When a person starts in the SCA, of the first, most important questions that he has to face is what he should be called – his SCA name. Soon after that, he might start paying attention to all of the beautiful banners and shields with devices on them, and wondering how to get one for himself. This is a super- simple introduction to things a person ought to keep in mind when starting to get a name and device and, perhaps more importantly, to help avoid getting attached to something that he can’t have.
When thinking about a name, there are really two different ways to approach it: 1) think about a name that you really want, and see if you can find a culture that would have used that name, or something very similar, in period; or 2) think of a culture and time period which you would like to be from, and then find a name from that time period that you like. The goal is to find a name that you like for yourself that could have existed in period. Of course, you can’t have the name of a famous person who actually existed (in legend or in history), such as Arthur of Britain or Henry Plantagenet.
[Philosophical note – technically, these rules are designed for people who want to be able to register their name and device with the SCA College of Arms. Registration of a name or device is not mandatory to belong in the SCA. It is, however, a requirement under kingdom law that to be an entrant (fighter or consort) in Crown Tournament, you must submit a name and device, and it could be made a requirement for other things at the discretion of the Crown. Further, and more importantly, the point of the SCA is to be an educational organization, studying the Middle Ages. It makes sense, then, to do your best to follow the spirit of the organization, and have a name that is reasonable ~ something that actually could have existed in period. Besides, you never know how your participation might change; I made up a last name when I started because I didn’t think that I would stick around, but nine years later I was a peer and the White Stag Principal Herald (the head Kingdom Herald). I eventually found a last name that was a period name that sounded similar, but it would have made it much easier if I had just done the research initially.]
There are a number of good resources for names. Most larger groups, such as baronies, will have name books for different cultures. Some groups obviously have more books than others, but there are ways for heralds to ask questions of each other ~ to help each other out. Even in smaller groups, libraries or other SCA people might have good books. But be careful – avoid baby name books, which rarely give dates, often mix modern and 'ancient' and plain old made-up names, and don't indicate which are which. History books very often will 'modernize' the names, even if they mention dates. The best kind of resources give dates and specify the spelling which was used on that date. Check bibliographies to help make sure that there has been research into the names. If you are in a small group, or your group has limited resources, or you just want to look someplace else, the internet can be a great resource. It is also important to be careful with internet sites, though – many have no historical accuracy. Start from the heraldry page at the SCA website: http://www.sca.org/heraldry/welcome.html. Not only can you trust the articles linked from that site (because the heralds have already approved the content of most of those articles), but there is some very good research on a number of different cultures and time periods. There are also articles that will tell you names to avoid which many people think are period names but are not. The important thing is to find something that you like and that suits you.
There are a few simple rules to keep in mind when thinking about getting a device. There are seven basic tinctures ~ five colors: sable (black), azure (blue), gules (red), vert (green), and purpure (purple); and two metals: Or (gold or yellow) and argent (silver or white). These categories exist because colors and metals contrast with each other well, while they do not contrast with each other very well. (Look at street signs – they usually have metals on colors or colors on metals.) There are also things called furs which have combinations of tinctures, but I will leave it to longer, slightly more advanced articles or your local herald to explain these.
When designing a device, it is generally better to start simply – a small number of tinctures and a small number of items on the shield. Don’t try to put four different things that you like on there – it’s not good period practice – narrow it down. There are ways to be creative and personal without having something that isn’t period. Another basic rule to keep in mind is that you can’t put a color item on top of a color background, or a metal item on a metal background. Thus, the distinction between colors and metals is a very important one, as colors should go on metals, and metals on colors.
Again, off the SCA Heralds website are a number of websites that have good explanations of devices. One problem more common to devices than to names is the question of conflict. If someone has already registered a name that is substantially similar to the one you want, you will not be able to have it. While that certainly happens with names, it is not terribly common. With devices, however, conflicts can happen easily. As a general rule, your device has to have two clear differences from any other registered or protected device. (Protected devices include arms of famous people or those of countries’ flags.)
When you get around to designing a device, ask a herald for help – most will be glad to help you as best they can, or to send you to someone better able to help you. After designing a device, it is advisable to wait a while before registering it ~ first, put it someplace that you will see it regularly, such as your bedroom door, and get used to it. This will help you make sure that this is something that you want to identify you and to display. Sometimes people tend to create 'resume heraldry' where they try to put all of their interests on their arms, but such designs are more likely to be returned for rules violations. Some designs aren't as appealing after looking at them for a while, and it may suddenly occur to you that sewing that design into clothing and other accoutrements doesn't appeal to you. If you've paid to submit something you end up wishing you hadn't, you may end up paying a second time to change it.
Choosing a name and device can be not only fun, but educational. Take your time, and enjoy the process. There are a number of heralds who would be more than happy to help you with the process. When in doubt, contact the White Stag Principal Herald, and she can get you together with a herald as close to you as possible who can help you with the process. Enjoy!