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On Contrast for Furs and Proper

There’s a widespread claim in modern heraldic circles that furs and proper charges are neutral for contrast purposes (eg Wikipedia on the Rule of Tincture), and many of them cite this passage from Fox-Davies:

Furs may be placed upon either metal or colour, as may also any charge which is termed proper.

AC Fox-Davies, A Complete Guide to Heraldry (1909), p 86.

With all due respect to Fox-Davies, generally considered the leading light of Victorian-era English heraldry, I think this is mistaken.

Vair (and its cousins like potent), being equal parts color and metal, are neutral for the same reason that checky fields are — but ermine and its variously-colored equivalents are predominantly either light or dark, and it makes sense that they should be considered as such for the purposes of contrast.

Earlier sources seem to agree that for the purpose of the rule of tincture, ermine should be treated as a metal. One of the earliest printed heraldic treatises in English is by Legh, who writes:

You must understand, that Ermine is no colour of him selfe: but a compound with a mettal, and serveth as mettal onely, without breaking of any Rule and is speciall good armes, both of it selfe, and with other.

Gerard Legh, The Accedence of Armorie (1563), p. 32.

This is echoed in Guillim (A Display of Heraldry (1679), chapter III, section I, page 14), although he amusingly distinguishes the furs from the metals in depictions of mantling, on the grounds that the furs are warm while the metals are cold, and thus would not serve well to repel cold weather.

To return to Fox-Davies, in the same paragraph as the first quote above he writes:

It is also correct to place ermine upon argent. But such coats are not very frequently found, and it is usual in designing a coat to endeavour to arrange that the fur shall be treated as metal or colour according to what may be its background. The reason for this is obvious. It is correct, though unusual, for a charge which is blazoned proper, and yet depicted in a recognised heraldic colour, to be placed upon colour; and where such cases occur, care should be taken that the charges are blazoned proper.

Indeed, such designs are not just unusual, but vanishingly rare — we find plenty of cases of ermine upon colors, and counter-ermine on metals, but I’ve looked at an awful lot of pre-1600 armory and I can’t think of a single example of light furs on metals, or dark furs on colors, or vice-versa.

(And yes, it wouldn’t surprise me if you could find one or two historical examples of ermine charges on an Or field, just as we can find other examples of low contrast charges… but we understand those to be exceptions, or specific regional variations such as the special status of gules for contrast in central Europe, or the pattern of vert trimounts on color fields in eastern Europe, rather than standard practice.)

To say that it’s “correct” but simply never done seems calculated to confuse, and leads too many modern practitioners astray. I suspect this is a case of Fox-Davies getting swept up in some Victorian systematizing effort, despite the evidence that’s staring him in the face.

Rather than reading Fox-Davies as declaring furs and proper charges immune to the rule of tincture, it’s much more sensible to agree with his advice that “fur shall be treated as metal or colour according to what may be its background” and to thus return these tinctures to the same rules as we use everywhere else.

Conveniently, this is precisely what the College of Arms of the SCA has done, and I believe it places us in alignment with historical practice, even if some modern reference works claim otherwise.

Populace Badge of Northpass

Back in 2018 I provided some support for the Canton of Northpass’s efforts to design and register a populace badge, but due to some other drama I somehow never got around to posting about it.

With the news that the Canton of Northpass will soon be reinstated, I thought it was fitting to dust off those emblazons and make them accessible again.

The brainstorming effort for this project started with the branch arms, with their eye-catching “lines and tygers and vair, oh my” design.

While these arms are distinctive, canton residents were clear that they wanted something simpler for their populace badge — while still retaining the tyger, the diagonal stripes, and the blue/white/gold color scheme.

After working through more than a dozen possible designs, the canton populace settled on “azure, two bendlets argent and overall a tyger passant contourney Or.”

It also looks great on a round field.

I look forward to seeing these golden tygers at events during the coming year!

Descriptions for Field Division Directions

Following the 2021 rules change, SENA A5F1b now says that that changing the direction of partition lines is considered a Substantial Change, as is the difference between divided and undivided fields.

As a result, when using the Complex Search form to do conflict checking for fielded armory, we can add a second line for the field that matches anything with a similar direction.

