One of the hats in the SCA that I wear at the moment is “canton Herald.” I say “at the moment” because in a few weeks I’m going to have to give it up to take another canton office. What differentiates the SCA from a lot of other reenactment groups — or LARP groups, at that — is the fact that we have a full College of Heralds, which enforces the Society’s heraldic rules and maintains the SCA’s Armorial.
For non-medieval recreationists, the Armorial is a great roll of all the registered heraldry in the SCA. In medieval times heraldry was an issue of enormous importance — modern flags and emblems and even advertising logos all have their roots in the medieval European practice of displaying arms. The SCA, back in its early days, adopted a policy of having participants’ heraldry registered and protected as a way of simulating the Medieval practice. Forty-five years later and the CoH has pretty much taken on a life of its own. In its current incarnation, the Armorial is a searchable online database maintained by the College… albeit with a really old-fashioned set of search forms instead of a proper search engine.
One of the things I thoroughly enjoy about the SCA is the fact that my arms are my arms and mine alone: Vert, a maunche within a bordure argent is me, and in the context of the SCA that’s as good as a signature… which is one of the reasons it’s the name of my blog.
No one else wears my arms, or is even allowed to wear them. I went to the time and trouble of registering my arms with the College so that in the event I ran across someone who was wearing the same arms as me, I would be able to tell them to take them off — and I would tell them to remove my arms forthwith, regardless of the offending gentle’s rank or station. They are mine, end of list.
(As a quick aside, I know of no one who uses the arms I blazoned as the title of this post. I wonder if we could get them passed..?)
Armourial display, in the medieval sense, is an intensely personal thing; the practices descended from medieval heraldry have it have taken on far more uniform, less personalized purpose… really our modern emblems are badges, as opposed to arms (and don’t get me started on people who display “their family coat of arms” without proper cadency marks.) But for the medieval warrior, having someone else presume to display your arms was a matter of serious concern, the modern equivalent would be having your someone hijack your email, or Facebook — or your bank account. This was a real concern: one’s reputation and prowess (and therefore honour) are on display along with your arms… and reputation was everything in the High Middle Ages. There are actual recorded incidents during the Hundred Years War where knights, called to service from various parts of France and England, found they were displaying identical arms, a state of affairs which could provoke lawsuits (and in some cases duels) over the right to display them: these “chalenges darmes” became so commonplace that King Edward III of England had to ban them during active campaigning in the field.
It’s fascinating to go to a SCA event and see all the heraldic displays, especially when personal heraldry is involved. A lot of households, baronies and even Kingdoms will have their fighters display their colours and badges on the field at war or in melees but I always love it when you see an event where the fighters bear their own arms in tournament… and there are some pretty prestigious events where that’s the case.
Earlier this year I went to a relatively small Ealdormerean event, the Tournoi du Coeur de Glace, which was organized as a Tournament of Chivalry complete with an armorial tree for keeping track of the fighting — basically a board which displayed little copies of each fighter’s arms, where possible. As a Herald I ended up helping run the board and because most of the fighters didn’t bother to mark their names on the backs of the little shields like they were asked to it ended up being a really useful crash course in the blazons and devices of the fighters of Ealdormere.
I also find it amusing that the original, practical application of heraldry, that of identification in battle, is alive and well in the SCA. When you have a crowd of fighters in full kit it’s almost impossible to tell who is who in a hurry, especially when the kits are very similar and/or include closed-face helms. A fighter in a Kingdom as small as Ealdormere gets to recognize specific suits of armour, especially helmets… and helmets last: It’s not uncommon for a fighter to buy a new helmet and then loan or sell his old helmet and suit of armour to a newer fighter. More than once I’ve seen someone on the field and thought “damn, they’re not fighting as well as usual today” then realized “they” were also six inches shorter. Heraldic shields, tabards and surcoats help with the identification process… especially in a melee when you have a split second to decide whether to smack someone in the head or fall in beside them to stay the line.
Of course, that works both ways: One Knight who lives nearby has a very fine heraldic jupon which he wears over his 14th century armour… but he also has an historically-accurate early Norse kit which he wears infrequently and which (of course) has no heraldic display. At one The War of the Trilliums a couple of years ago it was a bit of a jolt to have a “stranger” in the white belt of a Knight start barking orders at me in a familiar voice through his face-obscuring Norse ocular helm. (In my defence I did my best to follow those orders…. right up to the point where I stopped a glaive with my face.)
Other reenactment organizations (and Live Action Role-Playing groups) may have individuals who make a personal heraldic display as part of their persona portrayal, but I’ve never heard of any organization maintaining a full College of Heralds to register arms. It’s one of the things I genuinely like about the SCA… and bear in mind I’m saying that after two years in office as a canton Herald. It’s just one of those things that make the SCA unique in the world of reenactment.