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Tales of Pendragon

A Traveller's Guide to the People and Lands of Arthurian Times

Being a compendium of how people live and act in the Tales of Pendragon.

 
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Abduction: Peculiarly, kidnapping ladies is not always considered a dishonourable act in most circumstances, unless accomplished by trickery or unfair means. Assaulting a woman travelling alone is always considered wicked, but on the other hand a Knight may take a Lady from someone he has defeated in fair combat or defeated in a war, and nobody thinks this wrong. Of course, others may still wish to redress the situation by combat, but thatís another matter. To wound or slay a Lady is in most cases unthinkable by honourable folk, but abducting one to marry her or lie with her is not.

Abducted Ladies commonly remain with their captor until rescued, presumably to avoid being ignominiously recaptured. They are free to appeal to anyone passing by to free them, of course.

Amor: See Love, Courtly.

Battle: The ultimate test of Knightly prowess. See War.

Behaviour, Odd: There are some acts which are not dishonourable, but would be considered very strange, distasteful, or shameful, or in Arthurian times. These include

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Women wearing armour or wielding weapons in battle.

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Ladies using any weapon at all for any purpose.

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Anyone dressing as a member of the opposite sex.

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Knights riding in a wagon or cart. See Carts and Wagons.

Carts and Wagons: For no obvious reason, it is considered shameful for a Knight to ride in any conveyance, unless he is sick or so wounded that he cannot stay on a horse.

Challenges: Arthurian Knights and noblemen are pretty hot-blooded people and will challenge one another to combat at the drop of a hat. Some of the reasons include:

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Revenge for a death or harm.

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Redress for an insult - This could be defeat in a tournament, a verbal slight, or a social wrong. The insult need not have been given to the challenger! It is common to take the part of a lady or lord and demand redress on their behalf. Indeed, many knights can demand redress for the same insult to the same lady, if she is well-loved. When Guinevere felt slighted by Lancelot, many knights took up the lance on her behalf to demand that he apologize.

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A Vow made that requires the challenger to fight.

The commonest reason of all, though, is the trial at arms, i.e. finding out which is the better fighter. Few knights, meeting someone that they didnít know by reputation, would let the chance to prove themselves better go by. Knights are pretty hot-blooded folk, after all. It is polite in such circumstances to call out a challenge to the other and be accepted before just charging forward. Knights will sometimes wait at a river ford or bridge and challenge any who come by until they are defeated. See Trial At Arms.

Knights who refuse a challenge may be deemed un-Chivalrous and perhaps even cowards.†† See also Stakes.

Chivalry: King Arthur established this code as an ideal to which all good Knights and Nobles should aspire. Commoners are not expected to be chivalrous, as they are not in positions of power. Those who like King Arthur respect and value this code in others; those who dislike Arthur often disdain the whole idea.

The Code of Chivalry includes the following dicta:

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(Men) Assist women in distress.

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(Women) Guard your chastity.

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Assist the weak and helpless.

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Be temperate in all things.

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Honour God and holy folk.

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(Knights) Accept any fair challenge.

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Honour love and beauty.

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Show mercy and magnanimity in victory.


Courage: Pride, bravery, and combat prowess; emotional strength, fortitude, and endurance.Courage without other tempering virtues is Hubris; too little is Cowardice.

The tenets of Courage include:

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Never refuse a challenge.

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Never abandon your comrades in trouble.

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Never shrink from danger.

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Embrace Adventure where it is found.

Courtly Love: See Love.

Customs, Strange: The Arthurian saga is full of encounters with people who follow rules that are outside of normal expectations. Often, a traveller will be told that if he stays at a given castle, he will be required to follow the ďancient customĒ of the castle, usually without being told what it is. Anyone entering a place where a strange custom is maintained must follow it, or else risk being cursed or bringing doom to others. Some customs are corrupt and sinful or wasteful to all moral humans. Others are evil by the standards of Christianity but not paganism, such as voluntary human sacrifice and certain sexual practices.

Whatever the morality of the custom, breaking it is no small matter. Strange customs are never changed nor broken in stories except by fulfilling them in some manner. Trying to evade them or change them in some other way usually ends in tragedy.

Some customs were created by people of such high status that changing them was not in question. Arthur did not permit anyone to take a seat at the round table unless they had defeated another knight in the week before, which many knights found annoying.

