heraldic heresy, the afterthought

The Society for Creative Anachronism keeps a registry of coats-of-arms adopted by members, for two reasons: to ensure uniqueness, and to head off the grossest faux pas (cluttered design, offensive symbolism, implied claims to be the Lost Dauphin …). Having registered my shield — whose central motif you may be able to guess — I can say with confidence that it will not be mistaken for any other (within SCA at least), and that the SCA’s collective heraldic judgement, honed over many years by hundreds of serious people, finds my design-sense tolerably sound. An institution that can be trusted to certify these points is a good thing.

In the case that started the furore, registration of the device would (I believe) imply that the badge also fits the criteria. Separate certification of the badge, then, would be redundant — a double cost for the registrant, duplicated work for the heralds (both now and in checking for similarity to future entries), and a waste of a hundred bytes in the record-books, all to certify what is already established.

It occurs to me belatedly that some see registration less as certification than as permission, an attitude inherited from traditions where the privilege of such display is a mark of favor from the Crown. (In the SCA, any bozo can register a coat of arms, but it’s not called “arms” until the bearer is formally ennobled by some prince.)

(It so happens that Scotland, which may be the only place where unauthorized armorial display is prosecuted, is also home to some of the best heraldic style. I won’t argue here whether it’s necessary to embrace the bathwater along with the baby. Switzerland also has excellent style, at least in civic armory; I don’t know about the laws there.)

To display arms, then, is to assert not only this emblem is unique to me and this emblem is well-designed but also I have permission to display such an emblem. If the culture considers prohibition to be the default state — not as an unfortunate practical necessity to maintain the standards of taste and uniqueness, but as a good thing in itself, a matter of “honor” forsooth! — then that third claim is the one that counts, and to make it falsely is not a mere technical infraction but an affront to decency.

The College of Arms also registers names, on similar principles: a registered name needs to be grammatical (in some language), not too similar to another registered name or that of any prominent historical figure, not a claim of supernatural origin or powers, and like that. I would ask, if the discussion were still open, whether use of an unregistered name is equally dishonorable.

2 thoughts on “heraldic heresy, the afterthought

  1. Anton Post author

    In the fiction of Lois McMaster Bujold, Captain Cordelia Naismith emigrates from very democratic Beta Colony to marry Admiral Lord Vorkosigan on very feudal Barrayar. She observes that egalitarians adapt easily to aristocracy, provided that they get to be the aristocrats.

    Has anyone dissertated on the tension between egalitarianism and aristocracy in the SCA and perhaps in other subcultures?

  2. blue eyes

    When I mentioned that when offered an Award of Arms (the lowest and first ennoblement in the SCA) I gently refused it. (actually they did not ask me, they just awarded it to me) “thank you very much for your kind thought of making me officially a Lady but I am happy with my persona as a peasant” this was not taken well. Several people became offended. I am not sure why, and it was a long time ago. I dimly remember it might have been taken as an insult to the award of arms? I did turn it down as being unmedieval (someone who had received all the ennoblement possible in the SCA, and was a retired teacher, did agree with me that the system was victorian and not medieval). Also it was a system which had caused a lot of bad feeling and hurt to those who didn’t get ennobled (some of whom were dear friends back in the mists of that time).

    As far as an antiegalitarian feeling in the SCA – I once remarked that the royals in the sca never seemed to act as if they cared about their subjects, they certainly never made a point of meeting them. And at one large meeting, when someone brought up the subject of how to encourage new people, I stood up and stated the obvious, if you want to encourage new people, then just go up and talk to them, act like you are actually happy to have them there (why I, a rank outsider, needed to say this I don’t know).

    Yours in Service
    Rowan of Sherwood


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