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Heraldry is the knowledge and art of describing coats of arms, also referred
to as achievements or armorial bearings.
It is important to note that a given coat of arms is defined by a written
description, not by a picture. A given coat of arms may be drawn in many
different ways, all considered equivalent, just as the letter "A" may be
printed in many different fonts while still being the same letter. For
example, there is no strict definition of the shades of colours used in
A description of a coat of arms is called a blazon. To draw it is to
emblazon it. To ensure that the pictures people draw after reading the
descriptions are accurate, and reasonably alike, blazons follow a set of
rules. The first thing the blazon describes is the tincture (colour) of the
field (background), and then it describes the placement and tinctures of the
different charges (objects) on the shield. The charges on a shield are
described from the top to the base, from dexter to sinister. Dexter ('right'
in Latin) is the left side of the shield, and sinister ('left') is the
right. The reason for this is that they refer to the shield-bearer's point
of view, not the observer's.
The word "crest" is commonly used to refer to a coat of arms. However, in
heraldry, a crest is just one component of a coat of arms. In a complete
depiction of a coat of arms, the crest is a design affixed to the helmet.
However, crests can also be used on their own; this is particularly useful
when there is insufficient space to display the entire coat of arms.
There are seven tinctures, consisting of two metals and five colours.
Colour Heraldic name
Later heraldry has introduced some more colours: brown (murrey), sanguine
(blood-red), carnation (most popular in France, and described as the colour
of human flesh), light blue (ciel or celeste, or "bleu-celeste") and orange
(tennŽ), but these are very uncommon, particularly in British heraldry.
There are also a number of furs, like ermine, ermines, or vair - these are
regular variations of the field (ermine is for example white with small
black bell-shaped spots) that represent various types of actual fur. Objects
may also be depicted in their natural colours. In this case, they are
described as "proper". Sometimes a colour must also then be given (e.g. a
white horse proper).
The first rule of heraldry is the rule of tincture: metal must never be
placed upon metal, or colour upon colour, for the sake of contrast. The main
duty of a heraldic device is to be recognized, and the dark colours or light
metals are supposed to be too difficult to distinguish if they are placed on
top of other dark or light colours. This rule is so closely followed that
arms that violate it are called armes ˆ enquerre, or arms of enquiry; any
violation is presumed to be intentional, to the point that one is supposed
to enquire how it came to pass. (For example, such arms are sometimes caused
by the addition of honourable augmentations granted by the monarch, which
always ignore the rule of tincture.) One of the most famous armes ˆ enquerre
was the shield of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, which had gold crosses on white.
On the rare occasions this rule has been violated, the offending charge has
been a chief (see below), which has led some commentators to question
whether the rule should apply to a chief, or even whether a chief should be
considered a charge at all, but this is a radically minorial view.
The field can be divided into more than one colour. Common partitions of the
* parted (or party) per fess (parted horizontally),
* parted per pale (parted vertically),
* parted quarterly (parted horizontally and vertically; in theory this
could be called "party per cross" but is practically never so
* parted per bend (diagonally from upper left to lower right),
* parted per bend sinister (diagonally from upper right to lower left)
* parted per saltire (diagonally both ways).
A shield vertically divided into blue (left side) and gold (right side)
would be blazoned: Per pale azure and Or.
The partition lines are straight by default, but there are other kinds of
lines as well. A line that looks like a saw's edge is "indented", and a line
that looks like a sine curve is "wavy". If the saw's edge is more severe
than that of indented, the edge is called "dancetty," but this distinction
was not made in ancient coats. A line that looks like stylised clouds is, as
the name suggests, "nebuly."
A shield horizontally and vertically divided into red (upper left and lower
right) and silver with sawedged lines would be blazoned: Quarterly indented
gules and argent.
A partition variation is the counterchange. This is the term used to blazon
a shield wherein the colors have been inversed across a partition line.
A shield which is green on the upper half and silver on the lower, charged
at the center with a lion whose upper half is silver and lower half green,
would be blazoned: Vert, a lion argent counterchanged per fess.
Charges can be animals, objects or geometric constructs (ordinaries).
Common animals are lions, leopards, martlets, eagles, gryphons, fish, boars
or dolphins. There are dragons and unicorns as well, but they are not nearly
as common as most people suppose. The default position of an animal is
looking to the left. Animals are found in various different positions - a
flying martlet is a martlet volant, a swimming dolphin is a dolphin naiant,
and a walking lion is a lion passant. Other words for positions are rampant
(on hind legs), salient (leaping), sejant (sitting) and gardant (looking at
the viewer). There are humans as well, although they are unusual, like wild
men or Saracens. If you show only the head of an animal, cut off at the
neck, it is an 's head couped.
