A Grammar of Blazonry

Editor’s Note: The document below was written by Master Bruce Draconarius of Mistholme, and originally printed in the 1988 proceedings of the Calontir Heraldic Symposium.

For many years it has been hosted at the SCA’s central Heraldry web site, but unfortunately that version is slightly out of date, as Master Bruce has made a few small changes to reflect modern practice which haven’t yet been published there.

Master Bruce recently sent me an updated copy with permission to redistribute for use in an upcoming class. I have posted it below with no modifications other than adjusting the formatting  to fit the layout of this site and the addition of a few headings to make it easier to scan.

— Mathghamhain Ua Ruadháin,
Elmet Herald, May 2020

A Grammar of Blazonry

(Or, Master Bruce’s Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Blazon)

© 1988, 2019 Bruce Miller


Of all the talents needed by a herald of the Society, blazoning a submitter’s device is perhaps the one most mysterious to the submitter.  Suddenly, the herald seems to be spouting a foreign language, one only remotely resembling English – and, amazingly, putting into words the picture on the submission form.

A blazon is much more than a simple description of a device, however,   To quote Woodward’s Treatise on Heraldry, to blazon a device is to verbally describe it “in heraldic terminology so exactly that anyone acquainted with the language of armory may be able accurately to depict it from its concise description.”  This is the essence of blazonry:  the ability to reconstruct the emblazon.  A blazon needs to be, not just correct, but full and correct:  it is not enough to say just “lion” when the lion is couchant.

In many ways, therefore, blazonry is like a foreign language:  it has vocabulary and grammar, both of which contribute to the meaning of a blazon.  Just as, in Spanish class, learning all the –ir verbs was hard but learning how to conjugate them took only a week, so it is in heraldry.  Vocabulary is not something that can be learned from a single article:  it takes practice, a willingness to search for new phrases (particularly period phrases), and the ability to learn from mistakes.  In this article I will concentrate on the grammar of blazonry, which is the internal logical structure of the blazon.

A standardized form of blazonry began to develop in the 13th Century.  Prior to this, blazons were simple descriptions of armory, with few details.  Neither was there any particular order to the blazon:  for example, while in standard blazonry the field is mentioned first, in many early blazons the field might be mentioned last.  (This is still the case for many German blazons.)

According to Gerard Brault’s Early Blazon, the standardization of blazon had two reasons.  Partially it came from the realization that wrong blazons had legal consequences:  if a herald were to record in a roll of arms that, e.g., de Montfort’s lion were Or instead of argent, then some reader could innocently usurp the real arms of de Montfort while thinking he was sufficiently different.  (The problem is much more acute in Society heraldry:  we have to deal with a great many more armories.)

The main reason for this standardization, however, was simply to make the heralds’ job easier.  Most working heralds kept rolls of arms in their heads, as it’s rather hard to carry an ordinary on the battlefield.  They needed some mnemonic system to help them learn and memorize many devices.  They employed default postures and placements whenever possible:  if an eagle is always displayed, that’s one less detail to worry about.  But along about 1250, medieval heralds developed the idea of what Brault calls the heraldic phrase:  this specified the natures of certain charges, lines of division, postures, and placements.  The purpose was to have the charges, tinctures, and other such details blazoned “in such an order that there could be no doubt as to their arrangement, in the shield and in relation to one another.”  (Boutell’s Heraldry)

Order of Charge Groups

The grammar of blazon used in the Society follows, with minor variations, the standardized English form:

1) Field.
2) Primary charges.
3) Secondary charges immediately around (2).
4) Tertiary charges on (2) or (3).
5) Peripheral secondary charges.
6) Tertiary charges on (5).
7) Brisures.
8) Augmentations.

Charges are blazoned in the above order; this order reflects the visual importance of each group of charges.  Let us expand on these categories:

Field.  If the device consists solely of a field, the blazon is simple.  If the field is plain, the tincture should be given:  Ermine (the arms of Brittany), or Gules (the arms of d’Albret).

