Heraldic devices are the bright-colored stylized pictures you see on shields and surcoats and banners. A major part of the reason we use them is to lend color to the scene, but they also have the practical function of identifying people. Heraldic devices originally became popular when fighters started wearing closed-face helms; a knight's chance of getting killed because his own people failed to recognize him provided a powerful motive for designing distinctive devices that could be seen and identified even in bad weather or in the confusion of a battle. Two things are needed for this system of identification to work: each person's device must be different from everyone else's; and a device must be clearly recognizable without close examination. These two requirements control what heraldic devices look like, and from them derive a number of rules and procedures for establishing a device of your own.
A device is defined not only by the things pictured (called "charges") and their arrangement, but also by the colors used, including the background color. In order that your device of a red lion on a white background is not confused with someone's orange lion on cream, heraldry uses a limited number of basic colors (in heraldic terms, "tinctures"). The seven basic tinctures are divided into the "colors" or dark tinctures, which are red, green, blue, purple, and black, and the "metals" or light tinctures, including white or silver (no distinction is made between them) and yellow or gold. The Rule of Tincture, a basic rule of heraldry, specifies that dark charges must be put on light backgrounds and vice versa; color on color or metal on metal is not allowed. The point of this rule is to produce devices that people can see at a distance: a black castle on a blue background will not show up nearly as well as a gold castle on blue. (A modern parallel, where instant recognition at a distance is again desired, is the signs used by gas stations: Shell, Exxon, Gulf, and most others obey the Rule of Tincture.) In addition to these seven tinctures there are patterns derived from furs such as ermine, represented by a pattern of black spots on white. A charge may also be shown in its natural colors. When devices include fur patterns, natural-coloured charges, or backgrounds divided between a color and a metal, common sense rather than an explicit rule determines if contrast is adequate; for instance, a white cat on an ermine background will not show up.
Just as heraldry does not use all possible gradations of colour so that devices can be distinct from each other, so not all possible positions of charges are used. A charge may be shown from the front or back or side, but not in three-quarter view; animals are generally shown in one of a dozen or so standard poses, so that it is clear whether your lion is meant to be walking or leaping. Like most specialized fields, heraldry has developed a technical jargon designed to describe briefly and precisely what would take much longer to describe in ordinary English; in this technical language, all of the standard colors and positions and so forth have names. Therefore, a good rule of thumb for deciding whether a design is suitable as a heraldic device is to see if it can be described in heraldic terms (can be "blazoned"); if not, your design may well be intermediate between two of the standard heraldic ways of showing things and therefore be hard to distinguish from them. The rule most important for ensuring visibility is: keep it simple. No one will be able to recognize a shield with seventeen different items on it, or with five layers of charges overlying each other.
In order that each heraldic device may be unique to one person, the SCA has a procedure for registering devices. In the course of this a proposed device is checked against all registered devices in the SCA, so that no two of us have identical or very similar devices, and also against mundane heraldic devices. If someone has the sole right, as head of a particular family, to display a coat of arms that his family has used for centuries, he is likely to take it seriously; it would be discourteous of us to appropriate it for use in the SCA. We also do not want anyone accidently claiming by the device he wears to be king of England or the like. The organization in the SCA that registers heraldic devices is the College of Heralds, represented in each barony or shire by the local herald. The procedure works thus: you go to your local herald with a design, for example a pink biplane on a blue background. He explains that (1) pink is not a heraldic tincture, and (2) biplanes are not really suitable on a device to be used in a medieval organization. So you redesign with the herald's help and come up with something which as far as he knows satisfies the rules of heraldry and is not too similar to existing devices. You then fill out quite a lot of forms, and your herald sends them off to his superior at the kingdom level. Three months later she sends you a letter explaining that the device you submitted is almost the same as the arms of the Whosit family of Scotland. You redesign so that your proposed device is sufficiently different from the Whosit arms and send it off again. If the kingdom herald approves your device it is sent on to the chief herald for the Society; if he approves it, it is registered as yours. From then on, no one else in the SCA may use it, and no one may register something very similar to it without your express permission.
Your device is your own personal symbol; only you should wear it. You will hear the heraldic devices of some people called "arms;" in the SCA, this term is used only when the person in question has received an award of arms from the Crown, or for the device of a branch of the SCA (kingdom, barony, etc.). Another kind of heraldic symbol is a badge, which follows the same rules for design and registration as a device except that a badge may have but is not required to have a specific background colour. Badges are used by groups, such as households, guilds, baronies, or kingdoms, and are worn to show membership in or allegiance to the group; also, any individual may register a badge to be worn by his family or retainers, or to be used himself as a secondary device. The difference between the arms of a barony or other group and its badge is that the arms are only for the use of the official head of the group (the baron, in the case of a barony); the badge is for anyone in allegiance to the group. A device, arms, or a badge may be painted on a shield, worn on a surcoat or other clothing, displayed as a banner over your tent or in a feast hall to announce your presence, or put on your gear to mark it as yours.
[by Elizabeth, published in the newsletter of the Barony of Axemoor]
Webbed by Gregory Blount of Isenfir