Recently a question was posed by a brother-knight about honor on the battlefield, and it got me thinking about what that meant in a broader scope. The question posed was, ”Do you feel that melee eats away from the courtesy and politeness that should be displayed when in harness?” Or, in more mundane terms, ”Does fighting group-combat allow one to compromise the integrity of his/her comportment?”
Are honor and chivalry things you do outwardly and for the spectacle/attention/publicity of the act? Or is it an internal thing that governs one’s actions regardless of the stage? It is an interesting question, and a wide variety of viewpoints were expressed on the matter. Some were surprising, coming from fellow knights, some were to be expected coming from the person who expressed the opinion, and, yet others, aligned directly with my own moral philosophy.
For me, and this is not at all meant to be prescriptive, honor and chivalry are a part of my being. They are not a thing that I am even capable of turning on or off, but rather a subconscious, governing force in every action I take. Now, that said, this is not to say that I am perfectly honorable or chivalrous, for we all falter, make poor decisions and succumb to passions or pressures in the heat of the moment. I fall down on this occasionally, and I know I do, sometimes aware in the moment, but usually in retrospect. This is what I have discovered in some of my investigations of my own behavior, especially where I have not lived up to the ideals I hold paramount.
Since the original question is specific to the rarified form of combat that we engage in, I want to look at things through that lens, and let the reader make his or her own parallels to daily life. In essence, our engagements take three forms. First, there is single-combat, where two fighters engage each other for the glory of the fight and the entertainment of the spectators. Next we have melee-combat, where small groups of fighters will meet other, similarly-sized groups, as an exercise in teamwork and leadership, as well as preparation for war. Finally, there is war-fighting, where hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of combatants will meet on an enormous field of battle to experience the adrenaline-fueled rush of mass-combat, and to get a sense of how famous medieval conflicts must have felt, all for the glory of sovereign and kingdom.
I realized, in dissecting these combat forms, that at the core, relative to the question, lies a factor of anonymity. If we were to rephrase the question as, ”Given some modicum of anonymity, does your honor and chivalry change?” then we get at the heart of the issue. For in single-combat, 1v1, there is a spotlight on the actions of each individual as the battle is fought, namely, those bearing witness to the battle, reinforcing the individual’s sense of right and wrong. This forces most of us to be on our best behavior, each combatant expected to comport hisself or herself with a requisite amount of honor and chivalry per the rules and expectations of engagement. It is in the revealing light of this scrutiny that one’s comportment is, typically, at its best.
With melee combat (typically 3 or more to a side), the individual’s actions are subsumed into those of the group as a whole. There tends to be a bit more slack in both expectation and behavior, for the most part. This is not to say that everyone will take advantage of the modicum of anonymity for his or her own benefit, but that one may not feel as constrained by it as on the tournament field, where single-combat is found. It is far easier to get caught up in the outcome, and team-spirit, in order to win the engagement, compromising one’s honor and chivalry for an advantage or outright win.
Finally, we have the field of war, where anonymity can range from negligible (intra-kingdom events, or in the case of a particularly high-profile fighter such as a king, queen, captain of a guard or order, or upcoming candidate for knighthood) to almost complete, as when a fighter ventures to distant and unknown kingdoms to support the war-effort. In my experience, it is under these circumstances that the comportment of the individual tends to deviate most from expectation or precedent. As an example, I have witnessed fighters whom I understood to be quite honorable and chivalrous engage in activities such as striking another combatant from behind, using far too much power in blows, ignoring multiple killing-blows, and all manner of known-rule breaking, just because “no one was looking.”
Some may see these actions as part of the game, especially in war, where the honor of one’s group (war-unit, canton, barony, kingdom, etc.) is at stake, and relax their own ideals of comportment accordingly. I, personally, am not capable of that. My honor, my sense of chivalry, is constant, regardless of circumstance, with any deviation owing to my own fallibility and flaws, rather than a conscious effort to push the limits in order to win.
For me, honor and chivalry are woven into the very fabric of my being, a part of my DNA if you will. While I could change them, with great effort, much like changing your hair color, they will always return to a state of constancy and an innate baseline, just as my dyed-hair will eventually grow out to its natural shade. The setting, circumstance, or lack of observers are not part of the equation, and therefore, have no influence on the result. I behave as I behave, always striving to be a better version of myself, regardless. I expect nothing less of myself, or my charges, be they children, squires or students.
This is, of course, during our particular flavor of combat, where death is regulated, and life is but a resurrection point away, as we play a consensual game. Needless to say, none of this holds up under real life-or-death circumstances, where survival-at-any-cost governs all actions. But, barring that unthinkable possibility, I firmly believe that one’s life and actions should be governed by a well-defined, and resolute sense of both ideals.
- In Honor and Chivalry