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Welcome to our SCA heraldry primer! This is the place to learn more about heraldry in the SCA, how it works, how it compares to heraldry of the Middle Ages, and how to get started developing and registering your own arms in the SCA.

What is heraldry?

Heraldry is the use of brightly colored, bold images to identify oneself. Heraldry was initially developed in the form of images painted on the shield and other battle accoutrements for identification in armored combat. It came to be used for genealogical purposes once a system of recording these images (in the form of drawings or emblazons and in the form of descriptive texts called blazons) on paper was developed. Since heraldry was first developed as images painted on the shield, often repeated in the crest (a 3-dimensional object, often carved from wood, mounted atop the helmet) and reflected in the colors of the surcoat, heraldry on paper has always retained these forms, namely the main image being drawn on a shield shape (or escutcheon, from the Latin word scutum, "shield"), and surmounted by the colored mantling, helmet and crest.

In British heraldry, from the Victorian era onwards it became acceptable–even fashionable–to display one's helmet and crest–or the crest alone–without the shield, giving rise to the misleading term "family crest". In fact, arms are only narrowly heritable in British heraldry and only through a complex system of cadency. In German and Scandinavian heraldry, many coats of arms have multiple helmets (each with its own crest) associated with a single shield, and the helmets are always considered inseparable from the shield. In the SCA, however, only the shield of arms is registered, and other heraldic elements (such as supporters, motto, helmet, crest, etc.) are not used.

How does SCA heraldry compare to medieval heraldry?

As mentioned above, SCA members can register a coat of arms (the shield portion of an achievement of arms), but the SCA does not register other heraldic elements. In post-medieval heraldry, this may include a helmet and crest, a torse (wreath) and mantling, a coronet of rank, supporters, and a compartment (a kind of ledge for the shield and supporters to stand on). Although the helmet and crest were used even in early armory and were considered inseparable from the shield in German and Scandinavian heraldry, SCA heraldry is only concerned with the shield.

Another important difference to note between period heraldry and SCA heraldry is that the SCA has rather stringent rules regarding complexity. Honestly, simple is good. The more complex a coat of arms becomes, the less distinctive it is in its "at-a-glance" appearance, and that defeats the purpose of heraldry. Too many charges on a shield can become too complex, leading to a rather unheraldic appearance that has been termed "slot machine heraldry" in SCA heraldry slang. You don't want to look like someone else on the field, and in full armor, viewed at high speed through the visor of a helmet, one gold lion looks just like another, so you can imagine how much one "slot machine" looks like another. There are also limitations on stacking images. For instance, you could have a shield with a saltire (a cross turned like an X all the way throughout the shield) with a pair of crossed arrows upon the saltire, but you could not then place an escallop over the center of it all. That's too many layers. Likewise with colors. You can have four colors on your shield, but only two or three colors will make your arms more distinctive (i.e. more "heraldic") and probably easier to pass.

In non-SCA heraldry, arms can be inherited with differences made to indicate the bearer's relationship to the bearer of the original arms. These differences can take the form of changes to the colors of the arms, a change in the crest(s), the use of a brissure (a special mark placed on the shield), or a rearrangement of the shield called marshalling. Marshalling can involve combining two or more coats of arms by dividing them per pale (down the center) or less frequently per fess (across the middle) or more frequently quarterly. Marshalled arms can often be distinguished from other quartered arms in that arms quartered for marshalling often repeat the same image(s) between opposite fields. Divided (even quartered) arms are allowable in the SCA, but we do not allow marshalling.

Where to begin

You may wish to register some variation on a coat of arms that has been found in your own family's genealogy. This is permissible, but registering the same arms as someone else is stealing (in fact, on a certain level, it may be seen as a kind of medieval form of identity theft). One should also be wary of adopting their "family arms" found in a bucket shop.

Another method popular both in period and among SCA members is to devise a coat of arms that forms a rebus or is otherwise suggestive of your SCA name. This method, called canting, was a common practice in the Middle Ages. Canting arms are popular because they are fun to make, easy to remember, and often very period appropriate.

  • Tip: Beware creating false rebuses for non-English names (i.e. just because it sounds like xyz in English doesn't mean that x+y+z makes sense in the name's source language). For instance, a "gang" of wolves is a false rebus of the German name Wolfgang, because gang in German is linguistically related to the English word go (to walk) but not to the English word gang (group). Therefor, a wolf passant (one forepaw raised as if walking quadrupedally) would suggest Wolfgang; a "gang" of wolves, however, would suggest Wolfsrudel, not Wolfgang.

When creating a heraldic device to use in the SCA, you should keep it simple. Try to use only two or three colors and only a few charges. Remember to draw your charges large enough to fill the space. Use basic and highly contrasting colors. When drawing your proposed device on the submission form, use the eight-color set of Crayola markers. These are the simple, bright colors you need and they color evenly and don't run.

  • Tip: remember that in period heraldry, colors were restricted to only two "metals" - silver and gold - and five "colours" or "paints" - red, blue, black, green and purple - and a few "furs" - chiefly ermine and vair; but green was rare and purple was extremely rare. Purple and ermine were often restricted to use only by royalty, and vair and other furs were generally rare.

