The Heraldry Cliche Checklist

By Alan Fairfax (

As you probably know, the SCA has rules which limit what you can do with arms that you want to register. People often have the idea that the things prohibited by the SCA rules were never done--actually, you can find exceptions to just about every rule.

So why do we have "the rules?" Because heraldry, like every other art form, did have rules--but they weren't written down like ours. Imagine if people in 500 years in the future were trying to come up with a simple set of rules to define country music. You can find a country song that breaks every "rule" you could come up with to describe it, and no matter how many rules you develop, you'll never really capture what country music is. On the other hand, you can definitely find some things which are *almost* never done in country music, and if you want to create something similar to country music you won't do them.

The SCA rules for heraldry work the same way. There is are period exceptions to every heraldry rule, but the things that are forbidden are generally very rare in heraldry throughout our period. Using the "country music analogy," the current rules might say, "don't use 30-piece bands in country music, and keep the songs under 10 minutes." You can probably find country songs longer than 10 minutes, but there aren't many. At the same time, the rules allow heraldry which is highly unusual--as unusual as a 9-minute country song performed by a 29-piece band.

These guidelines are designed to function as a complement the SCA rules. They are a list of practices to avoid if you want to design medieval armory. The things that they advise against were all done in medieval heraldry, but not very often.

WARNING: Because this is a very basic document, "not often" has a flexible definition. Some of the things I discourage are extremely rare; others are only somewhat rare. However, everything on the list is vastly more common in SCA heraldry than in actual period armory.

In addition, these guidelines are based on the "core style" of heraldry which was common to most of Europe. Heraldry originated in the middle of the 1100's in England and France, and it spread quickly throughout most of Europe during our period. As heraldry evolved, different countries developed different styles of heraldry--even English and French styles changed over time. However, the "basic heraldry" used in England and France was still used throughout Europe. As a result, there are some coats of arms which can be clearly identified as German, Polish, or Spanish, but others could have been used almost anywhere in Europe. If you have a persona from after 1450, or a persona from outside France or the British Isles, then you may want to find out what the local heraldic style was in your persona's place and time.

I've tried to avoid technical terms in this list, but I had to use three words of "heraldese." A "charge" is any object or shape that goes on a coat of arms. "Tincture" is the color of a heraldic charge. An "ordinary" is one of a few simple geometric shapes that were commonly used in medieval heraldry. I've included pictures of the ordinaries (courtesy of Stephen Gold's Heraldic Primer) so that you don't have to guess what they are.


Here, then, are ten things to avoid when you're designing SCA armory.

  1. Mixed Charges
    SCA heraldry often uses many different kinds of charges. In medieval heraldry, this is unusual. The majority of "core style" heraldry used either one type of charge, or an ordinary and a group of identical charges. If you absolutely must use two kinds of charges (besides ordinaries), make one of them central and another peripheral.

  2. Too Many Colors
    "Core style" heraldry usually uses two or three tinctures. Designs that incorporate four or more tinctures are rare.

  3. Unusual divided Fields or Charges
    Most arms in the Middle Ages and Renaissance consisted of a solid-colored field with one or more charges upon it, each of a solid color. However, a significant minority of arms used a field, or charges, that were divided into more than one color in some fashion. When this was done, the two halves of the field or charge almost always had good contrast. Light colors (like white and yellow) have good contrast with dark colors (red, black, green, blue, and purple). So a field divided into white and blue parts has good contrast between the parts. A field divided in black and blue does not. Fields divided in two parts were much more likely to have high contrast than low contrast in period.

  4. Modern Geometric Elements
    Modern heraldry books list a wide variety of ordinaries and fancy lines of division which often get used in SCA heraldry. Many of them are either unknown or extremely rare in medieval heraldry. The only line treatments that are at all common in medieval heraldry are embattled, wavy, indented, and engrailed. The rest are very late-period inventions. Use medieval line treatments and divisions.

  5. Modern Symmetry
    Modern people tend to make designs which incorporate tension. Designs that make the shield look like it's divided into two opposing halves (for example, putting a white moon on black and a gold sun on blue), or which display a number of charges rotating around a central point, are using modern symmetry. The only time tension shows up in "core style" heraldry is when two identical animals are shown facing each other. Otherwise, avoid it.

  6. Detailed Depictions of Charges
    Heraldry is designed to be easily reproduced by anyone who sees the arms. Thus, heraldic swords are usually drawn like swords, without being specifically identified as claymores, scimitars, or seaxes (for example). A lot of period heraldic art is not sufficiently detailed to distinguish between a deer, a moose, and a caribou. Objects and animals should be relatively generic in appearance.

  7. Non-Heraldic Charges
    The number of charges used in "core-style" heraldry was pretty small. Avoid non-western animals and motifs. Remember that many designs found in medieval art were not used in medieval heraldry. If possible, find a book of medieval (not modern) heraldry and see what kinds of charges are used in it. Use medieval charges in your arms.

  8. Interacting Charges
    In "core style" heraldry, charges are usually not arranged so that they touch or cross each other. Avoid designs in which one thing pierces, encircles, or supports another. Each charge should be able to stand on its own.

  9. Upside-Down Charges
    "Core style" heraldry almost never has upside-down objects or designs. Be careful, because "upside-down" is sometimes different to medieval people. Generally, the "business end" of any item points up. Scallop shells (like the ones on a Shell Gas sign) have the scallop at the bottom. Put your charges right-side-up according to medieval standards.

  10. Occupational Heraldry
    SCA people often want to include elements from their SCA occupations in their arms--for example, a bard will include a harp, or a fighter a sword. This is done from time to time in period armory (especially by artisans and merchants), but it's much more common in the SCA than in real life. In particular, avoid using an animal that's holding a tool of your trade. Heraldic animals have their own jobs, and don't have time to do yours as well. Maintained charges aren't hugely uncommon in medieval heraldry, but the maintained charges usually weren't occupational in nature.

This page maintained by Jim Trigg (known in the SCA as Blaise de Cormeilles), Last updated 24 January 2002.