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The Origins

There sometimes appears to be a cloud of mystery surrounding the origins of heraldry. Many modern interpretations of heraldry are built on Hollywood stereotypes that simply do not fit the original context or the intent of earlier times. It is not difficult, though, to see through the fog into the past and find the true origins of heraldry. In so doing, modern heraldry becomes more meaningful, more accurate, and more relevant.

Personal or family arms reflect a design or symbol for a singular, unique purpose. Such original use of symbols universally predated abilities to read or write. The purpose was to identify an individual or family. In some heraldic customs, such as British, a single, specific heraldic design came to represent a specific individual. In other customs, such as German and Italian, the armorial bearings represented a family, though only certain members of the family were entitled to display them. The right to display the family arms often follows along with the semi-salic method of inheritance. The concept that anyone merely with the same surname can use arms of an individual or family of the same name is false.

In earliest times, arms were assumed, as complex heraldic regulatory bodies did not yet exist. In their earliest forms, a grant of arms was verbal. Later, scribes recorded them. Some scribes specialized in this work and became what we popularly know as heralds, the fellows who proclaimed/announced the person, not yet then the fellows who designed or determined anything. It was largely the tournaments that formalized the process, and the process was about registration and the "right" to compete, as well as taxes charged for the registration or grant. Eventually heraldic regulatory bodies, such as the Royal College of Arms in London or the Lord Lyon King of Arms in Scotland, came into existence to prevent confusion in identification between individuals and families.

The symbols in heraldry were intended primarily for military purposes and derive from "totems" that were mainly animal effigies assumed on a tribal basis worldwide throughout history. This is the likely reason animal symbols feature so prominently in heraldry. The largest objects easily seen and available to a royal, noble, or knight in the field were the shield and banner. These proved ideal vehicles for conveying identification readily, even at somewhat of a distance. Thus, a chosen device/symbol was first used purely for identification in battle or, later, in a tournament. The devices were placed on shields and also on banners to mark the position of a certain individual on the field or of a headquarters. Heraldry originated out of such practical rather than merely symbolic use. Only later did heraldry, the existing system of identification, become used for bureaucratic purposes such as seals. Such seals pre-date the use of signatures in the way signatures are used today. Some countries, such as Japan, still require the use of a personal seal instead of a signature for legal documents.

It was not uncommon for a royal or noble leader to "knight" a few commoners and squires just prior to battle. Knighthoods were also granted after a battle to recognize courage, "earning of spurs," and so on. These were the forerunners of the "Knights Bachelor," or knights who did not belong to a particular Order of Chivalry. Some of these knights created on the battlefield were called "Serf Knights." Often they were the Sergeants and had office and rank, assisting in the leading of the general troops. Arms were not granted at the specific time of knighting or appointment, for the battle raged on. Symbolic arms were assumed and/or approved/granted later. After that battle or other battles, they might be commended or further recognized, as might other knights. Those "achievements" would sometimes be memorialized as additions to their coat of arms. For example, "three doves upon a bend" might be added to the arms to symbolize something to the bearer, perhaps even a secret meaning. It might be years later that something like Burke's Peerage (the original company) came along and recorded the latest version of the arms. There is absolutely no single set of symbolic meanings for each device in heraldry.

Outside of a battle setting, local nobles, for example, a Count or Baron, would select stoutly-built men in their youth to carry out and enforce his wishes within his fiefdom. They became a form of nobility that would develop over time. The office of Sheriff was such as position that evolved into a highly formalized and often hereditary office.

The essence of personal or family arms, then, is the shield. Designs of the shield were and are very much influenced by the time period and nation. English rules and customs of heraldry differ somewhat from those of Germany, for example. Rare indeed is the person with full awareness and perspectives of the variances over time and culture. Therein lies the source of much confusion within heraldry.

In antiquity, to be of practical use for identification in battle or tournament, a shield needed to contain such symbols that could be seen and recognized at a glance and from a distance. Thus, historically, personal arms originally often were a single, simple representation of a plain design such as an an animal effigy or geometric pattern, colorized. One of the most simple ancient designs is that of the Royal House of Savoy. It is, in heraldic terminology, "Gules a cross Argent." In non-technical terms, the shield is red with a white cross.

