get together three or four gullible sycophants and suggest to them that they call you Lady or Emperor or Grand Poobah or whatever, and the pagan community is full of these sorts, but you will not get any respect from anyone outside of that group, especially if it doesn’t look like you actually did anything to get that title besides conning a bunch of gullible friends. I belong to a pagan group of about thirty people, and I hold a leadership position in that group that I was chosen for by those people, and it gives me a title. However, I do not sign my name with that title on any correspondence outside of our own small group; nor do I expect anyone outside of my group to honor me with that title.

At any rate, I hold my title as more than just something I’ve earned. I hold it as something that I’m earning every day, and should I ever cease my efforts, I will become unworthy of it. How does one earn such a title? Well, since what we’re talking about is "reclaiming the spirit" of medieval nobility, while leaving the gritty reality behind, then we must also reclaim the spirit of the concept of noblesse oblige, which is something I think most Americans have a lot of trouble with.

I’m all for reclaiming the spirit of traditions, as long as we are careful to know thoroughly what we are reclaiming, and what we aren’t. Nobility in medieval Europe was, first and foremost, a matter of breeding and bloodlines. In other words, you were a noble through accident of birth, not any personal worth on your part. Sure, some people were given titles for their service to various higher nobles, but those titles were then passed on to their children, who might or might not be the people that you’d want to be in charge of your welfare for even a minute. In many ways, they were no better than peasants, starting border wars with each other, slaughtering serfs, etc. By the time the feudal system was well entrenched, bloodlines had become the mark of nobility, and the people who were in charge weren’t there through competence or ethics. And they were really, really hard to fire. Generally this was done only over a dead body - yours or theirs.

So medieval Europe, in an attempt to "shape up" their accidental leaders, came up with the concept of "noblesse oblige", and tried to guilt-trip European nobility into following it. The concept was sung about by troubadours, written into poetry, and paraded in pageants. (We all know the pressure that media can put on people.) Some nobles strove to uphold it, and some ignored it; since it was hard to fire them, there wasn’t much penalty for dismissing it except for peer pressure.

The concept of noblesse oblige basically goes like this: If you really believe that you are superior to most other people, then you have a responsibility to be a full-time 24/7 role model for them to follow. Your behavior must be as good as you can make it, all times, because you are being Watched. You are not allowed the luxury of acting like a jerk, at all, ever. You can get angry, but you must channel that anger into considered actions that do not have fallout onto the innocent. You must be gracious, even when people are being rude or obnoxious to you, because to stoop to their behavior - even for a moment, even if you think they deserve it - would be unworthy of you, and make you no better than them. Of course, treating the peasants in such a way that makes it clear that you think them inferior - being snooty or haughty - is also classed as bad behavior and is unworthy.

Already, I can hear some people bridling, and I’m not even done describing it yet. Some of you are probably really offended at the idea that one could strongly feel that one is superior to the great mass of people out there. I can see how it’s offensive; I thought that it was offensive for years, and I was ashamed that I felt that way, and no matter what I did I couldn't shake it. It was my secret vice. Embracing noblesse oblige, however, changed everything. It put that vice squarely in the service of humanity, along the same lines that an obsessive-compulsive person learns to channel their urges into helping to better the world. When I embraced this concept, I suddenly had so much more patience with people that had heretofore irritated me. If I could think of rude, obnoxious, weak, or stupid people as "just peasants", and myself as a quiet role model rather than a criticizer (which is bad behavior), then suddenly I could deal with them in a friendly way, with my discipline of graciousness in place. They became noticeably more relaxed around me as well, and my circle of friends grew rather than shrank.

I say "discipline of graciousness" because that’s what it feels like - something that you constantly, consciously work towards on a daily basis, perfecting it until you rot in the ground. It’s not that I can’t gripe or bitch, but I save that for my "peers" - people who are also nobility by my definition, meaning that they also follow the concept of noblesse oblige. (My wife is one, and she is my equal, so we always have someone to bitch to.) Because we are none of us perfect, we can only strive for the goal, and sometimes we fall short, and then we make amends. If the idea of 24/7 public graciousness makes you flinch, then maybe you’re not cut out for the tin hat and you should just stay a peasant, with all the freedom in the world to be rude and nasty, because no one’s stopping you.

