The limitations of Heraldry part 1

13th Century Hungarian KnightThe writer Planché memorably described Heraldry as “ the shorthand of history,” but in quoting that phrase the limitations of Heraldry and the dimensions of history must not be overlooked. The idea that every Coat of Arms has a symbolic meaning is false; it is not true of Heraldry, as in commercial advertising, that “every picture tells a story.” The decoration of banners and shields, which has been a persistent custom among warlike people in all ages, was in medieval Europe systematized into what we now call Heraldry to meet a defined need, namely to provide medieval warriors with a means of identification when fully armed. Shut in his house of steel, the knight felt the same need to hang out a nameplate as any suburban family of modern times, but in an age when few could read, the knight’s sign was of necessity pictorial rather than written, especially as it had to be clearly recognizable from a distance; while the desire for decorative effect had also to be satisfied. In the early days of Heraldry the utilitarian motive prevailed, and symbolism was of secondary importance. Very few ancient Coats of Arms were designed with the express intention of telling something of the owner’s history or character, although in modern times many fables have been invented by boastful owners of old Coats of Arms to account for their hereditary emblems. These baseless family legends have been responsible for the general misconception that all Arms are essentially symbolic.

A true perspective of Heraldry can be best obtained by briefly examining some of the motives which in the age of chivalry led men to adopt their particular emblems and signs, and the factors which in later times produced changes and developments in Coats of Arms. The shields recorded in the early rolls of arms, or heraldic catalogs, which date from the 13th century, fall into two main classes: those which seem to have come about through a casual rather than causal origin; and those which were devised to denote the name, family or feudal connections or office of the bearer.

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