Thursday, 2 January 2014

On the Inheritance of Real World Arms

A subject that comes up with infuriating and disheartening frequency at the consultation table is the question "Can I just use my family coat of arms?"

There are... numerous problems with this. I shall try to address some of the largest of them here.

First, we shall look at the problem from the perspective of assuming the claim to the coat of arms to be true (more on why that's a bad assumption later). We come to a point much the same as if the submitter wished to register their own legal name, exactly as it is. To quote the Administrative Handbook, section III.B.7:
Armory Used by the Submitter Outside the Society - No armory will be registered to a submitter if it is identical to an insignia used by the submitter for purposes of identification outside of a Society context. This includes armory, trademarks, and other items registered with mundane authorities that serve to identify an individual or group. This restriction is intended to help preserve a distinction between a submitter's identity within the Society and the submitter's identity outside of the Society. Any change that causes a blazonable difference between mundane and Society armory is sufficient to allow registration by Laurel. Further, submitters may register either a name or armory which is a close variant of a name or insignia they use outside the Society, but not both.
This provides both the fact that it is forbidden, and also the reason for this prohibition: In the SCA, we are not our modern selves, and our names and heraldry ought reflect this. You, as a person, could not have existed within period (we are, after all, each a product of the sum of our experiences). There may be some philosophical debate around how to define various parts of this, but the rules are as they are.

Next, we come to the much more weighty problem. The "family coat of arms".

There is no such thing. Anyone who says differently is selling something.

In most heraldic cultures, arms are the property of the individual, not the family. Yes, his son will inherit, or his daughter if he has no sons, but only the first son inherits the coat. There may be modified versions handed down through the various family lines, but the plain coat is owned by one person, and one alone. The idea that they're owned by a family, or even worse, by a surname, is painfully wrong.

I know, there are many companies willing to sell you a plaque with your "family coat of arms" on it. Don't know it? Why, they have a handy-dandy book of surnames, each with their own coat of arms! I can think of two possibilities. Either they honestly don't know that this is heraldically poor practice, in which case they are willfully ignorant, given how easy this information is to come by, or they do know how poor it is, in which case they're maliciously fraudulent. I choose to hope for the former.

Note that I said *most* heraldic cultures. There are some notable exceptions to this, especially the Polish heraldic practices. But, these also present a great problem.

In the Polish tradition, each coat of arms has a name - what essentially boils down to a clan name. Each person in that group may have a different surname, but will include the clan name in their name as well, for some double-barrelled fun. Every person with the same clan name bears the same arms.

I can already hear the plans being drawn up by people clamoring to register some Polish heraldry that they have some claim to, or some other rare family-based example... Ahh, but therein lies the problem. Every member of that clan has the same rights to the same coat of arms. If you register it within the SCA, then you and you alone have the rights to its use. Unless you're willing to allow every other member of the SCA with some claim on those arms to use them, you've just taken something that they have as much claim to as you, just by virtue of being first.

No, much better to avoid the subject entirely.

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