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Medieval Favors

And I don’t mean that little rubber ducky you got to take home from some kid’s birthday party. Medieval favors are a common theme in courtly romance, Victorian literature, medieval fantasy, and SCA tradition: the giving of a favor by a lady to her beloved before he goes off into harms way. Be that on campaign far away from her across the sea or in a tournament right before her eyes the favor is a token of assurance that he’ll come back alive. The actual value of the item itself is irrelevant, whatever it is she gives him will, of course, be her most prized possession. The gallant knight is, of course, honor bound to survive long enough to return it to her. A promise cannot be unbroken and so the little pact made over some bauble all but confirms there will be a happily ever after at the end of the story.

Leighton’s beautiful painting of a knight receiving a favor from his lady.

It’s actually a really neat tradition, even if it’s completely fabricated. While your loved one is away you have some ephemeral comfort that you’ve increased their chances of coming back. Being the loved one who is away, it’s uplifting to have an outward symbol that someone back home cares about your existence. I would be really surprised if it didn’t happen. 14th century sixteen year old girls were just as sappy and superstitious as they are now, without Twitter they just weren’t so noisy about it. The idealistic line of reasoning was even easier to swallow the farther back in the past you get, where superstitions and the will of mysterious forces were less suspect than they are in our skeptical society. If grown and sensible adults on the internet today believe that forwarding a chain email will increase their odds of winning the lottery; some love-struck kid in 1396 is going to believe that with enough love her veil will protect her crush better than steel.

Favors were primarily made of articles of clothing, gloves, scarves, veils, handkerchiefs, sleeves (when detachable sleeves were in fashion), maybe some jewelry. If you were really lucky you might get her shift, but that’s pretty scandalous. Just think, it was next to her bare skin! How can you bear it? Though I have not plunged the depths of historical accounts deep enough to say I’ve read every single one (who can?) I have not encountered an actual primary-source account of this happening first hand. There are indications that it was a practice through art and anecdote, both contemporary and extant. There are period books on or mentioning the subject. Art imitates life and life imitates art, so I suspect that there was some practice that inspired the myth. Outside of our period, but still in our past, it shows up in Victorian literature; and in both print and song lyrics there are indications that such a practice happened in the maritime cultures of the golden age of sail. Plus, all this artistic and literary reference long predates Nora Roberts -esque laundromat bodice rippers.

Like a train wreck… can’t… look away…

Wearing a bodice string as a favor for my impression caused a number of logistic issues I had not considered. I had to find a place to put it after having been loaned a haubergeon. I didn’t want to tie it around or to the armor since chainmail is filthy as a rule, and pretty hard on fabric to boot. I wore it for the weekend, generally tied around my wrist. It got kind of dirty, but it’s made of fabric and washed out. During the night of the feast that wasn’t a feast I had it tied around my arm like a tippet. Someday I’ll get tippets, and that was a pretty nice dry run. It was considerably thinner than most tippets, but something dangling off the back of your elbow isn’t nearly as in the way as you’d expect. I wouldn’t say it’s as convenient as not having random stuff hanging off you, but it wasn’t a horrible experience.

Here’s a quick snippet of a few choice shots of me wearing said favor around the event.

Ladies, the bar’s been set. I hope to see more guys at events with favors in the future. But giving favors isn’t just for the women-folk. De Amore is a 12th century treatise detailing the rules for courtly love and gives quite a detailed list of proper items a woman should accept from her lover. The list includes personal items like handkerchiefs, purses, gloves, and rings; decorations for the lady such as fillets, girdles, and sleeves; and other things that I find random but entertaining like mirrors, tassels (meow), and little dishes. The practice is as period as many of the other things we do at events, and supported by documentation, so there’s no reason not to. If you love someone, don’t give up an opportunity to show them. This is a fun way to do it.

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