Heraldry is a system of identification via the use of visual symbols called armorial bearings or coats of arms. Originally dating to the symbols associated with the medieval armored knight, heraldry has evolved into an art form whose primary use is the family crest and the recording of genealogies, in addition to uses in political and social organizations, military units, and nations.
It can be argued that heraldry had its origins in the ancient empires before Christ; on the battlefield soldiers needed to know where their fellows were. The image of Medusa on the shields of Greek warriors, or the decorative motifs on shields carried by Romans were a means of identification. But these were not considered true heraldry; they were military in nature, and used to identify individual fighting units.
Heraldry as we know it began in the mid-1100s in northern France and the Low Countries and spread rapidly throughout the knightly class that dominated the Europe of the day. It filled a clear need for knights to quickly identify one another in battle and, just as importantly, in the jousting tournaments. The knights chose strong, simple, easy-to-recognize symbols for themselves: lions, eagles, geometric shapes. They displayed the symbols on their shields and on the linen surcoats worn over chain-mail armor. It is these coats that are the origin of the English term coat of arms; other languages' names for the coat of arms emphasize the shield, including the German Wappen ("weapon").
Heralds, whose original role was as messengers and as tournament announcers, took on the job of learning, recording, and describing the coats of arms of their masters; it was the herald at the tournament who announced the entry of the knight onto the field of honor by the act of blowing the horn - "blazen" in German - from which we get the word "blason", the origin of creating or "blazoning" the coat of arms. By 1200 they had systematized the practice, which would forever be known as heraldry. It did not take long for heraldry to extend beyond its original purpose as a way to identify individual knights. Since sons inherited the arms of their fathers, coats of arms came to be identified with families, dynasties, and clans. In Poland this process was taken farther, with the countries' ancient families adopting coats of arms that belonged not to individuals, but to the entire family group as a whole. Some cities also adopted coats of arms, some of them based on earlier flags, such as Genoa and Lubeck.
The oldest known depiction of a coat of arms comes from the tomb of Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou (1113-1151), granted to him by his father-in-law Henry I, King of England. They consist of four lions rampant on an azure (blue) field; his son (Henry II) would found the Plantagenet Dynasty, bore a shield gules, two lions passant guardant in pale or, essentially a red shield bearing two gold lions for Normandy and Aquitaine. Geoffrey's grandson, Richard I the Lionheart, would add a third lion to the shield, for England.
Components of a coat of arms
A coat of arms is based on the shield and other weapons of the medieval knight. It consists of, at minimum, a shield, helm, and crest, and usually also includes some sort of decorative mantling around the helm. Optional elements include a motto, badges, and banners. Some elements, such as supporters, crowns, robes of estate, and so forth, are traditionally reserved for royalty and nobility. A full display of all the elements of a coat of arms is sometimes called a "heraldic achievement".
A distinct personal badge or display, the crest has its origins in the tournament, where mounted and armored knights sought to distinguish themselves further by placing an item - such as feathers or fans - on their helmets.
The coronet is a stylized version of a crown, whose overall shape denotes the rank of the individual bearing the arms; the viewer of the arms would know at a glance if the person is a lord, a baron, a viscount, an earl, or a duke.
Torse and mantle
The simplest version of the coronet is a bi-colored, twisted device called a torse, which secured the mantle to the helmet; the mantle originally being a piece of cloth. Appearing on knights during the Crusades in the Middle East, the torse and mantle were based upon the Arab headdress called keffiyeh, which is used as protection against the hot desert sun. The mantle's torn appearance on displays of coats of arms may indicate a secondary use, which was to lessen the effect of sword-blows to the helmet.
Also indicative of rank, the helmet is shown open-faced or closed, with the closed helmet indicating low rank. When atop the helmet, the crest is usually facing in the same direction. Multiple helmet/crests have appeared in German coats of arms beginning in the 16th century.
The shield, or escutcheon, is the central device in any coat of arms, and is based on the medieval war shield carried by the knight. The field, or ground, of a shield is divided into nine areas:
- Top row (l-r): dexter chief, center chief, sinister chief;
- Center row (l-r): dexter flank, fess point, sinister flank;
- Bottom row (l-r): dexter base center base, sinister base.
Colors, or tinctures, are limited to two metals, gold (or) and silver (argent); and five to seven colors: red (gules), blue (azure), green (vert), purple (purpure), sanguine (murrey), tawny (tenne), and black (sable). Tinctures also consisted of "fur" backgrounds, such as ermine (black tails on a white background) or squirrel (alternating bell shapes). Later on, tinctures would consist of uniform dots or lines, ostensibly to show contrasting patterns when first engraved as book illustrations.
Over time the escutcheon would change shape, but still would be based on the war shield. Women, however, were not granted the same arms as men; in their version the shield is replaced by the lozenge, either a rhomboid or an oval in shape, but with the same overall colors and design as the male counterpart. Other non-combatants, such as clergy, would also have the lozenge as the centerpiece of their coat of arms.
The charge is the design within the shield, placed over the field. They consist of the following forms:
- Basic geometric bands of color, either in horizontal, vertical, or diagonal bars; chevrons; crosses or saltires; inner-shields (innescutcheons); cantons.
- Designs depicting animals, both real and mythological (lions, bears, eagles, griffins, etc.), inanimate objects (swords, lances, ships, etc), or geometric symbols (sun, stars, fleur de lys).
These devices are sometimes included in a coat of arms, and are meant to support the shield. Usually they are stylized animal charges, but humans, angels, and pillars have also been displayed. The name "tenant" is used if the supporter is a human.