I really should have researched this before now, I have been a part of many royal courts, maybe the Baron and baroness made me a guard because I did not perform obeisance well.
It's something we all do but where and when did it start in the western world? (I will update this later with east traditions but requires more research)
So we start at the beginning, the first reference I can find to obeisance to royal's dates back to Alexander the great in 328 BC he introduced to his court the act of proskynesis (sadly this is not the ability to set things on fire with your mind, but bowing or prostrating oneself before a person of higher social rank) and comes from persian courts (maybe)
|Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers & William Caxton |
presenting the first printed book in English to Edward IV
The greek author Arrian of Nicomedia recorded the events in his work Anabasis. (literally an "expedition up from") is the most famous work, published in seven books, of the Greek professional soldier and writer Xenophon.)
[4.10.5] Concerning the opposition offered to Alexander by Callisthenes over the question of obeisance, there is also the following story.note It had been agreed between Alexander, the sophists and the most distinguished of the Persians and the Medes at his court that the subject should be raised during a drinking party.
[4.10.6] Anaxarchus launched the topic, saying that Alexander had much better claims to be regarded as a god than Dionysus and Heracles [...].
[4.10.7] The Macedonians would have better reason to honor their king with divine honors; there was no doubt that once Alexander departed from men they would honor him as a god. How much more justifiable it would therefore be to honor him in his lifetime rather than wait for his death, when the honor would be of no benefit to the recipient.
[4.11.1] After Anaxarchus had spoken to this effect, those who were privy to the plan praised his words and wanted to begin doing obeisance to Alexander, but the majority of Macedonians were displeased and kept quiet.
[4.11.2] Then Callisthenes intervened with these words: "Anaxarchus, I declare that there is no honor fitting to man that Alexander does not deserve. But a distinction has been drawn by men between honors fit for mortals and honors fit for gods, for example in the matter of building temples and setting up cult statues and setting apart sacred enclosures for gods, and making sacrifices and libations to them, and offering hymns to the gods but eulogies to men. Most important is the distinction observed in the matter of obeisance.
[4.11.3] You greet men with a kiss, but since a god is placed higher up and it is sacrilege to touch him, you honor him in this way with obeisance. Dances, too, are held in honor of the gods, and paeans are sung to praise them. No wonder, when one considers that different honors are appropriate to different gods, while heroes receive yet others distinct from divine honors.
|Twelfth-century depiction of Henry II |
and Eleanor of Aquitaine holding court
[4.11.5] How much more justified would be the displeasure of the gods against men who assume divine honors or allow others to do it for them. Alexander has more than justified the claim that he is and is seen to be the bravest of the brave, the most kingly of kings and the greatest of all generals.
[4.11.6] More than anyone else, Anaxarchus, you ought to have put forward this point of view and opposed the rival line of argument, because of your position as philosopher and instructor of Alexander. You ought not to have launched this subject. Remember that it is not Cambyses or Xerxes you are associating with and advising, but the son of Philip, descended from Heracles and Aeacus, whose forefathers came from Argos to Macedonia, and have since ruled the Macedonians by law and not by force.
[4.11.7] Why, not even Heracles received divine honors from the Greeks in his lifetime, nor even after his death until Apollo at Delphi gave an oracle instructing Heracles to be honored as a god. If one must think in foreign ways on the ground that this argument has originated in a foreign land, then do not forget Greece, Alexander. It was for her sake that you launched your whole expedition, to add Asia to Greece.
[4.11.8] Consider then whether on your return you will exact obeisance from the Greeks, the freest of men, or will you make an exception for the Greeks but inflict this indignity on the Macedonians? Or will you draw a distinction in the matter of honors generally, receiving from Macedonians and Greeks honors fit for men and acceptable to Greeks, and foreign honors only from non-Greeks?
|Hommage au Moyen Age (public domain)|
[4.12.1] These and similar words of Callisthenes greatly irritated Alexander, though the Macedonians were pleased to hear them. Alexander realized this and sent instructions to the Macedonians to forget about obeisance for the future.
[4.12.2] Silence fell after these words, but the eldest of the Persians came forward to perform obeisance one after the other. Leonnatus, one of the Companions, thought that one of the Persians had not bowed properly, and made fun of the Persian's air of submissiveness. Alexander was angry with him at the time, though later he was reconciled.
[4.12.3] The following story is also told.note Alexander sent round a golden cup, passing it first to those who were privy to the plan about obeisance. The first person would drink from it, stand up and offer obeisance, then receive a kiss from Alexander, and the rest likewise in turn.
[4.12.4] When it was Callisthenes' turn, he stood up, drank from the cup, and went towards Alexander to kiss him, but without offering obeisance.
Alexander was then engaged in conversation with Hephaestionnote and was not paying attention to whether Callisthenes was going through the act of obeisance or not.
[4.12.5] But when Callisthenes approached Alexander to kiss him, Demetrius the son of Pythonax, one of the Companions, remarked that he had not made obeisance, whereupon Alexander did not allow himself to be kissed. "Well then," exclaimed Callisthenes, "I shall go away one kiss the poorer."
And so the beginnings of obeisance was formed within the western courts, the idea spread throughout royalty as a visible means of acceptance or dominance to stations higher than one's own clearly marking those who stand alone in august company.
Obeisance is considered a sign of respect or of service, Pre 5th Century it was performed by descending on both knees but later it was changed to descend on the left knee for higher station (yes I have been kneeling on the wrong knee) and the right for Bishops or if the blessed sacrament is present (but this was not formally adopted into the church until 1502)
Obeisance can also mean a indication of respect (this is done in many different ways depending on the culture, from a simple salute to complex hand/hat twirling (which became popular in french and italian courts.) some of the movements are quite complex and beyond the scope of this blog post. There are resources on courtly life that detail complex obeisance (like italian figure eight hat twirling) it can be quite fun learning about your persona's cultural "quirks"
Obeisance should be neither hurried or slowed, the ideal duration is five heartbeats to descend fully to the ground on bended knee, (for men) or Curtsy transitioning into a kneeling position (for women) it is neither trial nor duty but honor to give respect before royalty or those of worthy station.
During court obeisance is performed when called upon or as part of a procession, As a kneel and rise or kneel and wait to be dismissed by the elevated station you are making obeisance to, this is not always clear unfortunately but with practice and exposure to courtly "life" you should be able to "read" what is required (when called upon for an award kneel and wait)
Obeisance within the SCA at events "at large" (such as walking around the event site), can be as simple as an acknowledgment towards those of greater station, by lowering the eyes, a short bow/curtsy or in some cases a full kneel as the person passes, this is but your discretion, look to what others do is usually a good guide.