Heraldry is a traditional display system for family and corporate visual identity, originating in late twelfth-century western Europe, based on the complex of design-bearing units known in English as a coat of arms. The word “heraldry” originally indicated the entire business of the heralds, court officials who at first recorded coats of arms and later (from the fifteenth century, when the various European jurisdictions began to attempt to regulate the sector) administered, designed, and licensed (“granted”) them. The late medieval and early modern system of heralds granting arms to proprietors on behalf of the state, which then guarantees some degree of protection for the design, survives in only a few countries: notably parts of the Commonwealth, South Africa, and possibly Ireland, though some post-communist republics of eastern Europe have revived versions of the system.
The principal, and only essential, unit in any coat of arms is a shield-shaped frame (the “shield”), displaying a supposedly unique design. This design, being two-dimensional in character, can be used on other flat display vehicles such as flags. The next most significant unit is the “crest” (a word sometimes misapplied to the whole coat of arms), which is defined by its location above the shield; notionally three-dimensional in form, it represents an item modeled and worn on top of the helmet by a medieval knight, and in full representations of a coat of arms it is depicted on a helmet. In fact the vast majority of crests never have been or will be modeled, but their potential three-dimensionality continues, mostly, to inform their design. Crest designs are not, in some heraldic jurisdictions, required to be unique, though they are frequently displayed alone, without the shield to which they are technically subsidiary.
Shield and crest may be supplemented in a full coat of arms by the following: “supporters” (animal or human figures depicted holding the shield); a motto (a slogan-like phrase depicted above or below the main design); and various direct indices of social rank or status, such as coronets and the insignia of awards and decorations, the display of which is often guided by heraldic convention without their being truly heraldic in themselves. Supporters function as indirect status indicators, inasmuch as all jurisdictions restrict their use to individuals of certain rank, large corporations, and official bodies.
It is the combination of design elements making up the shield, known as “charges,” that most clearly identifies a coat of arms. The repertory of charges ranges from purely geometric forms derived long ago from the shape of the shield, through a large class of more or less stylized representations of beasts, birds, monsters, and medieval implements, to images of modern artifacts. The category is unlimited and anything capable of standardized, simplified rendition in easily recognizable form is appropriate. The charges’ mutual spatial relationship – to describe which heraldry uses a semi-fossilized terminology called “blazon” – is equally significant, and heraldic conventions in this area have been taken by some scholars to provide an analytical key for works of art, particularly of the Renaissance and baroque periods.
Together, choice of charges and their relationship create the identity of an individual shield, viewed as a type of which specific representations – which may vary considerably in artistic style – form tokens. Heraldry’s approach to type-identity is broad, certainly when compared with newer areas such as that of corporate trademarks. Color definitions, too, are loose: a limited number of colors are used and standard shades of each are considered identical. Thus behind heraldry’s large graphemic repertory lies a vast range of heraldically insignificant graphetic variations. Proprietors of coats of arms may, of course, apply their own, narrower restrictions to give their heraldic identity a more consistent look than heraldry itself requires. This often happens in the corporate world, where the desire for a coherent, closely managed visual identity can lead to the privileging of specific representations.
In systemic terms, heraldic designs impart relatively sparse information about their proprietors. It is often mistakenly assumed that they encode complex data, but any references they make tend to be transparent, and not specifically heraldic; a mixture of graphic metaphors from religious art (e.g., a pelican for Christian piety) and archaic professional references (e.g., checkers for accounting or banking) are the nearest that heraldry gets to a symbolic approach. Family arms frequently pun on the family surname, while corporate arms often indicate the main business of the corporation, or its location. Cross-reference within the system is frequent, with one design repeating elements from another to suggest a connection between their respective proprietors. This haphazard and unsubtle approach was one of the factors in the rise of the more esoteric and elliptical “device” or impresa in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
In many ways the most eloquent statement made by a coat of arms about its proprietor is the extra-systemic one that this person or corporation is the sort to possess (and use) a coat of arms. Widely perceived associations between heraldry, social rank and conservatism color the usage of both corporate and private heraldry, and diminish the potential reach and variety of the medium. It is perhaps surprising that in the early twenty-first century the two UK heraldic authorities should be required to grant as many as 250 to 300 new coats of arms a year. Still more indicative of the continuing prestige of heraldry, however, is the vast number of corporate trademarks in use across the world that, even if not actually well-formed expressions within the heraldic system itself, consciously resemble or recall coats of arms.
- Dennys, R. (1975). The heraldic imagination. London: Barrie and Jenkins.
- Neubecker, O. (1977). Heraldry: Sources, symbols and meaning. London: Macdonald and Jane’s.
- Pastoureau, M. (1979). Traité d’héraldique. Paris: A. and J. Picard.
- Woodcock, T., & Robinson, J. M. (1988). The Oxford guide to heraldry. Oxford: Oxford University Press.