Devices: The coats of arms on shields by which Knights are known. In the tales, however, knights are forever doing things that muddle this recognition, such as taking the shield of a downed foe, covering their shields, using a plain coloured shield (see disguises), and the like. Knights do this for all sorts of reasons. Brus Sans Pitie disguised himself in order to trick others into mistaking him for a good knight. Lancelot disguised himself in order to get into more fights, as many did not want to cross swords with him. And sometimes it just happens by accident.

Disguises: Knights and nobles will often go adventuring in disguise. No honourable person ever pretends to be someone else; instead, they simply hide their true identity. A Knight would wear a blank shield (a shield without device) and not give his name, or might don armour of a given colour and call himself e.g. the Red Knight, or might give a made-up name. A lady would wear a veil and call herself e.g. the Damsel of the Southern Marches. Disguises cannot be seen through or discovered unless you have the other person at your mercy. It is not dishonourable to hide your identity or desire anonymity. A disguised person might choose to reveal his identity in time, e.g. after a tournament, or might ride off without ever telling anyone. See also Devices.

Fate: Some things will happen no matter what anyone tries to do. Everyone understands this, and hopes not to be caught up in such events. It often happens that a basically good person must do some terrible thing, however much they try to avoid it. This is tragic, but sometimes the world works that way. Sometimes the fated thing is a prophecy; this can be particularly unfortunate, as the victim may know full well what lies ahead and yet be powerless to avoid it. Sometimes a fate is punishment for a bad or reckless act.

This was the case with Sir Balin, who was destined to wound King Pellam in the Dolorous Stroke for having caused the suicide of a maiden when he killed her lover.

Feud: Sometimes a series of revenge killings spills so much blood between two families or groups that they declare feud upon one another. When this happens, members of either group are likely to attack the other (in fair fight) without provocation or warning. None is required, as the existence of the feud is considered warning enough. Feuds almost never stop until one side or the other is destroyed, although truce may be declared briefly if the two parties are faced with a common enemy. The Feud between Gawain and his brothers and King Pellinore is an example of a long-lasting feud.

Flaws: The Arthurian world is full of passions. Otherwise honourable people not infrequently let their pride, greed, fear, or lust get the better of them and do things that they ought not. Few Knights, Ladies, or Kings in the saga resisted all such temptations. Of course, those who were good at heart regretted their actions afterwards, but often only when it was too late. They are not considered any the less honourable for these faults, except of course by those that they harmed. Almost all the great Knights have done something to make them hated by someone, though they are well-regarded by Arthur and most of Britain. Only Galahad was so virtuous that he didnít make enemies.

Guest-right:Once someone had been invited into a castle or church, they were considered honoured guests unless they did something while guests to violate that status.

The host was bound by honour to protect his guest and enjoin others from bringing him harm, and the guest was similarly bound to respect his hosts while a guest. Even if it turns out that your guest (e.g.) killed your brother, it would be dishonourable to let him come to harm while under your roof. Guest-right and respect for host extend until the guest is safely away from the hostís domain, i.e. ambushing him outside the door is just as dishonourable as attacking him in the dining hall.

Glory: What makes a Knight great, as opposed to merely a fine and respected fellow. No Knight is truly renowned, but that he has committed great feats of prowess, diligence, perseverance, or daring. Glorious accomplishments include:

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Acquitting oneself well on the field of Battle.

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Performing well in a Tournament.

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Undertaking a perilous Quest.

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Or otherwise putting oneself at risk.

Honour: Personal responsibility, honesty, integrity, and sense of duty; The personal respect and trust you command. Honour without humility and thoughtfulness is Self-Righteousness; too little is Deceit.

The tenets of Honour include:

 

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Never break an oath.

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Never bring harm to your host if you are a guest, or to a guest if you are the host.

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Obey your lord or lady in all things, and conceal nothing from him/her.

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Never lie to your lord, nor to friends or allies.

Honour, Code of: Honour is paramount in the lives of Arthurian Folk, especially gentlefolk and nobility. Law-abiding people do not behave dishonourably, as they would not commit criminal acts. Even witnessing a dishonourable act without trying to stop it is itself dishonourable! It is not simply that no Knight would harm a lady; No good Knight would stand by and let a lady be harmed.

