Heraldry is the general name of the professions carried on by the officer of arms, dating back to Middle Ages. As a symbol system, its origins can be traced back to predynastic Egypt which made use of the symbol serekh to signify a variety of meanings from labels to military alliances. It is now a complex historical study regarding the art of devising, granting and blazoning arms as on questions of ruling, ranking and protocol. Heraldry comes from Anglo-Norman word herald, from the Germanic compound harja-waldaz, “army commander”. The word, in its most general sense, encompasses all matters relating to the duties and responsibilities of officers of arms. From a visual communication perspective; however, heraldry is the practice of designing, displaying, describing, and recording coats of arms and badges. The origins of heraldry address an identification problem: the need for distinguishing participants in combat when their faces were hidden by iron and steel helmets.
The rules and terminology of heraldry differ from country to country and different national styles had developed by the end of the Middle Ages, but there are some aspects that carry over internationally. Over all heraldry make use of a complex and not-always-consistent rules of signification, webs of symbols to enhance this design system with meanings in reference to ranks and hierarchies, social networks, property rights, etc. Though heraldry is nearly 900 years old, it is still very much in use. Many cities and towns in Europe and around the world still make use of arms.
Heraldry is an endless subject for exploration with increasingly complex rules, different national styles, debates on genealogy and dynamic systems of signs and symbols. For those who want to dig deeper on the subject:
- Heraldry on Wikipedia
- Laurel Sovereign of Arms for the Society for Creative Anachronism
- Heraldry of the World
A 20 page “Manifesto of Complete Arms of the Russian Empire” (1800) & various examples of heraldic design:
*click to enlarge