Monday, August 12, 2013

SCA Heraldic Registration: the Enemy of Recreating Medieval Heraldry Well

The Society for Creative Anachronism has a process for registering heraldry. If you complete it, nobody else can register the same arms, or the same badge, within the Society. Nor can they register arms that have less than two clear differences from registered armory.

This works poorly, and leads to bad results.

The chief problem is that they have accepted two late medieval innovations: the lamentable decision of Richard II in Scrope vs. Grosvenor in 1390  that a single clear difference between arms of unrelated families was insufficient, and the 1417 decision of Henry V that all arms in England most be granted by a competent authority. The Society goes even beyond this, idly supposing that arms registered in any kingdom must be free of conflict with arms in any other Society kingdom.

To understand the folly of this, it is important to understand the practice in England before 1390. The vast majority of arms were simply assumed by the bearer. They picked a design they liked and had it painted it on their shield. They didn't pick the same design of anyone they knew about, but in even a small country like England people from different regions could have the same design for generations before it posed a problem. And if they were somewhat similar, then only a fool would confuse azure a bend or with azure a bend or with a bordure argent. Even vision-challenged Sir Nigel Loring could tell the difference from long crossbow cast.

And of course, they didn't worry about conflicting with arms from different kingdoms. Not their problem.

So, if you look at the armory of England before 1400, most arms were pretty simple.Most of the time  you had an ordinary, or a single charge, or three charges 2 & 1, or a field treatment.  And almost all tinctures were argent, or, azure, gules or sable. Maybe you had a bordure in addition.

And this simple vocabulary was entirely sufficient, because you didn't require two by-Our-Lady clear differences, and a certain amount of duplication within a single kingdom was tolerated, because they often didn't meet.

Getting truly simple arms registered in the SCA is a real challenge. I've done it: azure, three sandglasses or. But even that is a bit of a cheat, since I chose an unusual but documented charge.

And that's my advice to you, if you want to beat the system. Pick a mundane, recognizable medieval object, put one or three on a field, and explore field and charge tinctures till you get one that isn't taken. Don't try a sexy mythological beast or a weapon. They've almost certainly all been grabbed. Pegasi  and unicorns have been done to death, but you might try fishhooks.

But even if everyone follows my advice you still get armory that isn't very medieval. Because ordinaries, common charges and simple field treatments are still very difficult to register.

So don't. If you can't register a good, medieval design, all that SCA registration does is stop other people from registering a similar design. If you have a good medieval design you love, then display, and let those that dispute you take you to court of chivalry.

Interestingly, registered Society heraldry does show significant similarity with another system that followed similar constraints: Tudor heraldry. I don't much care for it, but I can see how it ended up where it did.


Rebecca Johnson said...

re: simple armory... It can be done!

Vert, a turnip argent - registered Jan 2013

Erminois, a lion couchant azure - registered Oct 2011

Per chevron argent and azure, three flames counterchanged - in progress

Azure, a chevron counter-compony gules and argent - in progress

Per fess azure and argent, three roses counterchanged - in progress

Per chevron Or and gules, three escallops counterchanged - in progress

Argent, three coneys courant, heads to center and ears conjoined sable - in progress (this is modeled after a 15th C example)

Anonymous said...

Clearly, you haven't been paying attention to the changes in the SCA's registration system since your arms were registered - as of last summer, it is drastically easier to register simple armory than it has been ... well, ever.

Also, the requirement for "sufficient difference" comes from the BoD. Wanna change that? Talk to the BoD.

So, are you just whining because you want to whine, like a useless git, or are you going to try to change it?

Will McLean said...


Your comment was directed into the spam bin by Google, possibly because you chose not to identify yourself. I haven't been suppressing you, even though your tone is needlessly brusque.

You are correct, I wasn't aware of the recent changes, and they are an improvement.

As I noted to Rebecca in the comments on another post, the governing documents do indeed require "sufficient difference" between registered arms. The policy that changing azure a chevron or to gules a chevron or is insufficient to avoid confusion is a CoA policy decision, and in my opinion a bad one.

I am indeed trying to change it. One step towards that is persuading the general population of the Society that the current policy has undesirable results.

And whine is such a judgmental word. I prefer snark.

Will McLean said...


Those are very nice.

Rebecca Johnson said...

We LOVE when submitters want (and get) spectacular armory. There's a reason we put comments like, "Nice device!" or "Nice name!" in the LoARs: we're trying to give positive feedback.

Sadly, for every submitter who wants something that is really great style, we get 10 of the ones who just want what they want. It's a huge balancing act to make the most people happy without compromising too much of the requirement to follow period practice. (And, for armory at least, the conceit is that we're our own heraldic jurisdiction, largely based on the Anglo-Norman model. Some choices in the standards are there just to simplify things.)

Genevieve la flechiere said...

I registered Argent crusilly sable a bend gules.

My lord holds Gules three fleeces argent.

We registered these in early 2000s, prior to the most recent change.

SCA heraldry is an evolution and a learning process. It's progressed from 'every piece of SCA armory must be free of conflict anywhere', to 'free of conflict for well-known arms and within the Society' AND 'letters of permission to conflict'.

My preference would be to make 'permission to conflict' an opt-out choice rather than opt-in (ie permission is assumed unless explicitly withdrawn).

Even better would be kingdom-level registration only with appeal to Society only for questions of style etc, with all the attendant consequences.

To me this would be the ideal arrangement, with all the medieval outcomes - regional differences, potentially conflicting arms across kingdoms, etc.

However it assumes a certain level of heraldic competence in every kingdom, which is not necessarily available.

If your kingdom's college burns out en masse and the next volunteers have little experience, you could be refused excellent armory, and discouraged from resubmitting to appeal.

You could have appalling heraldry passed because the Crown likes it. ETc ETc. It's not a route the college has wished to pursue to date.

My own solution to finding great heraldry for registration: Papworth's ordinary of English arms.

Items in this ordinary were protected for decades pre-Modest Proposal; if you can find it in Papworth, chances are it is no longer protected and is a great starting point.

Your servant

Rouge Maunche
former kingdom herald