Eventually one's "armorial bearings" included a crest. The crest is not, as so often erroneously thought, the entire "coat of arms" or the shield. Rather, the crest was a device or symbol that was carried atop the helmet of the knight or noble, also for identification purposes in battle or a tournament. Crests today sometimes are displayed with the shield and sometimes are used by themselves. In Scottish heraldry, for example, all the members of a Clan use their Chief's crest displayed within a buckle and strap on which is written the Clan Chief's motto. Chiefs, Chieftains, and those with arms in their own right would display their crest on a circlet instead of a buckle and strap. These devices are still worn on Scottish headwear today and are one of the few remaining uses of a crest in accordance with its original battlefield use. Chiefs also wear, by custom, three eagle feathers behind the badge, Chieftains two feathers, and armigers one feather. Much modern myth and misconception also surrounds this heraldic custom. This ancient usage of eagle feathers is, according to the Lord Lyon King of Arms, a matter of custom, not law, and logical to be applied in a similar manner by non-Scottish armigers. Thus, a head of a non-Scottish noble or royal house could rightly use three eagle feathers. The Germanic Royal House of Bavaria, for example, is generally considered the principal heir to the Scottish Royal House of Stuart. This underscores the complexities of heraldry in general and helps to deminstrate that there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

While heraldry as we generally know it developed in the middle ages, heraldry nevertheless predates the middle ages. The ancient Romans used symbols too, such as the Vexilloid, which eventually evolved into banners/flags and the effigies on them (Eagle, etc). See this page for more information. See also this page. And, heraldry is the origin of modern marketing logos and company symbols. The "maker's mark" is a direct application of the concept of heraldry to a trade setting.


Arms and Armor

Knowledge of the evolution of actual armor is also useful to the understanding of heraldry. Armor evolved to protect the wearer from the latest type of weapons. As weapons evolved, such as stronger crossbows with steel tipped arrows, stronger and more complete armor was required for soldier, knight, horse. As armor evolved, knights and nobles dropped the use of shields in battle when they became less useful. Eventually the elaborate and complicated suits of armor so associated with medieval knights was rendered obsolete by the development and proliferation of firearms. Arms were retained on shield for tournament armor, which often was also heavier than armor used in combat. After shields and full armor vanished from the battlefield, banners became of even more importance to indicate where a person was on the field of battle (also used for military strategic deception). Today, military guidons and flags continue the tradition, which derived both from middle ages heraldry and from the usage of Roman legions.

Another common method of display of one's arms in battle when full suits of armor and shields were not used was on the surcoat. A surcoat was a sleeveless cloth jacket, usually knee-length. It was worn over any protective clothing, such as chainmail or leather padding.


Development of Heraldic Symbolism

Heraldry developed over time as its primary use gradually changed from battlefield identification to bureaucratic, social, and symbolic uses. As armorial bearings were used as printed and engraved displays, embellishments were added. These, too, have their origins in the medieval battlefield. A helm (typically with a crest) was often placed on top of the shield. In some national customs, the style of helm denotes the rank of the individual. In others, it is merely a matter of style. Around the helm was often placed mantling. This represented the knight's mantle, or cape. It is typically displayed shredded, as if it had been torn to shreds in battle. Persons of higher rank often eventually added "supporters," or devices, usually animals, to either side of the shield to "support" it and draw attention to it. Crowns for royals and nobles eventually were added, usually sitting on top of the shield and underneath the helm, but sometimes on top of the helm.

It is also a myth that a person necessarily only has one coat of arms. The hollywood stereotype assumes that arms once granted are static and do not change. Not so. One size does not fit all. As families with arms intermarried, their children gained the right to inherit multiple coats of arms. This led to the practice of "quartering," or combining the arms of ones parents. A typical way is to divide the shield into four quarters and place the arms of one's father in two quarters diagonally across from each other and the arms of one's mother in the other two quarters. Over time, marriage may lead to inheritance of many quarters. Shields displayed all quarters can be both complex and beautiful. They pictorially tell the family history. Also, various augmentations for knights in orders of chivalry or those who had earned special favor from the Pope came into use. These augmentations were either additions to the shield itself or attached in some way to the outside of the shield. Some of these were hereditary, and some existed only during the lifetime of the individual.

Also, arms were also adopted and/or added to one's armorial achievement as one's territorial claims increased (whether one ruled the territory or not). Sometimes these new territorial (or "dominical") arms were originally the arms of another family. One famous example involves the red/white/red arms almost synomymous with the Austrian House of Habsburg. These arms in fact originally belonged to the House of Babenberg, the original rulers of Austria. When the Habsburgs gained control, they abandoned their own family arms for the Austrian Babenberg arms.

Because most arms in use today are evolved or copied from the embellished arms, and because personal arms granted today are created for non-military use, they tend to be more complicated and not practical for military purposes. Thus, it is the popular assumption that the full, embellished arms are the historical norm, when in reality the embellished arms are not the historic norm. They merely envolved into use more recently for bureaucratic and smybolic purposes.

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