Introduction to Commentary in the SCA College of Arms
Some portions of this article refer to the older commenting process which used paper mailings for LoIs, LoCs, and LoARs; LoIs and commentary on them is now done via OSCAR, and LoARs are sent electronically as well. Additionally, this article refers to the Rules for Submission (RfS); this was replaced with SENA. Please make mental translations as needed while we work to get this article updated.

Introduction to Commentary in the SCA College of Arms

By Bruce Draconarius of Mistholme

Welcome to the Commenting College!  As a commenter in the College of Arms (CoA), you are serving the Society by helping to authenticate and register names and armory.  It is an important and necessary job, and we appreciate your efforts -- not just on our behalf, but on behalf of the entire Society.

This handout will introduce you to the procedures of the College, and give you an idea of what's expected of you as a commenter.  It will be helpful for you to read some letters from several experienced commenters, as well.

How the College of Arms functions

The majority of the College's work involves the submissions process:  the registration of names and armory for members of the SCA.  Kingdom Colleges of Heralds may have additional tasks, involving ceremony, precedence, field announcements, and the like; but these do not generally involve the Laurel Sovereign of Arms or the commenters of the SCA College of Arms.

Each Kingdom College of Heralds produces a Letter of Intent (LOI) at regular intervals, usually monthly.  The LOI contains all the names and armory approved by that Kingdom since its last LOI, and provides documentation.  (Items returned within the Kingdom aren't mentioned; the College of Arms doesn't see a submission until the Kingdom College of Heralds feels it's acceptable.)  The LOI is mailed to everyone on the mailing list -- Laurel and the commenting heralds, plus any Principal Heralds who are not regular commenters, plus any heralds in charge of submissions (in Kingdoms where the Principal Herald doesn't perform that function).

Each commenter, in turn, produces a monthly Letter of Comment (LOC); everyone who receives LOIs should also receive LOCs.   The LOC contains the commenter's reasoned opinion on the submissions in all the LOIs received in a given month.  The Principal Herald or submissions herald may in turn respond to these comments.

Based on the original documentation, plus all the commentary, Laurel decides to either register or return each submitted name and armory.  The decisions are then published in a monthly Letter of Acceptance and Return (LoAR), which is mailed to the entire College of Arms and to paying subscribers.

Duties of a commenter

From the above, we see that a commenter's most important job is to provide Laurel with enough information to reach a decision.  These decisions usually involve name and armory submissions, but may also involve "issues":  discussions on the Rules for Submission, on the basic philosophy of SCA armory, titles and forms of address, etc.

Submissions commentary, however, is the bulk of the workload.  Such comments may be supportive ("Morlet, p.192, documents this name to 1086") or negative ("This conflicts with the device of Paul of Sunriver"); they may address points raised by other commenters.  The commentary must be concise, but sufficiently detailed to prove the point; it must cite sources when necessary; and it should be as objective as possible, given the subject matter.  We'll discuss these points in greater detail below.


Every commenter needs, at a minimum, a copy of the Rules for Submissions.  This document contains the basic heraldic principles by which submissions are judged, as well as the CoA Administrative Guidelines and a Glossary of Terms.  The Rules are available through each Kingdom's Principal Herald, from the Laurel web site, through the SCA Stock Clerk, or through Free Trumpet Press.  The Rules are in a continual state of review, so be certain to get the most recent edition -- and watch the LoARs for announced revisions.

As members of the College of Arms, commenters receive the LoARs free of charge.  The LoARs contain rulings, explanations of policy, and heraldic discussions in general; they are worth reading and keeping.  Additionally, there are private compilations of excerpts from past LoARs, called "Precedents", which detail rulings made by previous Laurels.  These are available on the Laurel website or through Free Trumpet Press

Commenters who check for conflict should have access to the SCA Armorial and Ordinary.  This is available through Free Trumpet Press and on the Laurel Website.

Some commenters will have access to more sources than others: in reading others' commentary, you will see references to "Papworth", "Reaney", "Morlet", and others.  A bibliography of useful reference works, including the sources used in commentary, is included in the Rules.  Many of these are available through public or college libraries; commenters with a strong interest in heraldry often end up purchasing their own copies.

Letters of Comment should be clear and readable (else why write them?).  Therefore, a typewriter or word processor is indispensable for commentary; handwritten LOCs take too long and are nearly illegible.

