The Meaning of Heraldry

Note: The following article was originally published in December, 2011 in the Crown Prints, the monthly newsletter for the Kingdom of Caid. It has been reproduced here with slight edits.

People frequently come to the consultation table with preconceived notions about the function and purpose of heraldry. If they’re a fighter, they know they need a sword on their device. If they sew, nothing less than a needle and thread will do. If they like to brew, or if they like to drink, it stands to reason that a tankard, a pitcher or a goblet should be placed on their shield to let all know exactly who they are and what they do.

Back at Pennsic, I was working at Heralds’ Point when I was approached by a young man who wanted a device. He told me that he was a fighter and a bard, and wanted to represent that on his shield. Now, there were a dozen or so shields hanging at point, depicting simple, unregistered armory; a white cockatrice on a red field, three black millrinds on a gold field, and so forth.

barnaclesI turned to the nearest shield, which had a black pale charged with three silver barnacles on a vair field, and asked him “what does this device mean?” The young man studied the shield for a while, then shrugged, looked at me and guessed “…bells?”

I smiled, and told him that hanging there, the device meant absolutely nothing. However, if we were to take it out on the war field and place it on the arm of a mighty Duke of the Midrealm, it would mean “A good fight and a whole lot of pain await all who stand in my path.” If we were to remove it from the Duke’s arm and hang it above an Ansteorran cooking Laurel’s tent, it would mean “Tasty, well-documented food may be found here.” If we were to remove it from the tent and attach it to the back of a Pelican from Lochac, it would mean “I’m from Down Under, and I’m here to help.”

“The design of a device or badge really doesn’t matter all that much, and has little meaning in and of itself,” I explained to the man. “If your own device is simple enough to reproduce, you’ll be more likely to reproduce and display it, which means more people will associate your device with you. Your own words and deeds will gain you renown or infamy, and that reputation will bind itself to the device you bear, giving it all the meaning it needs. So if you’re a good fighter and a bard of renown, your device will carry that meaning whether you bear a sword and harp, an axe and treble clef, or a handful of daisies.”

scalyHe eventually chose a red background covered with golden dragon scales. If you ever face him on the battlefield, and he fights honorably, do speak well of the fighter with the golden scales.