If the field is parted, the type of division, and any complex lines of partition, must be specified along with the component tinctures.  The early forms of English blazon used the phrase “Party per X”, where X was one of the ordinaries – Party per fess, for instance.  (Scots blazon still uses a similar form.)  The word “party” was quickly dropped, as it was intuitively obvious; we would simply use Per fess.

This is followed by the complex line, if one is used, and the tinctures follow that.  Field treatments (e.g., masoned) are considered part of the tincture, and are blazoned along with it.  For purposes of blazoning, semy charges (e.g., mullety) are lumped in with field treatments:  they’re blazoned immediately after the portion of the field being described.

In specifying the tinctures used, the chief portion of the field is blazoned first.  If both portions of the field are equally “in chief”, the dexter portion of the field comes first. Thus in fig.1, the field is divided diagonally (as a bend), the white portion is on top, and the line is wavy; this is blazoned Per bend wavy argent and sable.  A vertical division has both portions equally in chief, so the dexter portion is blazoned first; then comes the complex line (embattled, this time), and then the fields and their treatment.  Thus fig.2 would be blazoned Per pale embattled argent masoned sable and sable.

Fig.1:  Per bend wavy argent and sable.

Fig.2:  Per pale embattled argent masoned sable and sable.

Most of the simple, two part field divisions can be multiplied to form multi-part fields.  For instance, Per pale can be multiplied into Paly (fig.3); Per bend into Bendy, Per chevron into Chevronelly, &c.  (Oddly, the multi-part field based on Per fess isn’t called Fessy, but Barry.)  Multi-part fields are blazoned in the same order as their parent forms:  for instance, since Per bend is blazoned from upper left to lower right, Bendy is blazoned in the same direction.  Note that multi-part fields are normally drawn with an even number of divisions – usually six or eight, but other numbers may be specified.  If there are an odd number of divisions, the design is not usually blazoned as a field, but as a group of ordinaries – i.e., in fig.3 we see the distinction between Paly argent and sable  and Argent, three palets sable.  The amount of heraldic difference is negligible, but the distinction is still preserved in the blazon… though there are many period examples where the distinction is not observed.

Fig.3(a):  Paly argent and sable.

Fig.3(b):  Argent, three palets sable.

Primary charges.  This is the central, visually dominant group of charges.  Usually, if there is a central ordinary, it will be the primary charge.  There can be no more than one primary charge group in any device.

If there are several charges in any one group, they are blazoned in order from the field up; from the center out; from chief to base; and from dexter to sinister – the first rule that applies to a given device.  See fig.4 for examples of each hierarchy of blazon.  (This applies as well to other groups of charges.  For instance, in the arms Or, a bend between a blivet and a hufnagel gules, the blivet is the charge in chief.)

Fig.4(a):  On a bend a roundel.

Fig.4(b):  A billet within a laurel wreath.

Fig.4(c):  In pale a lozenge and a mullet.

Fig.4(d):  In fess a dragon’s head and a tyger’s head respectant.

Secondary and tertiary charges.  These are blazoned after the primary charges for historical reasons.  In the 12th and 13th Centuries, secondaries and tertiaries were added to a device as a form of cadency.  If a blazon were recorded for the main branch of the family, the added charges could simply be appended to the main blazon as written.  Thus the arms of Grandison, Paly argent and azure, a bend gules, could easily be modified for cadet branches by adding the phrase and on the bend three eagles Or (or three escallops Or, or three buckles Or, depending on the branch of the family.)

In Society designs, this category will include overall charges as well.  Overall charges are in some ways their own charge group – but since by definition they aren’t primary charges, and don’t sit entirely within the edges of another charge as tertiary charges do, they can be considered a special case of secondary charges.

It’s quite possible for a device to have more than one secondary charge group – e.g., Argent, a bend cotised between two lozenges sable.  Here we’d have one primary charge (the bend) and two separate groups of secondaries (the cotises and the lozenges).  Similarly, it’s possible to have more than one tertiary charge group, if the charges they’re on are themselves separate groups.

Peripheral secondary charges.  These include the chief, the bordure, and the canton, among others.  Though ordinaries, they were not first in the blazon, for the same reason given above:  they were often additions to a base coat, and medieval heralds didn’t have word processors to permit easy amendments to recorded blazons.

