Heraldry and the Scribe

Giles de Laval

A basic familiarity with the techniques and conventions of heraldic art is an invaluable asset to a scribe. Heraldry is an important part of the scribe’s work, as heraldic devices appear on all armigerous scrolls produced by the College (Awards of Arms, Rose Leaves/Leaves of Merit/Court Baronies that carry an Award of Arms, Grants of Arms and Patents of Arms). With a little practise and a few tips up their sleeves, most scribes will be able to become competent heraldic artists.


With your scribal assignment sheet you will receive a copy of the Herald’s Device Submission Form, which has both a picture of the device and a verbal description. ( A device is the design on the shield, which is called Arms after the owner gets an Award of Arms. The picture is called an emblazon, the description is called a blazon.)

In the bottom right hand corner of this form you will find “Blazon on LoAR” along with a stamp. This stands for the description on the Letter of Acceptance and Return, which the Laurel Sovereign of Arms sends out when a device is registered. Check that this blazon matches the blazon on the scribal assignment sheet. Next, check that the blazon on LoAR describes the device accurately, as changes might have occurred between the device being drawn and it being registered.

Unfortunately, blazons are not written in plain English. They are in a special jargon sometimes called “Heraldese” which is derived from Norman French terminology. It’s actually much less scary than it looks, and you will get used to it fairly quickly. Check with a herald, or with the office of the Provost if you’re not sure about the translation. Trust me, it’s much better to get everything 100% clear right at the start than risk having the scroll rejected if the heraldry is wrong.

Also on the device submission form of a section called “Notes for Scribes”, where the recipient might request specific things, such as “please white for argent instead of silver” or “please draw the charges exactly as shown”. These requests should be accommodated if possible.

Research & Design

Because not all submittors or herald are accomplishes artists, you may need to find better drawings of the charges (a charge is an item shown n the shield). The best place to look for them is in a good book heraldry, such A Complete Guide to Heraldry by A C Fox-Davies, or Heraldry: Customs, Rules and Styles by C A von Volborth. Your local herald will most likely have one or both of these books, and they are readily available from good bookstores. A good introductory heraldry book is an investment that will repay itself many times over.

It’s a very good idea to lay out the whole design in pencil first. That way you can check that everything’s there that needs to be, and that the design looks balanced.

If you don’t feel up to drawing the charges (or an other design element) freehand, copying or tracing them until you do feel more confident is perfectly acceptable. Don’t make the charges too small; they should fill up the available space.

Use mechanical aid such as a ruler, set square and compass whenever possible. It may take a little bit longer, but the result will be much better. A roundel drawn freehand, for example, cannot compare with one drawn with a compass. Don’t trust your eye; measure everything.

If you’re doing an original scroll, you should also give some thought to the “accessories”: the shape of the shield, the helmet, crest, supporters, etc.

The standard heater shaped shield is quite appropriate to any style of scroll after the 12th century. In period, women displayed their Arms on a lozenge (diamond shaped shield). SCA ladies are entitled to use a lozenge, but most choose not to, so if you want to do this please check with the recipient first. For some styles, a more specific type of shield can add a great deal to the consistency of the scroll, for example, a round or rectangular shield would be appropriate for a 9th century Celtic scroll; a kite shield for a 12th century Romanesque scroll; a “horsehead” shield for Italian renaissance; a notched “tartsche’ for a 16th century German scroll.

Some things like supporters or coronets, or the style and orientation of the helm, are restricted by rank. Details of what is permissible and appropriate will be advised by the Provost with your assignment.

Painting Tips

There are only a few colours or tinctures used in heraldry. These colours were originally chosen so that the bearer could be easily identified at a distance or in the confusion of battle, so it is important that the colours used to paint Arms are unambiguous, strong and bright. Recommended colours for heraldic painting are:

  • Or (gold/yellow) -imitation gold, cadmium yellow pale, gold leaf
  • Argent (silver/white) -zinc white, Chinese white. Do not use silver leaf
  • Gules (red) -cadmium red pale, spectrum red
  • Azure (blue) -ultramarine
  • Vert (green) -mistletoe, permanent green middle
  • Purpure (purple) -purple lake, mix carmine and ultramarine
  • Sable (black) -lamp black, ink
  • Proper -an item shown in its “proper”, or natural, colours

Purple Lake can be difficult to work with, as it can be streaky and prone to fading. I find it preferable to mix my own purple from carmine and ultramarine. The shade should be a strong “mid” purple, neither too red nor too blue.