Common objects are escallops (shells), crosses, mullets (a conventional
five-pointed star shape, as on the American flag, which in fact represent
spurs), crescents, bugle-horns, water-bougets, gauntlets and different kinds
of trees, flowers, leaves, and other plants. Circles are generally called
roundels, but in England instead of being described a roundel vert, they
have different names depending on colour; Bezants if they are golden, plates
if silver, torteaux if red, hurts if blue, pellets or ogresses if black and
pommes if green. A roundel that is barry wavy argent and azure is called a
Ordinaries (sometimes called "honourable ordinaries") are almost like
partitions, but are handled like objects. Though there is much debate as to
exactly which geometrical charges consitute ordinaries, certain ones are
agreed on by everone. A pale is a vertical charge starting from the top of
the shield, ending at the bottom, and wide as a third of the shield's width.
A fess is the same thing, only horizontal. There are also bends, saltires
and crosses, as well as chiefs, bordures and chevrons. A chief is a fess
situated in the upper third of the shield. A chevron looks like a saw's
tooth, arching from the middle of the left side of the shield to the middle
of the right. A quarter is the top left (dexter chief in heraldry) quarter
of the shield.
There are diminutives of charges as well.
The diminutive of the pale is the pallet and the diminutive of the fess is
the bar. (The diminutive of the bar is the barrulet.) Barry of
means that the background is divided into that number of horizontal stripes.
There are diminutives of most partitions, like bendy of or paly of. It
should be noted that in order to be described as "barry" or "paly" there
must be an even number of stripes, otherwise it is a field of x tincture and
y pallets or bars. Thus the shield of the United States of America, though
officially described as "Paly of thirteen argent and gules, a chief azure,"
is no such thing; it is "Argent, six pallets gules and a chief azure."
The diminutive of the chevron is the chevronel.
The diminutive of the quarter is the canton, a square occupying, in theory,
the upper left third of the shield. In theory a canton is never an original
part of the shield, but some form of later addition, but this is not true in
practice. Another charge can be completely hidden by the canton (sometimes,
if the charge is not part of a predictable pattern of like charges laid out
elsewhere on the shield, making it impossible to correctly blazon the
shield); the charge so hidden is then called "absconded." When a shield
contains both a fess and canton they are always shown in their theoretical
size, and with no dividing line between them; as they appear to be one
continuous thing, blazoning a shield with a fess and canton can be confusing
for the novice.
If you put a mullet on a bend, the bend 'is charged with' the mullet.
Special charges known as differences may distinguish otherwise similiar
blazons; these often indicate "cadency," or what number son owns the shield,
to distinguish him from other sons and the father.
Full descriptions of shields could look as follows:
Argent, on a fess azure between in chief two anchors crossed in saltire
sable and in base a lion passant gules a fleur-de-lis Or.
Sable, two swords crossed in saltire argent, between four fleurs-de-lis
Or, all contained within a bordure purpure.
Party per fess argent and sable, in chief a falcon close vert, in base
a plate charged with a fleur-de-lis vert.
There are, of course, more complicated designs:
Party per fess: The chief Argent, charged with five bezants, the centre
bezant charged in chief with a latin cross of the field, on a canton in
sinister base of the first, a bucket: The base party per pale Azure and
Argent, the dexter side charged with three rings conjoined at their
centres in pairle, the sinister side charged with a bend sinister Azure
bearing three quatrefoil of the field. Behind the shield a pastoral
staff. The shield contained within a cartouche and ensigned with an
ecclesiastical hat supporting six tassels on either side of the shield.
In addition to the shield, most coats of arms include a crest, placed above
the shield, and a motto, usually placed below it.
Other items may be added to the coat, such as a helmet (decorated with
mantling) in a variety of meaningful postures and designs; supporters on
either side of the shield and the compartment on which they usually stand;
and a variety of medals, ribbons, and other decorations. These items are
often granted as special honours by the sovereign.
Heraldry is still practiced today, especially in monarchies such as the
United Kingdom. Institutions, companies, and members of the public may
obtain officially recognized coats of arms from governmental heraldic
authorities. This typically has the force of a registered trademark.
However, many modern "heraldic" designs are not registered with heraldic
authorities, and do not follow at all the rules of heraldic design.
There are also many people who are interested in heraldry as a hobby; many
of them participate in the Society for Creative Anachronism and other such
medieval revivals, not to mention micronationalism.