If both a bordure and a chief are used, the bordure is blazoned first; the chief then follows the bordure.  The canton would be blazoned last of all:  as an added charge, it was frequently drawn surmounting the charges of the base coat.  If the peripheral charges have tertiary charges, those are blazoned along with the peripheral:  i.e., first the bordure, then the tertiaries on the bordure, then the chief, then the tertiaries on the chief.  (More than that is probably too busy to be registered, but one never knows.)

Brisures (marks of cadency) and augmentations.  Both are growing more common in Society heraldry.  Again, as they are additions to a base coat, they are mentioned last in the blazon.  Brisures come before augmentations to insure (a) that Daddy’s augmented coat is not cadenced, complete with augmentation, by Junior, and (b) that Junior’s cadenced coat can, if he’s earned one, bear an augmentation.

Blazoning A Charge Group

In describing a charge or group of charges, the details are given in the following order:

  • Number of charges.  (If it’s a group of one charge, use “a” or “an”; otherwise use the number, “two” or whatever.)
  • Type of charge. Obviously, we need to identify the charge.  Is it a lion, a mullet, a falcon?  But we must also specify the variant of type, if appropriate:  is it a cross, or a cross couped?  A bow, or a crossbow?  A sword, or a seax?
  • Posture of charge. This applies mostly to animate charges – is the lion rampant, or sejant, or couchant?  Is it guardant?  &c.  But this can also apply to inanimate charges that are inverted, or turned to sinister.  Note that many charges have a default posture or orientation, which is usually omitted from the blazon:  for instance, an eagle will be displayed unless the blazon explicitly states otherwise.
  • Treatment of charge. This includes such things as embattled, couped, &c.  Usually such details are classed as variants of type, under #2 above, but not always.  If the posture of the charge needs to be blazoned, the treatment of the charge comes afterward.  There’s a difference between an arm bendwise couped and an arm couped bendwise (fig.5).
  • Placement on the shield. This is actually the most flexible item on this list.  In many cases, a blazon will be clearer if the charges’ placement comes earlier in the blazon: e.g., Gules, in pale three lions passant guardant Or (England), or Per saltire argent and gules, in pale two swords and in fess two lions counterchanged.  In other cases, the blazon is clearer if the placement is mentioned in a way that limits its application:  e.g., Per bend Or and azure, two annulets in bend and a sun counterchanged.  By placing in bend after the annulets but before the sun, we make clear that all three charges aren’t in bend.  This sort of parsing comes with practice; use your best judgment.
    Placement will rely on defaults.  For one charge on a solid field, the default placement is smack in the center of the field.  For three charges, the default placement is 2 & 1; if the charges are some other arrangement (e.g., in chief), the fact must be specified.  For parted fields, default placement will depend on the number of charges:  if the field has two parts, and the charge group is likewise readily divided into two parts, then each section of the field will have one part of the charges.  Thus Per bend argent and Or, a mascle sable and a clarion vert has two charges, and a two-part field:  each charge will be centered on its section (i.e., placed in bend sinister), with the mascle in chief.  Also note that, if the charges share a tincture with the field, their default placement will be on the portions of the field they don’t share:  e.g., Per fess gules and argent, a sun argent will have the sun, not centered on the field, but in chief on the gules portion.
  • Tincture of charge. In general, charges are blazoned in the same manner as the field.  If the blazon gives several consecutive charges of the same tincture, the tincture is blazoned only for the last charge; it’s assumed to apply to all the preceding unspecified charges.  Thus, for Argent, a saltire between four mullets, a chief gules, the saltire and the mullets, as well as the chief, are gules.  Had the mullets been a different tincture, we would have had to repeat the word gules in the blazon:  Argent, a saltire gules between four mullets sable, a chief gules.  The last tincture mentioned applies only to the preceding charges that were left unspecified.

Fig.5(a):  An arm bendwise couped.

Fig.5(b):  An arm couped bendwise.

