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Origins and Early History of Heraldry

A brief introduction

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A Definition of Heraldry

Heraldry has been defined as "the systematic hereditary use of an arrangement of charges or devices on a shield." In other words, the designs used in heraldry conform to certain rules and are displayed on a shield shape, and complete designs may be passed down from one generation to the next. Heraldry is closely tied to military organization, and though civil organizations and non-military individuals have used and can be awarded heraldic devices and designs, it is this military aspect that defines the art most strongly.

The Origins of Heraldry

Just exactly when and how heraldry originated is up for debate. One school of thought has it that knights painted designs on their shields in order to identify themselves to their comrades in battle; however, the people most likely to see those designs were their enemies, and after a few short minutes on a battlefield, the clearest design could be obscured by mud and blood. It is far more likely that the first shield designs were used in tournaments, where individual jousters could easily be seen by throngs of spectators.

There is some evidence that heraldic symbols can be traced back as far as the reign of Charlemagne. Though not displayed on shields, images like the sun, the moon, the four evangelists' symbols (St. Matthew's angel, St. Mark's lion, St. Luke's ox or calf, and St. John's eagle), and the fleur de lis (which became the royal device of France) could be seen on seals and banners. The uses of these designs may have been preserved by the descendants of Charlemagne and his court and evolved into the symbols used in heraldry. Though this theory has yet to be firmly supported by evidence it could explain a lot, and is set forth in Beryl Platt's 1980 work, Origins of Heraldry.

The shields depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry offer some interesting but inconclusive evidence. Significant figures are shown with designs on their shields, which may indicate that heraldic images were in use as early as the conquest the tapestry represents (1066). However, although it is still generally accepted that the tapestry was produced no later than 1092, some scholars believe it was created much later, and that the use of heraldic designs are simply the inclusion of an aspect of medieval militaria that was commonplace at that later time.

Whatever the precise origins of heraldry, the use of designs on shields was firmly entrenched in Europe by the mid-12th century. Some of the earliest available evidence concerning heraldry consists of heraldic rolls, which recorded the designs used by combatants at tournaments. England's first roll of arms was compiled by Matthew Paris in the 13th century.

Early Heraldry

The very first shield designs were probably made as a form of self-expression by jousters and combatants in the tourney. Early designs were quite simple, often highlighting aspects of shield construction; for example, horizontal stripes followed the leather or metal bands used to hold a round wooden shield firmly together. Other fighters chose to place pictures on their shields, such as lions, eagles, suns, and crescents.

Heraldic rolls indicate that fighters' designs would sometimes change from one tournament to the next. It is also apparent that the bearers of these early devices chose their arms themselves. This state of affairs would not last long; once heraldry had swept through Europe, arms could not be assumed but were awarded to an individual by either a monarch or an official heraldic officer, such as a King-at-Arms.

The earliest documented example of a heraldic design on a shield in Europe took place in 1127, when Henry I knighted Geoffrey Plantagenet (who had just married Henry's daughter Matilda). During the ceremony, the king hung around his new son-in-law's neck a shield with gold lions on a blue background. This was recorded in a chronicle by Jean de Marmentier. In a case of great good fortune, this shield is also represented in an enamel portrait at the cathedral at Le Mans. Once it hung on Geoffrey's tomb there; now it is in the cathedral's museum.

The earliest seal depicting a shield dates to 1136.

Heraldry in Europe

The use of heraldic devices on shields swept through Europe in the early- to mid-12th century in about 30 years. Some have postulated that this movement was due to the Crusades and the rise of tournaments. There was a general sense that all warriors were joined by their shared Christianity.

Initially, the art was fairly uniform throughout the continent, with the same general rules and ideas applying to designs in England, Germany, France and so forth. Eventually, however, heraldry began to be governed by different authorities in different countries. Each region would take on its own unique style; so, while the general rules were the same, specific aspects such as popular shield shape, the use of crests, supporters and mottoes, and the specific shades of certain colours would vary according to region.

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