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A cold and wet autumn weekend, marked by a sullen, steady rain. I spent the better part of Sunday in the shop, working on my fighting kit in preparation for Crown Tourney at the end of the month, doing little jobs like modifying my glaive and rebuilding a six-foot spear. The biggest job, however, was the long-delayed work on my tournament shield: specifically stripping the canvas facing off and re-facing it with fresh canvas, then re-painting it with my personal arms again.

Fresh paint

One of the requirements for this Crown Tourney is that all fighters have freshly-painted shields in order to display their personal arms; it’s part of the pageantry of the day. Heraldic display is one of my favourite parts of the SCA; when done well it’s not only beautiful, but interesting.

One of my major pet peeves — both in and out of the SCA — is how few people have any idea how heraldry actually works. Case in point: My Facebook page this morning featured a prominent ad trying to sell me my “Family Coat of Arms”. There is no such thing as a “family” coat of arms. A coat of arms is a personal display, belonging only to a single individual; even his (or her) heirs must display cadency marks according to the laws of heraldry. Which is why it’s such an irritation to see so many people showing off their “family coats of arms.” There aren’t any… and the glut of companies on the internet offering to sell you a “copy” of your “family arms” are catering to that ignorance.

Let’s use a hypothetical person named “John Talbot” as an example. Mr. Talbot wants to get in touch with his heritage, so he goes to one of these online heraldic chop-shops and enters his name, finding his “genealogy” and buying a “copy” of his “family arms.”

The problem is that these aren’t his family arms, they’re the personal arms of somebody with the last name “Talbot” who probably got knighted sometime in the 13th or 14th century, which was the first big heraldic heyday in France and Britain. And in fact, that is the case: the arms linked above, OR five bends gules, are the personal arms of one Sir Richard Talbot, a minor knight recorded in the St. George’s Roll in the late 13th century. Mr. John Talbot, in 2013, is not entitled to bear or display the arms of Sir Richard Talbot despite the fact that they share a last name… or the fact that Mr. John Talbot just shelled out $152.95 plus shipping for a framed “certificate” to hang in his office.

And I guess that’s the source of my irritation with the whole notion of “family arms” being sold on the internet. Anyone displaying a “family” coat of arms is being presumptuous at best, and at worst committing a kind of identity theft. The “stores” that sell them are quite frankly perpetrating a fraud… although compared to some of the crimes in this world, it’s a fairly unimportant one. But it still irritates me.

If you want arms, get arms. You can contact the Canadian Heraldic Authority and get arms for roughly the same price as a higher end “family arms” certificate. Or you can join the Society for Creative Anachronism and spend $20 and get some heraldry that tens of thousands of people recognize… which is another pet peeve of mine: If you’re in the SCA, register your heraldry. I see so many people wandering around wearing unregistered arms and it frustrates me as a member of the college of heralds. (The other side of that coin is that the college ought to be registering people’s arms with a minimum of fuss and bother, which hasn’t always been the case.)

Which brings me to a third pet peeve: Wear your own device. There’s a trend in the SCA of displaying “household arms” to the exclusion of all others. Historically, especially during the late 14th and 15th centuries, the practice of “livery and maintenance” which dominated late Medieval “bastard feudalism” required the fighting men of a given lord to wear their master’s livery or badge… but even then they wouldn’t dream of displaying their master’s personal arms. I think the practice of household arms in the SCA developed from the fact that households traditionally developed around a prominent noble (or noble couple) who would adopt “household arms” (i.e. livery) that their dependants could wear. And as far as that goes, that’s fine: especially on the battlefield it’s really neat to see solid blocks of colour or livery, as well as having the practical value of being able to tell who’s who in a melee. Big blocks of colour on the battlefield don’t irritate me… what irritates me is the practice of wearing that household badge to the exclusion of all others.

In a tournament you should wear your personal arms — especially at chivalric contests like Crown Tourney. If you’re not developing your own arms because you’ve got “household arms” then you’ve rather missed the essential point about heraldry… just as our hypothetical Mr. John Talbot did when he shelled out $152.95 plus shipping for some dead knight’s device.

I think part of the problem is that medieval heraldry ended up evolving throughout the renaissance into regional banners and emblems, which in turn evolved into national flags and uniforms. Modern people don’t really have distinctly personal displays of heraldry; all our displays are communal ones, shared between many people. (That’s up to and including logos for businesses and sports teams, by the way.)

Medieval people didn’t think like that: under the feudal system all loyalty is very specific and very personal; one held allegiance to a specific person, not an abstract ideal. At the time of the Hundred Years War the concept of the nation-state was very much in its infancy. Understanding medieval heraldry requires the understanding that your arms are you, in a very real and personal way. Arms are a statement of individuality, not communal belonging; likewise livery or a badge is a statement of personal loyalty. A friend of mine who is passionate about medieval heraldry explained that your display of arms is the statement “this is me” and that the application of a badge is the statement “this is mine.”

When you’re part of a larger unit — for example, a fighter on the Pennsic battlefield — it’s heraldically important to identify yourself as part of that commonality. When I go to an SCA war, I’ll wear a tabard or surcoat with group arms when I can, usually the arms of the Barony or the Kingdom, because I hold my offices from the Barony of Septentria and I am a leal subject of the Crown of Ealdormere. If I were in a household as the vassal of an overlord, on the battlefield I would absolutely wear the badge and livery of that house and/or my feudal master if my suzerain so required.

But when I fight in tournament I always wear my personal arms: over and above my fidelitas to the Crown of Ealdormere (and the homage I owe the Barony for my office as Seneschal) I have the privilege and responsibility of representing myself and my Lady in matters of personal honour. I fight in tournament with a favour The Wife™ made me: a hand-woven ribbon in her heraldic colours of gules and OR (red and gold); since my colours are vert and argent(green and white) it stands out quite handsomely. The display of my arms (and my Lady Wife’s favour) are a pledge that I am staking my personal renown and honour on my conduct that day; that I am a gentleman of noble rank and coat-armour and will conduct myself accordingly. (The medieval word for that attitude is franchise, by the way.)

Heraldry is an individual thing, profoundly so. That’s why buying a copy of “family arms” is so objectionable to me: you’re stealing someone else’s individuality. That’s why it’s important that people should register their SCA arms, as well… it’s like putting a password on your email account; If you don’t, and somebody snakes your arms, then you’ve got no one to blame but yourself. And finally, you should have your own heraldry instead of — or as well as — your household badge: Being part of a group is fine, but there are times when you have to stand up and put your own name out there, or you’ll never be anything but anonymous.