Note also the difference between the usages “in [ordinary]” and “[ordinary]-wise”.  They refer to placement and posture, respectively.  In fig.6, we see how three swords palewise in fess (a) differs from three swords fesswise in pale (b).  One could just as easily have charges fesswise in fess and palewise in pale.  (The usage tends to be a bit sloppier for charges in cross and in saltire, but the principle still applies.)

Fig.6(a):  Three swords palewise in fess.

Fig.6(b):  Three swords fesswise in pale.

An Example

To pull these precepts together, let’s blazon a specific example, illustrated in fig.7.  We start by arranging the elements in the correct order, according to the grammar of heraldry:

Fig.7:  Argent, on a bend between a trefoil and a lozenge sable, an annulet between two roundels argent, on a chief wavy sable a sword argent.

Field:  Argent.  Primary charge:  A bend sable.  Secondary charges:  In chief, a trefoil sable; in base, a lozenge sable.  Tertiary charges:  On the bend, a roundel argent, an annulet argent, and another roundel argent.  Peripheral secondary charge:  A chief wavy sable.  Peripheral tertiary:  On the chief, a sword argent.

We now have the correct order for the blazon.  We could string these elements together, with a few descriptive phrases, and have a workable blazon:  Argent, a bend sable, in chief a trefoil sable and in base a lozenge sable, on the bend a roundel argent, an annulet argent, and a roundel argent, a chief wavy sable and on the chief a sword argent.

While this blazon would work, it’s not very good style.  It repeats tinctures too often, it mentions the bend and the chief more than once, and it ignores the order in which charges are listed (chief to base for the secondaries, center outwards for the tertiaries).

Also, we can use particles like on and between, which help simplify the blazon.  (The drawback is that we can no longer add the type of amendments the Grandison family used.  This is the main difference between medieval and modern blazon.  Fortunately, in the Society, we don’t worry about cadency as much as medieval heralds did, and we have word processors to make blazon amendments simple.)

Dropping the redundancies, and using the particles mentioned above, the blazon becomes:  Argent, on a bend between a trefoil and a lozenge sable, an annulet between two roundels argent, on a chief wavy sable a sword argent.  The result is more concise, and better style.

Historical Variations in Style

This brings us to the question of blazoning style.  Style has changed from century to century.  For instance, two 13th Century blazons (updating the spelling a bit) might be Argent, a fess sable and three bezants and Argent, a fess sable and three torteaux.  Though the word order is the same, the roundels are placed differently (fig.8).  The medieval herald was expected to apply the Rule of Tincture to the blazons, and understand that gold charges couldn’t possibly be on an argent field, nor red charges on a black fess.  (A number of heraldic scholars of the early 20th Century, notably Oswald Barron and William St. John-Hope, have advocated a return to this simple style of blazonry; but it only really works for a simple style of heraldic design.  For most modern emblazons, including most of those in the Society, it just isn’t detailed enough.)

Fig.8(a):  Argent, a fess sable and three bezants

Fig.8(b):  Argent, a fess sable and three torteaux.

There have also been a few stylistic fads, which were mercifully brief.  One was the substitution of jewel-names for the heraldic tinctures:  ruby instead of gules, sapphire instead of azure, diamond instead of sable, &c.  This fad actually appears to have started in period:  a German grant of arms from 1458 uses these terms.  As its sole purpose was to obscure the blazon and give it “significance”, it is not employed in Society heraldry.

Even worse was the fad, around the turn of the 17th Century, of substituting the names of the planets for the heraldic tinctures.  At the time, after all, there were seven of each; surely that could be no mere coincidence.  Thus Mars was used instead of gules, Sol instead of Or, Luna instead of argent, Saturn instead of sable, &c.  It was felt by the heraldic tract writers of the time that such heavenly blazonry should be reserved for the highest nobility.  Thankfully, this heraldic aberration died out (probably about the time they discovering new planets, which ruined the symmetry of the scheme).