It is dishonourable to do things such as:

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Harm or insult a lady. But see Abduction.

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Break your sworn word, or bear false witness.

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Kill or attempt to kill another in secret, or using secret means such as poison.

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Use magic against another person.

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Harm a holy man or woman.

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Harm or insult your host when in his household.

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Harm or insult your own invited guest.

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Consort with demons or evil spirits.

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Attack someone of greater social rank than you (except in wartime).

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Marry someone of different social rank.

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Insult or give great disrespect to someone of greater social rank.

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Disobey a legal order from your lord.

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Conceal important knowledge from your lord.

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Steal.

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Engage in adultery.

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Fail to Revenge harm done to Lord and family.

Of course, people who are angry, fearful, vengeful, love-struck, or foolish do all these things, but unless they have the strongest of justifications for their acts, they should be ashamed of themselves. See Flaws.

Violations of honour will always be met with censure, even if there is a good reason for them. It is also common for men to challenge another man who commits a dishonourable act to combat in order to redress the slight. This is especially common when a man dishonours a lady or oneís lord.

The Arthurian world is not without politics, however. See Might makes right.

Note for Pagans - While some of the above are framed as Christian virtues, they apply no less to Pagans, albeit for different reasons. For instance, a Christian who commits a sin against honour is placing his soul in peril, while a Pagan risks incurring bad luck, the displeasure of the Gods, and the attention of evil spirits.

Hosts: See Guest-right.

Horses, Attacking: Horses were valuable property. As a result, Knights never attacked each otherís horses except in war, and usually then only against foreign enemies such as Saxons. Attacking a horse in a tournament was cause for censure. Of course horses did die in jousts through accident or falls, but thatís another matter.

Killing: Though Arthurian folk often fight, they rarely kill one another except in War. Knights challenging one another will seldom do so to the death, except in cases of revenge or if one Knight is bloodthirsty.Knights do occasionally die in the course of an ordinary challenge, of course. Killing is serious business, especially if the victim has any family or allies; thatís how feuds get started.

Kings: See Nobility and Royalty.

Kingly Blood: The more high-born and powerful someone is in the Arthurian world, the more likely they are to get away with acts of questionable honour. People are particularly loath to censure their own Lord or King. Acts that would be considered shameful by ordinary knights are often forgiven in a leader, particularly when he or she is considered otherwise to be honourable and fair. Thus few people consider Uther Pendragon wicked, though he coveted Igraine, his vassalís wife, and plotted to lie with her adulterously. He was High King of Britain, and as such his morality was not judged on the same plane as that of ordinary men.

Knight-Errant: It was common for Knights to go riding off into the world, looking for causes to champion. Some did this once for years in their youth, others for short times throughout their lives. In any case, the good Knight Errant followed these rules:

  1. Always help whoever asks you first. It is better to act than waste time considering which party might be right.

  2. As an exception to (1), always help a lady in preference to a man.

Of course, helping people without thinking about it first often placed Knights in an awkward position later, but thatís the way it went; better to be true to your nature than be too cautious.A merchant might carefully calculate the pros and cons of helping someone, but not a Knight.

Lady: Any gentle or noble woman. Ladies do not fight and as a consequence cannot be harmed without dishonour. This is true even if the lady in question is abusive, cruel, or arbitrary. Even those who engage in violence or magic themselves are still protected, although their acts may drive others to seek Revenge. It is hard to think of any Lady as evil, even when they have committed wicked acts, unless of course they harmed you directly.

 Love: Your capacity for love and romance, whether physical or courtly; your compassion, humility, mercy, generosity, and charity, especially towards the unfortunate; your skill with poetry, song, and the arts; your empathy and understanding of beauty.Love in isolation is Lust; too little is Callousness.

 The tenets of Love include:

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Always express love, in word or deed; never conceal it.

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Assist others in finding or achieving love.

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Treasure beauty wherever it is found.

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Respect and preserve your family.

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If a man, never harm a woman nor a child.