For example, when looking for conflicts for armory blazoned “Per fess argent and vert, [anything]”, we would typically start a complex search with a criteria line for “PFESS:pl:argent:~and vert”. I believe that in this case we can safely add a second criteria line for “PFESS|FIELD DIV.-BARRY|NO”, which will still match per-fess items with other colors, or barry items, or fieldless items, but will exclude items which have solid fields, or per-pale fields, or bendy, etc.

That search should give us:

  • the maximum score for an identical per-fess field with the same line type and tinctures;
  • one less than the maximum for any per-fess or barry field;
  • one less than the maximum for any fieldless item;
  • two less than the maximum (and thus safely ignored) for any other type of field.

I’ve only been experimenting with this technique for a few weeks, and I’m not yet confident that I’ve figured out all of the potential hitches in it, but in my tests, this seems to cut down the number of items which have to be checked by hand (at times significantly), without ever excluding from consideration any items that might actually conflict.

If you want to give it a try, here’s a list of headings you can add as a second line for the field in a complex search when conflict-checking:

  • Per Bend Sinister or Bendy Sinister: PBS|FIELD DIV.-BENDY*3|FIELD DIV.9OTHER|NO
  • Per Chevron Inverted or Chevronelly Inverted: PCI|FIELD DIV.-CHEVRONELLY|FIELD DIV.9OTHER|NO
  • Quarterly: QLY|FIELD DIV.9OTHER|NO
  • Lozengy or Other Grid-like Tilings: FIELD DIV.-LOZENGY OR FUSILY|FIELD DIV.9OTHER|NO
  • Party of Six, Orly, Others Not Mentioned Above: FIELD DIV.9OTHER|NO

I’ve included the catch-all FIELD DIV.9OTHER type for all of these because items with that heading might also need hand-checking; for example, “party of six” is coded as FIELD DIV.9OTHER, and it’s not clear how much difference we would find between that and “checky.”

Sadly there isn’t a compact way to search for undivided fields, so if you want to add a line for those you need to mash a whole bunch of tinctures and treatments together; I think this might cover most of the relevant options, but I worry that I’ve missed a couple of salient choices:


If you give this a try, I’d love to know how it works out for you. I’m particularly interested in hearing of any potential traps, in which using this technique might exclude a legitimate conflict from consideration.

Why You Can’t Register Marshalled Armory

Considerations of armorial designs including straight-line per-pale or quarterly field divisions often include a discussion of whether they have “the appearance of marshaling.” Putting aside the question of how we answer that question (already ably addressed elsewhere, see here and here), one might wonder why this is an issue — why doesn’t the SCA’s College of Arms register armory that has the appearance of marshalling?

I believe the answer is that marshalled arms were not issued as such by period heraldic authorities, nor did newly-armigerous families assume already-marshalled arms.

Instead, each individual coat of arms was granted (or assumed) independently, and it was only after that point they were ever combined via impalement or quartering (or sometimes more esoteric arrangements as seen in Iberia).

A heraldic authority might confirm that a particular individual had the right to display each of the individual quarters, but they were still separable, and (for example) a noble might split their titles and lands between two offspring, who would each inherit the armory associated with specific estates, in a process we might think of as “un-quartering.”

It’s possible that there were occasional exceptions to the above principle — for example, Birgitta Lulli, Pelican emeritus, reports that in post-period Scandinavia, some nobles adopted new coats with quarters that had not been independently granted, in an effort to make themselves seem of equal status to older families which bore quartered arms — but I haven’t ever encountered any period examples of arms being granted in already-quartered form.

An individual either has rights to each particular coat or does not; once they have secured those rights, it’s up to them as to whether they impale or quarter them, or display the one they think is most prominent and ignore the other, or display one in one place and another elsewhere, or whatever they’d like.

Therefore, if you want to display arms that have the appearance of marshaling, you must register each individual design, after which point you are free to display them together, pass them on to your heirs, and so forth. (Just like in period, where if you wanted to display the arms of Savoy quartered with the arms of Loraine, you had to first achieve the lordship of each territory, at which point you could fly them together.)