Still found in mundane blazons are conventions left over from Victorian times.  Those blazoners tried to avoid the appearance of tautology, but at the expense of clarity and succinctness.  Thus, instead of repeating a tincture, they would use such phrases as of the field or of the third, the latter referring to the third tincture already mentioned.  Similar phrases might refer to number or type of charge.  Thus, a device we might blazon as Argent, on a fess sable between three mullets gules, three annulets argent, a chief gules would be blazoned in a Victorian style as Argent, on a fess sable between three mullets gules, as many annulets of the field, a chief of the third.  Such profusion of types and tinctures yield a complex blazon even under the best of circumstances; it’s silly to further complicate the blazon with references that require the blazoner to keep count of the tinctures as they’re mentioned.

Blazon Style in the SCA

The blazoning style of the SCA College of Arms depends, in large part, on whoever happens to be Laurel or Wreath Sovereign of Arms.  This is not mere cynicism, but a statement of fact.  The same is true, after all, in the English College of Arms.  J.P. Brooke-Little, in one of the footnotes to his edition of Fox-Davies’ Complete Guide to Heraldry, sums up the situation nicely:

What really constitutes official blazon?  Quite simply, it is the minds of the granting Kings of Arms.  It is they who blazon arms and who must take responsibility for good or bad blazon.  The rest of us can write about what has been done in the past and what we think ought to have been done, but our opinions are chaff before the wind unless we can persuade the King of Arms of the day to adopt our ideas.

In general, the Society tends to a simpler style of blazon.  We avoid obvious Victorianisms; we do not hesitate to repeat a tincture or a number.  The idea is to make ourselves understood, not obscure.  A few other peculiarities of our system:

  • The tincture Or (gold) is always capitalized in Society blazons, to avoid confusion with the grammatical conjunction. (Modern English blazons go even further, and capitalize all the tinctures.)
  • The tincture ermines (black with white ermine spots) is blazoned counter-ermine in Society blazonry. This is the translation of the French term, and is used to avoid possible typographic error.
  • Following medieval practice, the diminutive terms for the ordinaries (bendlet, bar, &c.) do not mean the ordinary is to be “drawn skinny”. Instead, such terms are used when there are more than one of the ordinary (e.g., three bendlets) or when the visual importance is reduced (in chief a bar).  The width of the stripes does not affect the blazon:  one horizontal stripe is always a fess, and three of them are blazoned three bars, no matter how wide or skinny they happen to be.
  • There has been a great deal of confusion, even within mundane heraldry, about the engrailed line of partition when applied to the field: references have disagreed on which direction the engrailing’s points should go.  In Society blazon, Per fess engrailed has its points to chief (fig.9); similar defaults hold for Per bend engrailed, Per chevron engrailed, &c.  Per pale engrailed has its points to dexter.  Invected lines have their points opposite to those of engrailed lines.
  • Society blazonry uses inverted to describe a charge turned upside-down, and reversed for inanimate charges turned to face sinister. Animate charges turned to sinister are blazoned contourny, or simply [posture] to sinister.  (Mundane blazonry uses reversed in the way we use inverted. I don’t know how the Society’s system originated.)
  • Semy charges are frequently blazoned as though they were a field treatment. This can cause confusion when, for instance, a bordure has semy tertiaries but the primary charge does not.  Thus Argent, a unicorn rampant and a bordure sable mullety Or is interpreted to mean that both the unicorn and the bordure are black with a strewing of gold stars.  If this isn’t the case – and it usually isn’t – the correct blazon repeats the tincture of the main charge:  Argent, a unicorn rampant sable and a bordure sable mullety Or.  Other possible blazons for the same device might include Argent, a unicorn rampant and a bordure sable charged with mullets Or.  (If the unicorn were mullety like the bordure, it would be good to make that absolutely clear in the blazon, to prevent the reader from assuming the blazoner made a mistake:  Argent, a unicorn rampant and a bordure both sable mullety Or.)