Love, Courtly: Affection between Knights and nobleman and women in Tales runs the gamut from admiration to flirtation to lustful desire. Courtly Love, or Amor, was nonsexual and was allowed and encouraged, even between unmarried Knights and married women. A particularly beautiful or virtuous woman might have many Knights paying her Amor and vying for her favour; Queen Guinevere was one example. A married man was usually proud that his wife could command the respect and devotion of others. Of course, Amor sometimes shaded into desire. This placed it outside the realm or propriety, but so long as no one said anything and the two participants were never alone together, such behaviour was generally condoned or ignored.

Mistakes: A bad deed done by accident is almost as reprehensible as one done on purpose. This never stops anyone from making mistakes, of course. Balin killed his brother for not knowing who he was; Gawain killed a maiden who threw herself in front of a knight he was aiming to behead. Arthur lay with Margawse incestuously, not knowing she was his sister. If an act resulted in misfortune, the best intentions do not excuse you. Even having been tricked or ensorcelled does not exculpate you of wrongdoing, although it does implicate whoever beguiled you as well.

Names: Strangers in Arthurian times did not give out their names readily. Knights meeting on the road might well fight one another in a trial at arms before ever saying who they were, although they might be recognized by their coats of arms. Even guests and hosts might not ask one anotherís names until well into their acquaintanceship, and when they did they were careful and polite, knowing that it was a minor imposition to do so before the other had volunteered it. Travellers that met on the road might never learn one anotherís name. Often a Knight learned the name of someone he had defeated in battle only as the other lay wounded.

Much of this probably stems from the old idea that giving someone your name might let them work magic on you. This is no longer true in Arthurís day, but the custom persists.

Nobility and Royalty: Since noble titles came from many sources, there was no orderly rank of nobility in Arthurian times. Roughly speaking, nobles rank as follows:

The High King

Kings and Dukes

Earls, Barons, Marquises, landed Knights.

Many were the Kings of Arthurian times. The distinction between a Duke and a King seems to have been more a matter of custom than actual status. Kings often owed fealty to other Kings. Similarly, the distinction between noble holders of smaller parcels of land was minimal and their titles varied a lot.

Odd Behaviour: See Behaviour, Odd.

Piety:†† Devotion to your deity and religion (whether Christian or Pagan); spirituality, faith, and understanding of magic, miracle, and mystery. Piety without other virtues is Zealotry; too little is Ungodliness.

The tenets of Piety include:

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Obey the holy men and women.

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Protect godly places, people, and things.

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Succour the people of the faith.

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Promulgate the faith and do good works to honour the faith.

The Christian Church also has the tenets:

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Never consort with demons, spirits, or sorcerers.

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Never work on the Sabbath.

 

The Old Religion has the tenets:

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Never reveal a secret of the religion

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Honour the wild places and keep them whole.

Prophecies: Foretellings of holy men or women, old traditions, inscriptions upon stones and the like are taken very seriously by all folk. Not all prophecies come true, but who knows whether a given one might not be so? Prophecies predict doom rather more often than not.

Quests: The pursuit of a wondrous thing such as the Questing Beast, the slaying of a monster, or the righting of a wrong are some of the reasons Knights and Kings go riding out far from home for long periods. The Law of Quests, as Merlin stated it, insists that when a mysterious thing is encountered or someone without power of their own asks for help, somebody should take up the cause. If the appeal is made to an assembly of people, such as at a court, it is only necessary that one Knight take up the Quest to satisfy all. If nobody wants the quest, it may be necessary for the ranking Lord to assign it to someone, for an unfilled Quest is unlucky.

A Quest should only be taken up by as many people as are needed. There is no Glory in defeating a foe by overwhelming numbers, after all. If too many desire a Quest, some must yield to others, or else fight one another for the privilege.

You can give a Quest to someone else, if they are capable and willing, without dishonor. You can even take a quest from someone else by fighting them for it!

Quests are honourable undertakings, and minor infractions of Honour are forgiven those in pursuit of a Quest, especially if they make amends later. Pellinore took Arthurís horse when his own was killed by the Questing beast, but agreed to meet Arthur in honourable combat later.

Revenge: Vengeance against another for causing the death or ruin of a loved one is common in Arthurian society. No one is ever thought wicked for desiring vengeance for a family member or lover, even if the killing was lawful or deserved. La Cote Male Taile wears his dead fatherís bloody coat wherever he goes, promising that he will never remove it until he has gained revenge, and nobody thinks this unusual. Lawful revenge must be taken in war or fair fight, however; killing from ambush, with poison, or with many against one is still condemned. Of course, taking vengeance may lead to more vengeance, see Feuds. Revenge often inspires such hatred that the vengeful one will side with an erstwhile enemy in order to redress the balance.