This policy has been in place since the early years of the Society, when Ioseph of Locksley, second Laurel Herald, wrote in the June 1973 LoAR that “… it is the policy of the Imperial College to register the individual parts of marshalling rather than the full marshalling itself… Let [a couple wishing to display marshalled arms] submit individual applications and emblazons [for each part].”

[January 2023 — Edited to add:] An Iberian example of seemingly-quartered arms was recently circulated, dating to 1524. Nonetheless, these examples are rare, and appear late, and are not the foundation of our practices.

Brainstorming Armorial Designs From Period Sources

Sometimes submitters know that they want a device that looks authentically like the period arms of a particular time and place, but aren’t sure where to start.

My general advice for this situation is to spend an hour flipping through a couple of armorials from that culture to get a feel for the range of arms typical in that environment.

You can find armorials on this site, grouped by region and sorted by century:

Pick a few sources from your region and jump in, flipping through pages and getting a high-level impression of the arms that you see. Look at a few dozen pages of one source, and then bail out and choose another to flip through to see what’s similar and what’s different.

As you page through, take screenshots of your favorite elements — charges, arrangements, color schemes, etc.

After you’ve collected a dozen or so items that appeal to you, you can combine and remix them to produce something that’s uniquely yours.

Resist the temptation to shoehorn everything in, creating a monster with a dozen types of charge and all of the possible tinctures — your new design should have a complexity that’s comparable to the examples you are working from.

The result of this process is likely to be something that looks historically plausible, reflects the aesthetics of your chosen culture, and that meets the Society’s requirements for submissions, or is at least close enough that it serves as a good starting point.

However, while browsing period armorials for inspiration, there are a couple of caveats to be aware of:

  • Firstly, many armorials start with a pages of notable figures, which can include royalty of other kingdoms, or attributed arms of historical/mythical figures; you can usually just skip past the first quarter or so of the armorial to reach arms that are more representative of the populace at large.
  • Secondly, you’ll often find marshaled arms (especially in those opening sections of royalty) in which two or more arms are combined into quarters; when viewing those, treat each quarter as an independent device.


A Revised Armory Conflict-Checking Checklist

[Editor’s Note: This is a revised version of a checklist I assembled in 2019, which was rendered out-of-date by the new rules for considering changes to the field approved by the March 2021 Cover Letter. This updated version of the document reflects those changes. — Mathghamhain]

SENA devotes over 10,000 words to conflict checking armory, which the below guide attempts to summarize in one-twentieth of the space.

Many details have been omitted, so references are included to the relevant sections of SENA to facilitate additional research as needed. Continue reading “A Revised Armory Conflict-Checking Checklist”

The Refrigerator Test

At the conclusion of an armorial design process, whether self-guided or in consultation with a herald, when you’ve found a device that appears to follow all of the rules and is free of conflicts, there can be an urge to rush it off to your kingdom’s submissions herald ASAP — after all, it’s perfect — and registration takes so long, you better get started now — and worst of all, what if someone else registers it first?

At this point, savvy practitioners will urge you to pause for a moment and catch your breath.

Continue reading “The Refrigerator Test”

Stodart’s Survey of Scottish Arms

Tanczos Istvan drew my attention to a book of arms I hadn’t previously encountered, “Scottish Arms: Being a Collection of Armorial Bearings, A.D. 1370-1678, Reproduced in Facsimile from Contemporary Manuscripts, With Heraldic and Genealogical Notes” published by Robert Riddle Stodart in  1881.

It contains a selection of Scottish armory excerpted from over a dozen different period sources, organized into two volumes; the first contains plates reproduced from period sources, while the second contains heraldic and biographical data about each of the individuals whose arms are shown. Continue reading “Stodart’s Survey of Scottish Arms”

Armory Submissions from Virtual Heralds Point

During the month of February, the College of Arms organized a online Virtual Heralds Point during which people could sign up for consultation with heralds who would guide them through the submission process for names and armory.

Below is a collage of armory I worked on as part of this event. (The rowan berries in the bottom left are a badge I did for myself during VHP but submitted directly.) Continue reading “Armory Submissions from Virtual Heralds Point”