Of using gold leaf, lay it on first. This is so little flecks of gold don’t get stuck in existing paint, and burnishing won’t damage painted areas.

Avoid silver leaf, because it will tarnish and turn black quickly. Aluminium leaf and fake silver leaf may be acceptable substitutes. Silver paint can be tricky to handle, so it’s best to stick to white for painting the Arms.

The shield has the design painted on it in flat colours, so don’t shade the charges to look three dimensional. Outlining and some detailing is all that’s required. Surrounding objects like the helm, mantling and supporters can certainly be modelled with shading, but not the shield.

It’s good practice to outline and detail all charges in black. A pointed 000 brush, a crowquill or a fine technical pen are all good for this task. If outlining dark coloured charges (sable and sometimes purpure), bleed-proof white gouache is excellent, as it won’t smear with the underlying colour like ordinary white does. Outlining makes the painting look “finished”, and gives the charges a great deal of clarity, which is after all the point of heraldry.

Decorative Heraldry

Now that you’ve got the basics of heraldic art under your belt, the question is, where do I go from here? The answer is, anywhere you want. Heraldry lends itself wonderfully to decoration and artistic achievement.

Diapering is a means of adding subtle richness to a device. It is usually an abstract swirl, leafy motif or small geometric patterns done in a slightly different shade of the base colour. It is often seen in stained glass depictions, where the medium enables the diapering to be seen to its best effect.

Look through period manuscripts for ideas on how to work heraldry into your illumination-they are full of heraldic art waiting to be plundered. Research different types of shield and helm to use on scrolls. Using the recipient’s own helm can be a nice personalised touch, especially if you spruce it up with a bit of ornamentation. For a continental European look, try tilting the shield (but not for Spanish or Portuguese armoury, as it denotes bastardy in those countries). Have fun playing with the mantling-it can be painted as realistic drapery or fantastic tattered swirls.

Supporters have lots of decorative potential. A shield could be grasped by a grotesque, or hung by a strap from a gothic ivy bar. Dürer drew a lady holding her beloved’s shield, and another shield hung around a stag’s neck. Some elaborate Germanic designs show a supporter bearing the shield slung about their neck resting on their shoulder, and actually wearing the crested helm. There are many possibilities here-look through period sources for ideas for the more decorative kind of supporters, as the more formal paired supporters are restricted to use by Royal Peers.

A very period technique is to scatter a charge or variation thereof, or the recipient’s badge repeatedly throughout the border as a decorative element. You could also work in things like mottoes, badges of the award (Laurel branches, for instance, or drops of blood for the Pelican), or objects that relate to the recipient’s interests or Arms. Always keep this subtle and appropriate. A good example of this is the (modern) grant of Arms to the British sportswear company Lillywhites Limited. Since the company’s device featured stylised lilies, the scroll’s border is composed of naturalistic depictions of several varieties of lily. Sly humour can also be displayed, as in another modern grant to a solicitor’s firm: a symbol for each partner is included as a play on his name, amid an elaborately tangled border of red (filing) tape.

With a little research and practise, you will find that you will become steadily more familiar with heraldry, and will be able to use heraldic art to enhance the pageantry and beauty of scrolls you create.

Some recommended books:

A Complete Guide to Heraldry, by A C Fox-Davies, Bonanza Books, New York 1978, ISBN 0-517-2643-1
Heraldry: Customs, Rules and Styles, by C A von Volborth, New Orchard Editions, Dorset 1981, ISBN 1-85079-037-X
An Introduction to Heraldry, by Stefan Oliver, New Burlington Books, London 1987, ISBN 0-948872-29-2
Heraldry, by Henry Bedingfield & Peter Gwynn-Jones, Bison Books, New York 1988, ISBN 0-86124-994-1
Heraldry: Decoration and Floral Forms, by Herbert Cole, Crescent Books, New York 1988, ISBN 0-517-66665-0


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Authored by Jehan, Giles, and Yseult AS XXXVIII (2003)