What in the World is Heraldry: A Primer
By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department
Heraldry, the word brings up ideas of knights and tournaments, royalty and television dramas. To most people it’s a stuffy, old fashion anachronism. To a very small few, it is an art form. What it really is falls under the modern concept of branding. If you were in the know in the 14th and 15th centuries you could look at the heralds list at a tournament and recognize knights from their coats of arms. If you had not met the knight personally, you could judge his character based on his arms. Knights of the same family had similar elements and you could see that sir Thomas was a younger brother or cousin or nephew of Sir William and make a value judgment based on what you knew of Sir William. This is the same way we make a judgment of the quality on a restaurant based on whether we see two arches or on a field gules, or woman gardant argent on a field noir. While these terms are in the language of heraldry the images they describe are not. No one would mistake Starbucks or McDonalds as knightly.
While the decoration of a shield or garment goes back for thousands of years, heraldry as we know it is documented back to the time of Charlemagne. It started as a way to differentiate between people on the battlefield. In the eras before military uniform, you had to know exactly who was on your side so you did not attack, or be attacked by, one of your fellows. As armor became more comprehensive and helmets began to cover the entire head, a new means of identification became necessary. The natural thing to do was to make sure you used the same design on all your shields and that what you used was different from other people. As more people began to use this new system, someone had to keep track of designs to make sure that repetition did not occur and that designs were recorded and differentiated between sons and cousins etcetera. This led to the creation of Heraldic authorities that kept (and still keep) roles of arms and titles and control who is granted what arms and how close to the original familial arms they can be.
The initial designs were simple ones. Shapes of one color, or tincture, were placed on fields of another. The only real rule of early heraldry was that you did not place a color on another color. If the field was red, the symbol had to be silver or gold. Black was occasionally acceptable for either tincture or metal. Simple designs were quickly used up and more complex symbols began to be used. As families grew and armigerous , or arms bearing, families intermarried and carried both arms going forward through processes called impaling or quartering, designs got more and more elaborate. This could be taken to the extreme such as the case of the Grenville Armorial, with its 719 quarterings. This is an exceptional example though. Most Arms only had 16 quartering at most and they were often repeated. The other issue was differencing arms from father to son. A father had arms of a saltire noir on a field argent, a black X on a silver shield. He also had six sons. They couldn’t all take his arms, only the eldest could and he had to bear a label on his until his father had passed. The system of cadency was created. This varied from country to country but usually consisted of a label applied to the father’s arms and each point of that label carried a specific type of symbol depending on birth order. Some countries varied this. Scotland for instance used a system of borders to delineate the same thing.
In modern times heraldry has fallen in importance amongst the general population. It has not, however disappeared completely. The family of Kate Middleton was granted a coat of arms before her marriage to Prince William, showing the continued importance of the institution of heraldry to the elites of the United Kingdom. In Scotland the “family” coat of arms does not exist, regardless of what those online family history services tell you. The arms of the family are actually the arms of the chief of the clan of that name and only that person can claim them as their own. It is actually a crime to claim them without a certification of the Lord Lyon, the Scottish heraldic authority. You might think that an egalitarian nation like the United States is beyond such trappings of nobility, but you would be mistaken. There are a few heraldic authorities in the United States, but none who have governmental status. The American College of Heraldry, a private non-profit organization will register your arms giving them some protection from use by others. The only official governmental organization concerned with heraldry is one that goes back to the military roots of heraldry. The Army Institute of Heraldry keeps track of all the coats of arms of all branches of the service and designs, or commissions designs, for new units, ships and awards. The symbolism and association of heraldry continues to be relevant today even beyond the days of using them as a very colorful My Name Is … badge.
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