Built into the concept of noblesse oblige is the concept of "largesse". If you have "more" of something than most people - be it land, resources, money, patience, sanity, clarity, knowledge, extra food, skills, or whatever, then you are required to share it. The more you have, the more you should be giving. You are judged by your generosity. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you need to empty your house for every homeless person that comes by. When and who and how much to give was already worked out centuries ago.

Your first duty is to the people who owe you fealty. These are the folk who have given you an agreement, either verbal-and-in-the-presence-of-witnesses, or written, to render you certain services, which you can negotiate however you like. For pagan leaders, this would be your immediate group members, who have probably agreed to do *something*, even if it’s only to show up and bring the incense, or whatever. Part of the agreement between a lord and a vassal - meaning someone who "has" and someone who "has not", whatever that might be - is that the lord will give as much of whatever he "has" that he can give without bankrupting himself, and in return the vassal will render other agreed-upon services. (Yes, this does require good rules and negotiating up front, but boundaries are another thing that we as a culture need to work on anyway.) If one party or the other breaks their part of the agreement - i.e. if someone decides they aren’t getting their efforts’ worth in return - then the contract is defaulted on, and must be renegotiated or tossed.

Beyond that, you as a noble are required to give generously to people from whom you get nothing, as charity, again not so much that you bankrupt yourself. (This goes the same whether the commodity is money or time or patience.) Erring on the side of bankruptcy makes you incapable of doing your job. Erring on the side of greed makes you unworthy of your title. You have to decide how much you can give and still have enough for yourself. Remember, you are setting an example - of fair boundaries as well as generosity.

Often, you can tell the real modern nobility by their generosity and graciousness without even trying. Everyone knows someone like this - they’re the ones with a "court" of people, some of them strays that they’ve taken in and succored, some of them folk who are just drawn to their homespace and warmth, be it a grungy apartment in an inner city. Some "nobles" are dead broke and pay their largesse in comfort and advice and hot soup and brake fixing.

The third part of noblesse oblige, beyond graciousness and loyalty, is honor. This is, very simply, walking your talk. Giving one’s word, and then keeping it, gives you personal power. A noble’s word should mean something strong. Don’t give it if you know you can’t keep it. Don’t refrain from giving it just because it’ll be a challenge. If you are forced to break it due to circumstances, do something to make the situation right, immediately. Apologize when you’ve done wrong, the second you see it. That’s hard for everyone, so try apologizing like this: "That was unworthy of me. I am sorry that I slipped, and I will endeavor not to let it happen again." I’ve often judged someone’s nobility by how they apologized.

In the actual medieval era, like today, people did not give themselves legal titles. They were given by either a central authority (king or government) or by the acclaim of the people. Since we pagans have no central authority, the acclaim of the people is our only claim to them. If you want to be honored as a "Lord" or a "Lady" or whatever outside of your own small group - and if you sign your letters or introduce yourself that way, then you’re strongly implying you want acclaim from the rest of us as well - you’d better start following the rules of noblesse oblige, or you won’t be taken seriously.

As for the rest of you, all the folks without titles (or the need for titles), you now know how to judge us properly. Is this person gracious? Are they loyal to their own? Do they give generously, of whatever they have? Do they keep their word, walk their talk? Do they model the behavior that they’d like to see from others, without chiding others on falling short? When you talk to them, do you feel as if you’ve been bathed in a warm spotlight - the King’s or Queen’s aura - or chilled by cold haughtiness? If you wronged them, could you be pretty sure that their response would not be a matter of petty vengeance, but public fairness?

Obviously, since we are not keeping the bloodline and inheritance part of the package, and since we can actually fire our nobility - if only by voting with our feet and walking away, leaving them with an empty title in exile - then everyone with a noble title needs to understand the seriousness of what they’re doing. As Gwydion says in Lloyd Alexander’s "Taran" series of children’s fantasy, "Say not so much ‘royal blood’ as ‘noble worth’."

A title is like an invisible crown. It carries responsibilities - tons of them. Heavy ones. Crowns are a burden, and that burden comes from centuries of archetypal ideals from the collective unconscious. Being "Lady something" forces you into the archetype of nobility whether you like it or not, because it’s a public title, and public titles always come with archetypal baggage and expectations. If you fail at the archetype, you will be perceived as the "other" noble archetype, the "tyrant", which is perilously close to the worst demon in the human mind. In other words, if you’re not up to the weight, don’t put on the trinket.


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