Stakes: A victorious knight in a challenge may take almost anything from his vanquished foe. He might even demand that the defeated one relinquish his lady companion (if they are not married), see abduction. It sometimes even happens that two knights, both pursuing a quest, will joust to determine who gets to have the adventure!

Strange Customs: See Customs, Strange.

Tournaments:Tournaments were common entertainments in Arthurian times, involving jousts between knights, grand melees, and others feats of arms to give the audience a good show and the knights a chance to show off in front of an appreciative crowd. Blunted lances and partially blunted hand weapons are typically used in tournaments, to decrease the chance of someone getting killed by accident (although it still happens Ė falling badly from a charging horse, for example). The winners get acclaim from the patrons and prizes of some sort. The losers get to show what good or bad sports that they are, graciously applauding the victors or else plotting to meet them again one day and settle the matter properly.

Some tournaments are polite wars, with Knights taking up sides with their allies to try and best the other side altogether. Sometimes, though, a Knight would fight on the weaker side against his friends in order to gain greater glory for himself, or just to balance the fight if his side was winning too easily. Many Knights of the Round Table distinguished themselves in this way.

Trial At Arms: Engaging someone you just met in combat to see who was better on that day is just a way of greeting someone for Arthurian Knights, no different from hailing them or shaking hands. Sometimes the knights involved would engage one another using fighting words, sometimes not, but almost never did they give their name before fighting. This of course led to all sorts of tragic accidents, considering how many people went around with blank shields or someone elseís coat of arms: See Devices. But thus it was. See Names for more on the reluctance of people to say who they were.

Trial by Combat: Disputes of law that were not resolved by higher authority (e.g. a mutual Lord) were not infrequently decided by war. Instead of a costly and destructive battle, it was common for each side to select a champion to fight. God would side with the warrior whose side was righteous, it was felt, and justice would be done in most cases. Whatever the outcome, the resolution was binding on both parties unless the fight was won by trickery.

Vows: Vows in Arthurian times are not broken lightly. Anyone who breaks a vow will be cursed with bad luck and may even bring misfortune down upon others. Nobody ever asks anyone else to break a vow. Sometimes people make vows they regret, but they always keep them. Arthur retreated from his enemy at the battle of Bedgrayne in part because his foes had sworn never to leave the field alive. He knew that they would not dishonour this vow, and thus he would lose a great many men if he continued the attack.

Vows and promises are betimes made under duress or without careful consideration of the consequences. They are nonetheless binding for that. When a maiden asks a Knight for a favour, not a few Knights have gotten into trouble by replying, ďI will grant anything you ask.Ē Taking back a promise or adhering to the letter of a promise rather than the spirit is dishonourable. Better to fulfil a bad promise than weasel out of it.

On the bright side, almost any behaviour can be excused if it was done in fulfilment of a vow, especially if the vow was for a lady.

War: War is a commonplace pursuit of Kings, Lords, and Knights. Indeed, most Knights, being professional soldiers, prefer battle to leisure time in all ways. The code of Chivalry was established in large part to give Knights an outlet for their passions other than killing one another, but the old urges are still strong. There is more Glory to be had in a good war than in any other pursuit. For Lords, war is a good way to fatten the purse at the expense of your enemyís common-folk. The only people opposed to war are those few who value compassion above all else, generally women and some church-folk.

Armies are generally composed of ten to a hundred Knights and thirty to fifty times that many footmen. However, the men-at-armsí role in a battle is never described. It is always the individual prowess of certain Knights, perhaps with a little boost from a wise plan of battle, that carries the day. The men-at-arms presumably follow in their leadersí footsteps.

Wisdom:Experience, caution, forbearance, diligence, and temperance; persuasiveness and power with words, common sense, discernment, practicality. Wisdom without appreciation for other things is Arrogance; too little is Recklessness.

The tenets of Wisdom include:

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A soft answer turneth away wrath.

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Words win more allies than blows.

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Look before you leap. Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread.

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Violence is the first refuge of the incompetent.

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Moderation in all things.

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Better to be a live jackal than a dead lion.

 

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