Heraldry is defined as the practice or art of designing and describing coat of arms, family crests, and badges. It is basically a centuries old technique for identification. Unlike today’s world where most people carry some sort of personal ID such as a driver’s license, in the Middle Ages it was not so simple. Thus the concept of heraldry was born. It became so effective in fact, that it is still in practice today some 900 years later.
Heraldry made its first appearance during the Norman Conquest of England when the knights of the time would decorate the shields they carried. There were no rules in place at this time, and these symbols were not thought of as anything more than simple decoration. It was not until around the twelfth century that what we now consider to be heraldry was standardized.
According to the Wikipedia, a man named John Writhe was the first person to actually standardize the rules of heraldry. During this time “coat of arms” were being passed down through inheritance across Europe. Then sometime in the late Middle Ages, heraldry became a true discipline and was governed by a professional herald referred to as an officer of arms.
Not everyone was allowed to have a coat of arms. Only an armiger, a person who was entitled such as a knight or royalty, was allowed to have a true hereditary coat of arms. It was up to the professional heralds of the day to maintain these crests or arms. In her book Design Your Own Coat of Arms An Introduction to Heraldry, Rosemary A. Chorzempa comments, “Men called Heralds were given the responsibility of keeping the records. These rolls of arms were eventually sent to a college of arms, which collected these designs along with the family histories that accompanied them. In this way, heraldry is related to genealogy, the study of family relationships.” A few of these institutions are still around today including the College of Arms in London, Court of the Lord Lyon in Scotland which dates back to the fourteenth century, and the Office of the Chief Herald in Dublin.
The center piece and perhaps most important element of the coat of arms is the shield. The shield itself could be in any number of shapes. Generally the shield used in the heraldic design would be similar to whatever type of shield the bearer of the coat of arms carried. Most of the coats of arms we see today use what most people consider to be a typical shield shape. For women instead of a shield a lozenge is used which has the characteristics of an elongated diamond.
The actual colors used in heraldry are called tinctures. These are divided into three classifications metals, colors, and furs. There are only two metals. They are Gold (or) which is often represented by yellow and silver (argent) which is represented by white. From there you have six traditional colors; red (gules), blue (azure), green (vert), purple (purpure), and black (sable). There are three other colors sometimes used, but they are considered to be untraditional. These are orange (tenne), dark red (sanguine) and a sky blue (azhure-celeste). The furs are the actual decoration of the robes or headgear worn by royalty. These decorative patterns can be used on a shield by anyone.
There are pretty strict rules or guidelines that need to be adhered to when using tinctures to decorate the shield of a coat of arms. According to Rosemary A. Chorzempa, “Most shields were originally decorated with only two tinctures: one metal and one color. Later, arms took on more complicated designs, which sometimes were difficult to recognize. A rule of tincture was created that held that no metal should be placed on another metal, and no color should be placed on another color.”
The pictures or symbols that can be seen on many coats of arms are called charges. These can be anything from some sort of plant, animal or something related to a zodiac symbol. They can be a large picture or several small ones that would fall on a portion or quarter of a shield. Some common charges are the rose, the fleur-de-lis, and the stag.
The shield can also be divided by what are called ordinaries. According to Wikipedia, “In the early days of heraldry, very simple bold rectilinear shapes were painted on shields. These could be easily recognized at a long distance and could also be easily remembered. They therefore served the main purpose of heraldry-identification. As more complicated shields came into use, these bold shapes were set apart in a separate class as the honorable ordinaries.” These ordinaries are described as the cross, the pall, the fess, the saltire, the bend, the chevron, and the pale.
Other than the shield, a coat of arms can contain a helmet and a crest. The helmet can be of any type of knight’s helm though some do hold meaning. Some helmet designs can signify royalty or even clergy. The crest sits on top of the helm usually on a wreath. The crest can be a crown or an animal or even something akin to a pair of wings.
Rounding out some coat of arms you have supporters which are nothing more than people or animals placed on each side of the coat of arms and appearing to be actually supporting it. Some coats of arms also have mottoes which are generally found under the shield in some sort of scroll work and are often, but not always written in Latin.
Learning the terms and description used in heraldry is similar to learning a new language. For instance if I was to describe a shield in heraldic terms as being sable with a pale gules, azure chief with a harp charged I would be saying a black shield with a red bar down the center and a blue bar at the top with a gold colored harp in the middle. The terms or language if you will of heraldry is a mixture of the French, German, and Old English languages. These same terms are still used in modern heraldry.
Rosemary A. Chorzempra, noted author of many books on the subject, describes heraldry as, “a very old visual language that was originally used to identify warriors.” In an age when men were covered in plate armor, heraldry was used as a means of personal or family identification. Though this is no longer an issue as many people can carry their personal identification in their wallet, heraldry has managed to survive. The art is as vibrant as it was in the Middle Ages. We see it almost everyday as many companies or products use heraldry to identify themselves even the Presidential Seal is a form of heraldry. With the help of many organizations such as The International Association of Amateur Heralds you can even design a coat of arms for your own family and have it registered through a college of arms. Though we no longer need to use symbols to help identify ourselves in battle, heraldry can still be an important part of your family’s history.