Format for Letters of Comment

1. Date your letter!  This is important; it's how the College will refer back to your comments in the future.  Use Gregorian dating; you may also use a more "forsooth" dating, if you wish, but only along with the Gregorian date.  (E.g., "1 April 1992, which is the Feast of All Fools, A.S. XXVI.")  Put the date at the beginning of the LOC, and preferably on a header or footer on each page as well.  If you write several letters in a given month, give them all different dates:  three LOCs all dated 1 April 92 makes it hard to refer to any given letter.

2. Leave enough margin on either side of the page to allow for three-hole punches.

3. Be legible.  To save postage and photocopying costs, some commenters use small type (or photoreduce large type), and use double-sided copying.  It's important, however, that the LOC remain readable, even after reduction and copying.  (A judicious choice of fonts, and a fresh ribbon or toner cartridge, can help here.)

4. Arrange your comments by Letters of Intent, in chronological order.  I.e., the LOC should comment on the North Kingdom LOI of 1 April, then on the Lemuria LOI of 3 April, and so on.

5. For each comment, use the full name of the person on whose submission you're commenting, as well as its number on the LOI.  Don't just use the number, or the first name; the idea is to prevent confusion.

6. If you are responding to another herald's commentary, your comments should still be arranged by Letters of Intent, and by the name of the submitter in question.  That is, if you wished to respond to Trilithon Herald's comments on the North Kingdom LOI of 1 April 92, your comments might look like this:

    "North LOI of 1 April 92:  1. Aislynn de Beaumont.  (re:  Trilithon LOI of 15 May 92)  While Lord Trilithon is correct in saying that bendlets enhanced are unbalanced, he's wrong to say they aren't period:  they were used by Thomas de Grelle, 1308.  (Foster 98)"

7. It's helpful to leave a blank line between comments.  A solid block of text is harder to read -- and, when cutting and pasting comments in preparation for Laurel's meeting, harder to separate comments.

8. If a given comment applies to more than one submission -- for example, if two submitters are using the same misspelling of a surname -- repeat the comment.  Don't simply say "See my remarks on item #3, above"; at the Laurel meeting, commentary will be separated, and your remarks on item #3 will no longer be readily available.

9. Laurel must receive two copies of each Letter of Comment:  a double-sided photocopy to file, and a working copy to cut and mark up.  If you're using a word processor, the working copy of the LOC can be on diskette or e-mailed; the Laurel office computer can read most of the major text formats.  This is the preferred form of working copy, when possible.  (See the section on Special Tips for Electronic Commentary, below.)  Otherwise, the working copy should be a single-sided photocopy.

Types of commentary

Conflict.  Checking names and armory for conflict is probably the most tedious and time-consuming of all the commenter's tasks.  It's also one of the most important:  the College's task of registering unique names and armory depends on our conflict checkers.

Name submissions are checked for conflict against the SCA Armorial, plus important names from history, literature and myth.  The usual test of importance is whether the name merits an entry in a large general reference:  e.g. the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Armorial submissions are checked for conflict against the SCA Ordinary, which contains all registered SCA armory and "important" real world armory.

A comment on conflict should therefore cite the conflicting name or blazon, its source, and the reason the conflict is (or is not) valid.  Usually, that means quoting the relevant Rule.  If the conflict isn't clear-cut -- e.g., if the conflict is purely visual, or if it depends on a judgment yet to be made -- it should be presented as a possible conflict, with Laurel to make the final decision.


"3.  Catherine White.  The name conflicts with Catherine the White, registered Sept. 85.  Per Rule V.2, addition of the article is insufficient difference."

"12.  Morgan Scott.  The device may conflict with the arms of Hansard (Papworth, p.995):  Sable, three mullets Or.  There's a CD for the change in field, but we aren't sure there's another for the change between mullets and spur-rowels."

Style.  Names and armory can also be returned for stylistic reasons:  e.g., for using color on color, or being overly modern in design, or too complex, or offensive.  Stylistic returns tend to be more subjective than those for conflict:  the Rules give some rules of thumb for judging style, but that's all they are.  It is important, therefore, that stylistic comments be as specific and well supported as possible:  saying "This device isn't period style" isn't nearly as effective as "This device is unbalanced and has seventeen types of charge".


"4.  Donald MacDonald.  Having all five charges in sinister base is unbalanced and asymmetric.  Period charges were drawn to fill the available space; see the examples in Foster.  This is poor style and, without evidence that it's a period practice, should be returned."