The Essence of Good Style

Our goal is not just to blazon, but to blazon well.  The essence of good blazon style is threefold:

  1. The blazon must be accurate.  All necessary details should be there for the reader.  The type of charge, its posture, its tincture – anything, if not the default, that counts for heraldic difference must be specified.
  2. The blazon must be unambiguous, unequivocal. The purpose of the blazon, after all, is to make possible the reconstruction of the emblazon.  Ideally, a blazon should be capable of only one interpretation.  A blazon that can be interpreted in more than one way is flawed; if those ways carry heraldic difference, the blazon is fatally flawed.
    Some emblazons may be blazoned in more than one way:  A griffin sergeant is the same as a griffin rampant, and one may have three bendlets sinister or three scarpes with equal ease.  Such choices are usually governed by the submitter’s preference, if any, or that of the submitting herald.  In other cases, a distinction may be worth no heraldic difference, but may influence the heraldic artist:  a shamrock vs. a trefoil, or an acorn slipped and leaved vs.  an oak slip fructed.  One must try to gauge from the submitter’s intent.
  3. The blazon should elegant, euphonious.  The blazon should be beautiful, as everything about heraldry should be beautiful.  This is less important than the other two rules:  if we must sacrifice elegance for accuracy, so be it.  But if a blazon can be both accurate and elegant, so much the better.

Everyone has their own standards of elegance, of course.  Yours probably differ from my own.  But since I’m the one writing this article, let me end it with some of my own preferences:

  • A blazon should avoid tautology if possible. Sometimes it isn’t possible; in that case, repetition is better than inaccuracy.
  • The blazon should be simple and concise. Bloodcurdling overprecision is worse than unnecessary:  it is actively distracting, and the effect is non-medieval.  Medieval blazons gave no more details than were needed; Society blazons should do the same.  Blazoning a certain sword as a Turkish cavalry sword from the Abbasid dynasty isn’t nearly as elegant as blazoning it, simply, as a shamshir. In like manner, the exact anatomical details of animals should be omitted.  Armed, langued, orbed, crined, pizzled, and all the rest are mere superfluities.  Artistic details should be left to the license of the artist.
  • Defaults should be used. They’re convenient, they help keep the blazon short, and they reinforce period design.
  • I confess I’m of two minds regarding the use of medieval terms in Society blazons. On the one hand, I delight in finding new charges from period, or period descriptors for motifs that would otherwise require cumbersome blazons.  We’re a medieval recreationist group, and should at least try to use medieval terms: coney rather than rabbit, reremouse instead of bat, camelopard rather than giraffe.
    On the other hand, I recognize that medieval terms can be so obscure that their meanings are lost.  Some period terms were invented by heraldic tract writers, and never actually used in blazons:  e.g. verdoy, which means “semy” but was only applied to trefoils, and only when they were on a bordure!  Other period terms were used, but since replaced:  Party per graft seems to have been an early term for Per chevron, and en l’un de l’autre (one into the other)was the medieval term for counterchanged.  When well-known period alternatives exist, it seems counter-productive to use the obscurer terms.
    But I would definitely make an exception for canting terms.  Cants were so commonly used in medieval blazon that they should be encouraged in Society armory – even if it means using an occasional obscure term.  A submitter named Donald Scrogie may be forgiven for using the term scrog instead of the more common tree branch.
  • Anglicized terms seem better to me than their French originals. Why use gouttée when gouty will do as well?  (Better, in fact, if one doesn’t have access to diacritical marks.)  My own preference is for affronty, bretessed, checky, &c., rather than affrontée, bretessée, checquée, &c.
  • Blazons can sometimes be simplified by using active, rather than passive terms. A ship, sail unfurled and facing sinisteris passive; a ship sailing to sinister is active, with the same picture in fewer words.

The best sources for good medieval blazon are, of course, the blazons of medieval armory.  Most reproductions of period rolls show only the emblazons, but there are a few sources that cite the blazons.  The Bigot Roll, the Camden Roll, the Falkirk Roll, all were lists of blazon only.  The works of Dr. Gerard Brault are definitive in this regard, but be prepared to learn a little Old French.  Most general heraldry texts (Boutell, Fox-Davies, &c.) have primers on the grammar of blazon, and give enough examples to let you see how it’s used.  Most important is practice.  Like any foreign language, practice is essential.  Good blazon is not beyond anyone’s capability.  Good luck!