I apologize for being so blunt in the preface, but it was for a good reason. You must understand that SCA heraldry bears very little resemblance to period heraldry. The disparity is only perpetuated by people who see armory of respected members of the Society and think that their armory is just as good an example as they are themselves. So what does period heraldry look like?
The purpose of heraldry, from its inception in the 11th century until just the tail-end of our period, was to identify fighters on the battlefield. As such, heraldry had to be simple, so simple that the village idiot could see and describe it to a young boy, who could then describe it to a squire, and so on up to the king, and no meaning would be lost. “Red shield with three gold lions” could describe the King of England without much confusion, just as “white shield with a red cross” described the Templar crusaders. You’d not commonly find more than one type of thing on a shield in period, as it would get too complex to describe.
Take a look at some examples of period heraldry. I’ll wait. (Much thanks to the Medieval Heraldry Archive for links.)
The Dering Roll – c. 1270-1280
Liber Additamentorum by Matthew Paris – c.1250
The Zurich Roll – 14th c.
The Manesse Codex – c. 1340. You can look at any number of devices by clicking on the names on the left. I’ve started you with Herr Wolfram von Eshenbach, both because he’s the author of the Arthurian Romance “Parzival,” but also to point out that the black in his armory is actually tarnished silver – you should be able to tell the difference between the tarnished silver on his shield and the black paint of his eye slits, his bridle, and his page’s shoes. Keep this in mind when you explore the Codex)
Scheiblerisches Wappenbuch – 1450.
Did you notice how much simpler the heraldry is? These aren’t the only examples of period heraldry, either. Numerous rolls of arms and individual displays can be seen in history and heraldry books in your local library.
Now that you’ve seen period examples of heraldry, here’s how it all works.