Symbolic and ornamental figures similar to those of heraldry have been used as tribal or national emblems since ancient times. The practice of carrying personal armorial devices on shields and banners began during feudal times, when it was necessary for a knight, with his face covered by the visor of his helmet, to be recognized at a distance. In the 14th century the practice was introduced of embroidering the family insignia on the surcoat worn over the coat of mail, giving rise to the term coat of arms.
The original purpose of identification in battle developed into a complex system of inherited identification of social status.
The design of a coat of arms consists of several parts, including the following: the escutcheon, or shield; the helm, or helmet; the crest; the motto; the mantle; the supporters; and the torse, or wreath.
The figures depicted on an escutcheon are classified by heralds as honorable ordinaries, subordinaries, and common charges.
Common charges are conventional representations of familiar objects that sometimes portray the history or character of the individual or family.
Representations of mythical beasts such as the griffin, unicorn, dragon, and basilisk are sometimes used such as the dragon in the Obenhaus coat of arms.
The helm, the natural accompaniment of the shield in representing a warrior, was added to arms before the beginning of the 14th century. After the end of the 16th century, its form and position were modified in English heraldry to indicate the rank of the bearer; thus, helmets of knights and princes are portrayed full faced, and those of peers and gentlemen, in profile.
The crest is the most ancient of armorial bearings. It was worn by the warrior chiefs of Greek and Roman antiquity, and served not only as a mark of rank but also as a conspicuous emblem in battle, around which soldiers might rally. In heraldry the crest is represented attached to the top of the helmet; its base is surrounded by a wreath, a circlet of twisted ribbons tinctured of the principal metal and color of the shield.
The motto, originally the war cry of the bearer, is now a phrase or sentence alluding to the family, the arms, or the crest. It is placed in a scroll above the crest or below the shield.
Sources: Encarta encyclopedia on MSN, and Robert Moore
For a more in depth study go to Heraldry for Genealogist
Return to the Daniel/Collier homepage