Getting registered in 5 steps

There are a number of reasons to register your arms, but they mostly boil down to avoiding conflict. Wouldn't you hate to take your time developing a coat of arms you love, use it for years, put it on all your armour and camping gear, and then show up to war one year to discover that some newbie from another kingdom has recently registered the exact same arms? Since he was the first to register the arms, they are legally his arms, not yours, and now you must remove them from all your gear, lest you advertise to the known world that this tent, this armour, this banner, these clothes belong to that guy. Once you get an idea what you want, getting it registered is fairly easy, but it takes time. It may take a long time. It may take quite a few months, depending on how many other applications are in the works.

Step 1: Brainstorming

First, you have to come up with an idea of what you want. Do you have a favorite animal in mind? Are you fascinated with [dragons/griffins/unicorns/castles]? Do you want to make canting arms? Do you want to express a nationality or political alliance?

In the case of a love of dragons, you may have your work cut out for you. Dragons of various forms, though extremely rare in medieval heraldry, are quite abundant among SCA arms. You should also be aware that for purposes of conflict avoidance, any sort of dragon (lindworm, wyvern, hydra, or even a cockatrice) may conflict with another. You should also be aware that dragons, which typically carried strongly negative connotations, were in fact quite rare in medieval heraldry.

  • Tip: If you want to get more period-appropriate ideas, browse through some extant rolls of arms. Beware of relying on the huge compendium of heraldry in the reference section of your local library, or on unreliable web sites, as these often contain a lot of atypical or relatively modern (17th-19th century) arms.
  • Further reading:

Step 2: Checking appropriateness

Next, make sure this is what you really want. Perhaps you really like dragons and would like to have one on your device, but you would rather have a more period-appropriate or historically accurate device. Perhaps you like the look of a gold lion on a red shield, but you want something more distinctly Polish-looking to represent your Polish persona. Perhaps you are excited about the idea of incorporating some of the idiosyncrasies of heraldic style into your device, to give it a more dimensional layer of symbolism.

If you want to register English arms, you should be aware that eagles were extremely rare in British heraldry. An eagle chequy is very distinctively German. A lion passant is often suggestive of ties to England (particularly English royalty), while a lion rampant is often suggestive of political ties to the German princes, whereas an eagle, particularly a two-headed eagle, is symbolic of imperial power (the Holy Roman Empire, the Austrian Empire, and the Russian Empire each relied heavily upon this symbol), and a fleur-de-lis is often suggestive of ties to France. If you wish to register French arms, you should be aware that a dolphin was a reserved charge allowed only in the arms of the Dauphin. In British heraldry, a white file is similarly restricted and certain other charges, when placed in canton (in the upper left corner), suggest cadency.

Step 3: Checking registrability

Next, make sure your proposed device conforms to the rules of submission. Check it for complexity, modern symmetry, forbidden charges, etc. A device that is too complex is not only difficult to register, but also flies in the face of the underlying philosophy of heraldry (i.e. bold, brightly colored images to make the bearer readily identifiable). This can also be said of distinctly modern symmetry. Or, two roundels and a crescent sable sounds good enough, but Wal-Mart might want their smiley face back. You should also be aware that there is a list of specific charges that have been declared reserved or prohibited by the SCA. The fylfot, or swastika, for instance, was common in several ancient and medieval cultures, but the SCA operates in the present day, so even though the political connotations now associated with this symbol were non-existent prior to the 20th century, it is not a registrable charge. Other charges, such as an iceberg or a horse's skull, have been found too ambiguous to be suitable charges.

Step 4: Conflict checking

Before you waste a little money and a lot of time, do some basic conflict checking before you send in your forms and fees. This can dramatically improve the odds that your device will pass, because if your device conflicts with an existing device, it's best to find out before you send in your submission. For goodness' sakes, resist the temptation to start making a bunch of banners and heraldic garb before you can be sure your submission won't be returned (i.e. wait for the letter announcing your device's approval to be posted to the kingdom herald's web site).

Step 5: Filling out the forms

The best way to take the final plunge is to contact your local herald for help. Otherwise, you can do even this part yourself. Here's how. The first thing you need to do is to find the proper forms and print them out. Tip: Be sure to check your printer settings and verify that your print-outs are up to date and the proper size; an outdated or misprinted form can cause a long delay while you have to fill out new forms and resubmit. Make sure you have the right number of the right forms. Next, get your markers for coloring in the full-color forms. Tip: Get the Crayola eight-color marker set. This ensures that your forms will be colored evenly in the acceptable shade of each color. At this point, do yourself one more favor: double check your blazon (written description) with an experienced herald before committing pen to paper. Even after filling out the forms, it may be a good idea to wait a while before submitting them. Remember: Once you register a device, it's like a tattoo: you will probably have it for life; you can get it changed, but it's not easy.

Recommended reading

Online sources

This is a comprehensive guide to English heraldry.
A comprehensive and authoritative guide to heraldry from ancient to modern, but heavily focused on British heraldry.
This article discusses the regional heraldic traditions of Europe in a comparative perspective.
This book is a guide to British heraldry from ancient to modern times.
  • Manesse Codex (Anonymous, commissioned by the Manesse family of Zürich) Early 14th century.
Richly illustrated with full-color heraldic displays. This is one of the more notable examples of German rolls of arms, and is an important source on costuming, including headwear and footwear, as well as heraldry.