The commentary on submissions in the Asteorran Gazette (AG) has had several problems about identifying the primary group of charges in an armory submission. Here I give some notes intended for the "advanced beginner" or "intermediate" in conflict checking, who has a basic notion but not the details.
When doing SCA conflict checking, identifying the primary group is crucial. That group has the most possible differences of any charge group. It is used to cut down your conflict-checking search space in a major way, via Rules for Submission X.1, "Addition [or Deletion] of Primary Charges", and X.2, "Difference of Primary Charges".
A prerequisite for any conflict checker is a relatively recent copy of the Rules for Submission (RfS) and Glossary of Terms. It's listed at the top of the Free Trumpet Press (FTPW) order form. On-line copies of the RfS, and much other neat stuff, is available at http://www.sca.org/heraldry. Having Laurel Sovereigns of Arms precedents, also available from FTPW or on-line, can help further.
The Glossary of Terms has the following definitions:
Charge Group - A set of charges used together in a design as a single unit. The charges in groups in heraldry usually fall into standard arrangements depending on their number and what other items are involved in the design. A collection of charges that are arranged in such a standard arrangement are considered a single group, even if they are of different types and/or tinctures.
Primary Charge Group - The most important group of charges in a piece of armory. In blazons, the primary charge group is usually mentioned immediately after the field. (A strewn charge group is not primary when it is blazoned before a central charge group.) The primary charge is usually the central ordinary lying entirely on the field, if one is present. If there is no such central ordinary, then the primary charge group is the set of charges of the same size that lie in the center of the design and directly on the field. In any piece of armory with charges there will always be a primary charge group, unless the only charges are peripheral. There cannot be more than one primary charge group in any given design. In "Gules, a pale between two mullets argent", the pale is the primary charge. The primary charge in "Or, a maunche between three roundels azure" is the maunche. "Per chevron argent and sable, two roses and a fleur-de-lys counterchanged and on a chief purpure three hearts argent" has the roses and fleur-de-lys as the primary charge group, because they are all of about the same size and in a standard arrangement. In "Azure semy of mullets and a chief argent" the strewn charges are the primary charge group.
Note that not all the charges in the primary charge group have to have the same type. RfS X.2 has three other examples of primary charge groups with disparate types.
Note also that there can be at most one primary charge group. The RfS refer to "the [singular] primary charge group" three times.
The field does not affect the determination of primaryness -- there can be a plain-tinctured field, any field division, any field treatment (honeycombing, say), or for fieldless badges no field at all. The third example in the quote above has the roses and the fleur-de-lys on opposite sides of a field division. Nevertheless, they're in "a standard arrangement" (two and one), so they're one primary group. RfS X.2 has five more examples of a primary group across a divided field. All that matters is relative size, relative placement at or near the center, placement on the field, and arrangement.
There are two complications, though. (Heraldry is an art form. There are always complications.)
"Overall" is often misunderstood. From the Glossary of Terms:
Overall - A term applied to charges that cross over both edges of another charge to lie on the field on either side. For instance, "Or, a lion rampant purpure and overall a fess sable" has the fess starting on the field on one side, crossing over the center of the lion, and lying on the field on the other side.
In current SCA practice, an overall charge is never in the primary charge group. That's why the Glossary says "entirely on the field". In the example in the definition, the fess is not the primary charge, even though it's a central ordinary. The lion is the primary charge.
Another definition from the Glossary:
Maintained Charges - Small objects that are held by an animate charge are said to be maintained, like "a lion rampant maintaining a sword". Maintained charges are usually too small to count towards difference.
A maintained charge is never in the primary group. In "Two lions combattant maintaining between them a sword", the primary group is the pair of lions. The maintained sword is by definition small and insignificant in SCA heraldry, so even though it's more central, it's not in the primary charge group.
It's not always clear what the primary group is. If it's unclear, it's sometimes a hint that the device should be redrawn to make it clearer -- to make the intended primary group more visually dominant and grouped, and other charges more secondary. Sometimes, it's simply a judgment call based on visual weight. Common examples are:
Uncertainty about the primary can cause multiple possible and legal blazons, and it can affect the conflict checking. In general, there's a conflict if there be a conflict for any one legal blazon -- it's often said "You can't blazon your way out of a conflict" and "We register the emblazon, not the blazon [the picture, not some words]". If there be two reasonable blazons for the same emblazon, and they disagree on which is the primary (or any other) group, it's best to conflict-check separately under each set of assumptions and warn ab any possible conflict.
Before, I wrote "There can be at most one primary charge group.". There is no primary charge group, if there be no charges at all or only peripheral ordinaries. Period armory had a lot of field-only (uncharged) armory. It's quite rare in the SCA, possibly because until recently it was very hard to conflict-check and pass. The new RfS X.4.a.ii has special rules for "field-primary armory": armory that has no charges or a single uncharged peripheral ordinary (one of 10 listed possibilities, with "the chief, the bordure, the base ... the orle ..."). Personally, I would like to see more "field-primary armory".
In summary: There is at most one single primary charge group, "the most important group of charges in a piece of armory". It's the central ordinary, if present, or else "the set of charges of the same size that lie in the center of the design and directly on the field". The primary charges can be of different types. The field does not affect primaryness. Overall charges are not primary.
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