The Noble Habitus: Hardihood

Hardihood is the combative core of the Noble Habitus, a tenet that serves to remind us that the Noble Habitus was indeed formed to regulate the behavior of fighting men.  In fact, if loyalty is the foundation of the law, and forbearance is the pillars that uphold it, then Hardihood is the superstructure; it bears the need for a warrior, noble or peasant, mounted or foot, to have prowess and fortitude to enter into and succeed in combat.  In fact, this was so important that the Germans have codified it in a modern form of fencing, organized into Studentenverbindung, fraternities that practice dueling with sharp weapons, leaving deliberate scars on the face; such scars being a source of pride to the fencers, despite them being a mark of a loss.  After all, a loss is a much better consequence of battle, then to have either never fought, or worse, run away at the sight of an opponent.

There are many tales of peasants being raised to knighthood due to prowess in battle, or ennobled for showing courage in the face of daunting odds.  After all, the easiest way for a peasant to increase his lot was to capture a knight; this was exceedingly dangerous. Assuming the knight himself wasn’t on a horse, as they usually were, the armour they wore was the equivalent to tank armour, especially after plate became a standard.  Even prior to that, a good Hauberk could ward off all but the most dedicated sword, and required puncturing or deliberate crushing of bones to defeat. Despite the nature of plate armour, it was surprisingly easy to move in, and knights, spending their days practicing the art of the fence (later the Art of Defense), had no trouble swinging their two to five pound swords; they were much more practiced in warfare than any conscripted serf or freedman.

If the peasant was canny enough, however, they could unsaddle the knight in a moment of luck or extreme courage, bearing him to the ground.  Later on, military hooks were developed for this exact purpose, grabbing a space between plates and levering the knight off the horse. If the peasant was fast enough, they could restrain the knight, often with the help of friends, and take away his weapons.  As long as they could remove his gauntlets before he used them to defend himself, and bind his arms, they had a perfect hostage. Returned to the lines, the peasant would remove the captive’s armour, and weapons; if the knight had a horse he might get that too, though the horse might have something different to say about it, as would the Lord.  After all, a horse is a knight’s partner, not his equipment, and a horse that won’t fight with you against all enemies is no ally. Then, having taken his spoils, the courageous serf would lead the captive knight to his lord, often with the knight’s sword in hand. Presenting the captive for a bounty, which would often be life changing; the ransom for a knight could be large indeed, and a serf could easily free his entire family and even be raised in status to that of a knight or minor noble for such an auspicious deed.  Failing that, the son of the serf, now a freedman, may be taken as squire to the Lord or one of his knights to become a knight in the future.

Should the peasant be a freedman to begin with, knighthood became far more likely, and he might ransom the captive back himself; after all, that was his right.  Thus the peasant would become wealthy virtually overnight, as a large bounty of gold, animals, and even weapons and armour could be demanded for the safe return of the captive.  Thus rewarded, and having raised his own station, the Lord would be forced to recognize, often with pride, that the freedman had shown himself to be a great warrior, and deserved to fight alongside him.  Thus, the former man-at-arms had proven himself worthy of noble status, and would receive the accolade, forever to wear the captured armour, or a commissioned set of armour bought with the proceeds of selling the captured armour back to its former owner, with the pride of nobility.

Similarly, a knight that proved himself cowardly, while he could not be stripped of his title, might find his own sons left without a teacher, and family destitute in just a couple of generations.  In the middle ages, sins of the father were indeed the responsibility of the son, and a cowardly or disgraced father would require extra hours of practice, more dangerous feats, and a more practiced sword than someone born of a more courageous bloodline.  Through hard work and courageous action could the son of a coward redeem his family name and blood, claiming his birthright and overcoming the stain on the family honor.

The need for hardihood hasn’t changed much over the course of centuries, although the method in which it’s displayed has changed from the mainstream.  Now hardihood based on skill with a sword shows itself in the arena, in the form of Buhurt, HEMA, the SCA.  Places with varying levels of safety requirements that prevent death from being likely, but pain inevitable.  Large and small melees devolve into chaos as people step on each other and push against each other in simulated combat.

Even more so, on the actual battlefield.  Humans are relatively young, only about 3.4 million years walking the earth as the earliest species of genus Homo, and a mere 1.9 as Homo erectus, the first recognizable humans.  In that almost two million year period, warfare has been our constant companion.  Even today, we prosecute wars against each other using modern weapons, able to kill hundreds at a time.  On today’s battlefield, you can hear death flying by your head instead of charging at you, and you may be required to fight through grievous wounds, the poisonous lead still in your body as you rush to drag a brother or sister off the field.  The abilities of the modern warrior caste, often ignored by society as a whole, but still very present in the form of multi-generational military families, is indeed a modern display of that previous era’s knightly upbringing.

Learning the skills to fight and handling the pain that is inevitable has been such an omnipresent part of human society that many rites of passage center around overcoming obstacles, fighting against a difficult foe, or handling a certain level of pain.  These rites of passage, some traumatic in nature, forge the young man or woman into an adult. Such rites of passage could involve a hunt, a fight in an arena, or the requirement to survive in the wild for a set length of time. Though most of these rites tended to be held for men historically, especially in light of the biological rite of passage for women which is no less arduous and likely far more painful than what most men would ever have to put up with, there have been tribes and societies where women have been made to pass as well.  The easiest example of this is ancient Sparta, whose women were not only permitted but expected to be able to hold their own in a fight.

Away from the arena of combat, or the more archaic and feral rites of passage, hardihood stands for the endurance to handle adversity in both life and the workplace.  Although life is not nearly as dangerous by nature as it has been in centuries past, there is no shortage of trials for a person to overcome. As we’ve become more advanced, battles have moved away from the field and into our minds; we grapple every day with trying to reconcile our more feral instincts to survive and make ourselves worthy to reproduce, with the modern need to acquire wealth and status.  Realistically, there is no difference between the two; wealth and status were usually granted to those that could show their hardihood in everyday life. With the rising prevalence of mental illness, especially depression, the battles we fight are now against our own brains, which we all too often lose. The increase in suicide in the two most recent generations are testament to that.

It could be that with the rise of technology and the reduction in the use of such trials that we used to not only test our worth to our family, but to ourselves, we have caused and perpetuated the rise of that same depression.  Adulthood, once recognized at 13, is now reserved for 18 for most rights and responsibilities, and 21 for others. While from a developmental standpoint, it’s not surprising that we would raise such ages; after all, a 13 year old is hardly mature enough to handle choosing appropriate foods to eat, let alone raise a child.  However, over-protecting our children has driven the last two generations self-esteem significantly lower, as they have not tested their own skills against the world appropriately. While there are some organizations that help to compensate for this, such as BSA, Girl Scouts, and Demolay, not all children are enrolled in such organizations, and the uniformity of such programs is hardly consistent.

It might be beneficial to us as a species, if we help our children build their self-worth by creating new rites of passage to test their hardihood, more appropriate to our level of technology and understanding of how our minds work.  We could develop methods to allow our children to test themselves against the world, and prove to themselves what they are made of. It could take the form of a sports competition or race; a hunt unaided; the need to find one’s way home in an area the developing child may not be familiar with.  By being able to find out what they are made of, maybe our children will have more confidence in themselves, and not suffer from depression nearly as much.


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