A Matter of Britain
Customs and Laws
Every player must remember that these rules of society are the keystones of his character’s society and of the world. They are what make people into people, and set them apart from beasts.
THE UNIVERSAL LAWS
Certain customary laws—hospitality, family, loyalty, and honor—are universal among all the peoples of Britain. Your character knows these unwritten laws well. From childhood on, they have been a part of life for every knight.
These laws are respected even between enemies. For instance, when an enemy Pictish king accepts the hospitality of King Arthur, he is confident that he can eat and relax in the Pendragon’s halls without fear of murder, even if he is dead drunk. Only the Saxons and other dastards perfidiously break this rule, and then only occasionally. Similarly, if the enemy Pict king was conquered by Arthur and swore loyalty, then Arthur can be confident that his new vassal will obey him. Finally, if someone marries into a family, even that of his enemy, he becomes a kinsman and can therefore be trusted.
This is not to say that your character must always abide by the four laws, or that he must assume that others will. You control your own character, and tricky issues such as consistency of behavior or your character’s reputation are handled by the game rules, not just left to the Gamemaster to enforce or ignore.
Players must understand that these laws precede and underlie the bold new concepts of chivalry that King Arthur will promote. Even the most barbaric or vicious groups in Britain accept these ancient traditions as necessary and essential for survival in an unforgiving world. In game terms, these laws are the four basic passions held by all characters.
This unspoken law, of the four mentioned above, deserves a little more attention here. Among the divergent cultures of Britain, there is one matter upon which all agree—the rules of hospitality. The host may never act against his visitor, but must treat him as an honored guest. The visitor, in turn, must be civil and not insult his host.
A person’s house is considered to be sacrosanct, protected by whatever powers watch over mankind. This is true whether one lives in a hovel or a mighty castle. This sanctity does not mean the powers intervene to protect a house if it is attacked. It does mean, though, that the offender is never trusted in anyone’s house again if he breaks the rules, and that an ill fate will dog the offender’s footsteps from then on.
A person need not invite anyone into the safety of his hearth, but if he does, then both people must obey certain rules of respect and safety. Once inside, peace must reign between them, even if they later discover that they are deadly enemies. They can go outside and fight, or one of them can leave and then return with hostile intentions, if he is permitted back in. But while inside, both parties must be peaceful, and the visitor must even aid the owner of the hearth to defend it if they are attacked.
Any breach in this unwritten contract is viewed and corrected by the powers that oversee the laws of hospitality. Such powers ensure that justice is eventually delivered. Hence, common superstition assures your character that, if a person abuses this rule, something terrible will occur to him at the most inconvenient time, whether delivered by God, Llew, or Wotan, all of whom protect the hearth.
The world is a dangerous place, and it is easy to mistrust in others, even if they are not strangers who speak a different tongue and worship alien gods. Foreigners are, a priori, hostile and threatening. The loyalty and affection of a person for his family is considered to be inherent to nature. It is unthinkable that someone would turn against his family. A kinslayer is inhuman, almost demonic.
One’s own kin should always be trusted. Even if a kinsman acts despicably to others, he is still to be trusted. Only one’s family can be counted upon in an emergency—any emergency. Given this understanding, an individual is not helpless against the world, but can always count on his kin for aid.
Sometimes a knight has to choose between loyalty to his kin and loyalty to his lord. There may be no way to resolve such problems without offending someone important. Such dilemmas fuel some of the greatest stories, and thus offer the best chances for roleplay.
Some of the commonly used family terms are as follows:
Clan: All people who claim descent from a common ancestor.
Family: The nuclear family, consisting of a husband and wife, and their dependants.
Lineage: All people who can actually trace their ancestry to a common ancestor. This is the “extended family.”
Kindred: All people who are relatives of an individual, including those who are outside his lineage (e.g., his wife’s family).
Loyalty is acknowledged as the basis for all of society beyond the family. All members of society, excepting the mad, hold loyalty to someone. For warriors and soldiers (like your character), loyalty is particularly important because it is the foundation of military organization and the basis of survival in battle.
Logic and self-interest both provide a basis for loyalty. No one would consider it fair or just to perform hostile acts against the person who supports them with food, protection, and comfort. Moreover, loyalty to a leader extends a person’s influence outside of his own family, giving him a place in the larger world.
Loyalty is assured by ritualized pledges and oaths that establish the relationship between two people. As noted earlier in this chapter, feudal loyalty is an agreement between two parties: a leader and a follower.
Those who break an oath of loyalty are outcasts from society and will never again be trusted by right-thinking people. As with the laws of hospitality and kinship, the supernatural powers that watch over man may intervene to bring oath-breakers to a terrible end.
Honor is the last and least of the four universal laws of society. It is required of knights, but not of everyone else. Having honor is one of the things that sets a knight apart from all others. Churchmen do not need honor, for they are supposed to put the interests of God and the Church before their own. Commoners do not need honor, for they have enough difficulty simply staying alive. Women do not need honor because they are “merely women,” although women who do have honor are esteemed above others.
Knights, however, must have honor because they have agreed to take the oath of knighthood. Without honor, no oath is worth taking, for without it the sworn word will soon be broken. It is conceivable that a knight could cheat and connive yet maintain his own sense of honor, as long as the oath of knighthood was never violated.
Honor includes your character’s personal code of integrity, pride, and dignity, which is important enough to be backed up by force of arms. Beyond these words, however, definition gets more difficult. Difficulty stems from using the critical adjective “personal.” Every knight has agreed that it includes some things, such as killing a woman, for example.
However, the concept of a personal definition of honor is important. It means two things: First, some aspects of honor are determined by the individual, not by common social consent. Secondly, “personal” is used to separate honor from the other sworn or innate social obligations, including the other unwritten laws of society or any others, which are determined socially.