"5.  Donald MacDonald, badge.  Counterchanging a lion surmounting a horse is visually confusing, and makes it impossible to identify either beast.  This should be returned as excessively complex."

Documentation and research.  Often, the commentary provides the evidence needed to accept a new armorial or naming practice.  Such comments are sometimes done as a monograph, presenting the results of research; this type of documentation is often done for its own sake, not for a specific submission.  These monographs are like any other research papers, with multiple sources, a line of argument, and a stated conclusion.

Other documentary comments condense into a single sentence the results of previously published monographs.  In those cases, the comment should give the date and author of the research.

These documentary comments permit us to style ourselves a College:  we are educating ourselves on period naming and armorial practice.  Ideally, our research is later disseminated to the populace at large, either directly or through the advice we give submitters.  In either case, the more everyone knows about period practice, the better we can serve our clients.

It is important, however, for commenters to distinguish between educational comments ("The name John the Smith would be better as John Smith, without the article") from comments that would mandate a return ("Period Uro-Altaic names never used prepositions; this name will have to be returned").

Basic guidelines for commentary style

1.  Be concise.  A long-winded comment is more likely to be skimmed than read, and the reader may miss the point you're trying to make.  (On the other hand, don't be so terse as to be cryptic.)

2.  Cite sources.  Tell us where you found that conflict, or the source for that surname.  For uncommon sources, give the author, title, page number, and (if needful) the publisher.  For common sources, it's enough to give the author and page number (e.g., "Withycombe, p.74; Parker, p.111.")

3.  Emphasize the subjects you know.  If you're particularly knowledgeable about, say, Irish grammar, comment in detail on any Irish name submissions; if you know little or nothing about Irish names, offer no advice on them.  (After awhile, the rest of the College will recognize your expertise, and your comments need not be as detailed .... though you should always be prepared to support what you say.)

4.  Discuss all the problems a submission might have -- don't simply stop after sufficient grounds have been found for a return.  Nor should any commenter assume that "someone else will mention this problem" (or "check for conflict", or whatever).  The only way to guarantee that Laurel will see a problem is to mention it.

5.  Facts should be presented as facts; opinions based on facts should be presented as opinions.  Uninformed biases shouldn't be presented at all.

6.  If no one comments on a submission, Laurel can assume it's fully acceptable to the CoA.  Silence gives consent.

7.  Above all, be courteous.  Give the submitter, and the submitting heralds, the benefit of the doubt.  Keep your remarks calm, polite, and non-personal; Laurel's decisions will be based on evidence, not invective.

Special Tips for Electronic Commentary

1.  Identify your diskette.  Your name, at the very least, should be on the label of the diskette; your address, and the word-processing format you use, are very helpful.

2.  It's useful if each individual comment on the disk is tagged, with your name or heraldic title.  These tags needn't be on the photocopies that are mailed to the College at large, or on the file copy sent to Laurel; they only need to be on the working copy.  Cut-and-paste functions make tagging each comment relatively easy.

3.  Laurel usually returns each diskette with a copy of the most recent LoAR.  Therefore, make sure the files on the diskette are unimportant enough to be erased if necessary.

Common pitfalls

1.  The job of a commenting herald can easily take as much time and energy as you care to give it.  Budget yourself accordingly, so you won't burn out after six months.  (The College doesn't want a trail of charred corpses on its conscience.....)

2.  It's easy to fall into a habit of saying the same thing many times, in exactly the same words.  ("Draw the [charge] bigger" -- said twenty times.)  This is particularly easy with word-processors, with their cut-and-paste macros.  It's a convenient tool, but it can distract your readers from the message you're trying to convey.

3.  Asking a doubting question -- without trying to answer it -- doesn't accomplish very much.  If you have an objection, state it as such, and back it up with evidence.  If no evidence is immediately to hand, at least state your reasoning.  Don't just cast doubts.

4.  A bit of humor can make your letters much more readable.  However, don't mistake the icing for the cake; the commenter's job is commentary, not entertainment.

5.  Many commenters seem to have a "button", one special issue about which they feel strongly, and which keeps appearing in their commentary.  (Some commenters have several buttons.)  As long as an issue remains unresolved, it's appropriate to keep mentioning it.  Once it's debated and resolved, though, it should be considered settled, pending new evidence; the College needs to move on to other issues.