Greetings to the Kingdom from your MoAS!
Below are a series of Q&A’s discussing a topic that I have seen come up in a discussion recently. That topic has to do with the place of merchants in our peerage orders. I would like to offer my thoughts on this topic, in the hope that it may help clarify some issues, and spark a useful discussion in other ways. My thoughts will primarily focus on A&S related pursuits, since that is my area of focus at the moment, but I invite others to widen the conversation in constructive ways.
“I’ve heard people state that merchants cannot be made peers. Is that true?”
Is it true that people have made this kind of claim? Yes, they have. People say lots of things, but, remember, just because someone says something doesn’t mean it is true. And, in this case it is absolutely not true. Merchants can be made peers.
Have I overheard people claim this myself?
I have. Both merchants and non-merchants alike have told me that they have heard people claim that merchants cannot be made peers. When I hear comments like this, I do my best to correct them. I also encourage others to correct people making these claims. It helps if everyone works together to stop spreading these false ideas.
Can merchants become members of the order of the Laurel?
Now, in regards to the Order of the Laurel, these claims seem to be based on the fact that merchant make a profit on what they sell and teach. The claim may include that merchants’ contributions are devalued or are considered not as worthy of recognition when compared to those who teach and give away their art entirely for free. This is not correct, and it is also a fundamental misunderstanding of the Order of the Laurel. Candidates are considered based on the quality of their artistic work and research, not on the profit they may or may not make from their work.
However, it is important to remember that our polling orders are not monoliths. Each individual in an Order can only speak for themselves, not for the entire order. It may be true that an individual has a prejudice against selling products and research for a profit. This could be their personal opinion, and they can have an opinion, even if I would argue that their opinion is against all stated and traditional understandings of the Order. It may also be true that this bias was more pronounced or felt at different times or in different communities. Experiences with this claim, much like many of the pervasive and inaccurate rumors that spread throughout the SCA, depend much on the population.
Here is something that also may be happening in some cases. It is possible that a Laurel may talk about how “the path to a Laurel may be harder for merchants in some ways.” Then, what is heard by the listener is “merchants can’t ever be Laurels.” That then becomes “a Laurel told me that merchants can’t be made peers.” So, while no one intends hurt feelings, the miscommunication still ends up causing pain or frustration.
This leads us to another question.
It is true that there are factors that may make it harder for a merchant to be recognized?
Yes, this is absolutely true. Many of these factors are similar in nature, if different in substance, to the ones that impact other people who play our game. It takes time to do art, to experiment, to learn new techniques, to engage in deep historical research, and to participate in the A&S community. If someone is making a living, or making even part of their income selling items at SCA events, they will have substantially less time to engage in other SCA activities. A merchant who spends each event at their shop likely cannot participate in A&S activities in the same way that others are able to participate, and these issues are often not easily overcome or solved. This is not just for A&S activities. This limit to time and availability and community building can happen in service endeavors and marshal activities, too.
Merchants may also encounter issues specific to A&S recognition. The focus of SCA A&S polling Order awards is very much around the idea of making an item as historically accurate as possible. If a person is focused on making income as a merchant, depending on what they sell, they may need to make their stock using materials and techniques that are more modern than historically focused. This is completely legitimate. Items made using historical materials and techniques will be much pricier, and thus out of the reach of many more people, than materials made with modern conveniences and shortcuts. It becomes then important for merchants and the broader community, to keep in mind the difference between what has been made “for sale” and what has been made “for A&S purposes”.
Are there things that merchants can do to help connect themselves to the A&S community?
There are indeed things that merchants (and anyone) in the SCA, who is looking to get more attention for their arts and sciences, can do. Thinking about ways to respectfully show off one’s work is not at all a bad thing, and in fact, I would argue, it is something that should be encouraged. Merchants can share custom historically researched work that they are proud of. Even once something is given to a client, photographs can be taken and posted to websites, shared on social media, and some documentation & research shared along with those photographs. While many members of polling orders are often on the lookout for upcoming artists, sometimes we may need an individual person brought to our attention, so please never be afraid to show off your work, or to tell us about someone you think we may have overlooked. Our peers and order members cannot be everywhere and see everything all of the time.
A merchant, if they have time, can also decide to make an item specifically for an A&S competition. They can take a deep dive into the research and creation of an item, working to make it as historically accurate as possible. Then they can enter that item, and show it off to the judges and the A&S community at large.
A merchant, as time allows, can also teach. While they may not be able to give away all of their specialized knowledge, or while they may have to primarily teach for a profit to earn their living, they can still very much share at least some of what they know. They can occasionally provide hands on instruction to others about the beginnings of their craft, or, they can teach a lecture based class (or write an article on a blog or website) that provides an overview of the cultural context of their art.
Finally, as we are talking about polling orders, it is important to remind everyone that order confidentiality is a very real thing, and that it is something that we hope all order members take seriously. It is always possible that a person you believe has been overlooked has actually been considered and discussed on a polling list. However, because these discussions are seen as confidential, an unfortunate byproduct of our system is that this may lead to people feeling overlooked, and the orders are often not good as a whole at translating these discussions back to people. This is an issue that I have heard members of our A&S polling orders discuss before, and something that I hope we continue to discuss.
Are there ways that the A&S community can help merchants? Part of the job of order members and peers is to be on the lookout for up and coming artisans, so we all need to remember to write people in for awards, and we may need to pay special attention to our merchants lest they get overlooked. There are also other ways of recognizing people that are equally as important. Giving out tokens lets people know they are seen and appreciated, giving them word fame helps spread knowledge about exceptional artisan around the community. Merchants, specifically those that work hard to create historically accurate objects, and who are knowledgeable about their craft and its connection to history, are part of our dream. While they may make their living off of their craft, they have not chosen to be a merchant because doing it will make them rich. They became a merchant for the same reason that we all engage in A&S activities, because they love their art.