This was originally posted in 2009, shortly after my elevation, in response to a discussion about “peer like qualitites”.
I knew I wanted to be a Laurel early on in my SCA career. The barony I started playing in had a large concentration of Laurels, and I wanted to be like them. I didn’t know exactly why, except that they did lots of cool stuff, but I knew that was the path I wanted to be on. Did I know where it led at that point? Not really.
So I became an apprentice, and took the green belt that was the outward sign of my ambition. Over the years I pursued the various arts that appealed to me, and in time began to teach them to others. For a long time I was in that contradictory state where, if asked, I would say that the Laurel wasn’t my goal, while the sash around my waist said the opposite. It wasn’t until later that I came to understand why that wasn’t entirely contradictory, and I found my own understanding of what it meant to me.
What is the Laurel?
After many years, I got to the place that many have reported finding themselves, namely the land of What If I Never Become A Laurel? It’s not a fun place, but it’s a good place to do some thinking. I started trying to figure out what exactly I was missing out on, besides jewelry and meetings. I didn’t need the Laurel to do my art, and I didn’t even need it to teach. I couldn’t take official apprentices without it, but I could have students and encourage others to pursue their own arts. What, I wondered, was the Laurel really good for?
As far as I can tell, the Laurel is a license. What is a license? It’s a document that tells someone who does not know you personally that some accredited group has deemed you fit to perform some task. A driver’s license says that you have passed the driving test and are at least minimally competent to safely operate a vehicle. A medical or law license says that you have completed the necessary training to work in those professions. The Laurel is like a teaching license, in that it declares that you are able to competently perform and teach the arts and sciences that we do in the SCA.
Is a license an award? Sort of. A doctor receives his diploma in a ceremony and hangs it on the wall of his office so you can see his credentials, just as the Laurel receives and displays his regalia. What it is not is the end of the journey. Imagine a med student graduating, getting his medical license, and then retiring! Receiving the license is the end of one journey, and the beginning of a career.
What is the purpose of a license?
You may have noticed my earlier emphasis on the fact that a license certifies your credentials to those who don’t know you. It’s possible to be an artisan and a teacher in the SCA without being a Laurel, and even to do so better than some who are. The only thing the Laurel will do is to give an idea of your skills to someone who has no knowledge of you, either personally or by reputation. If you tell someone “I’m a cooking Laurel”, that gives them a certain idea of your ability to cook in a period style, redact recipes, etc. It is am imprecise tool, and one that can be misused, like any tool. When used wisely and honestly, though, it helps those who are seeking knowledge and advice find it more easily.
What is the value of a license?
The value of a license is directly related to the reputation of the institution that grants it. A medical license from a third world country does not necessarily carry the same weight as one granted in a more industrialized nation. The value of the Laurel is equal to the sum of all the experiences that a particular person has had with Laurels (or perhaps Laurels from your kingdom or local group). If someone has had bad experiences with Laurels, they will place less weight on it as an accurate measure of skill and personality, and vice versa for those who have had mostly good experiences.
This is why the Laurel is a polling order. It is in their best interests to maintain a high level of quality in their membership, and therefore a high level of overall respect for the Laurel as an Order (or a brand, if you will). If they let in a bunch of jerks, then people will start to think all Laurels are jerks, and therefore that they personally are jerks.
So is it just a status symbol?
While it is a status symbol, like most status symbols it does have a useful purpose. A big SUV is a symbol of wealth, but if it is regularly used to transport large numbers of people then it is not an empty symbol. Likewise, a Laurel who is using their status to actively teach and promote the arts more widely than they might have been able to without it is making good use of it.