Heraldry is the profession, study, or art of creating, granting, and blazoning arms and ruling on questions of rank or protocol, as exercised by an officer of arms. Heraldry, the word, in its most general sense, encompasses all matters relating to the duties and responsibilities of officers of arms. To most, though, heraldry is the practice of designing, displaying, describing, and recording coats of arms and heraldic badges.
Heraldry was born in the middle of the twelfth century in an area roughly limited by the Rhine to the North and the Loire to the South. It came to life in the midst of a medieval arms race which saw the fighters disappear under protective equipment more and more sophisticated. Becoming unrecognizable to both friends and foes, a solution had to be found by the warriors to provide an easy mean of identification. Coats of arms are the response to that vital need. They started to cover shields, banners and helmets. The most important rule of heraldry has been a direct consequence of the need to easily identify people encased in armour, at a distance.
Tournaments, with their high risks and even higher reward, worked as a replacement to war and were in fact the single most important factor for the spreading of heraldry.
As coats of arms were being displayed on battlefields they also started to be engraved on seals in the first half of the 12th century. Until the middle of the 13th century, coats of arms are used exclusively by the warrior class. They slowly spread to the rest of the medieval society with an ever increasing use of heraldic seals by the elites. Seals have a tremendous impact on the diffusion on heraldry. In the middle ages no document can be considered valid unless it has been marked by the seal of the parties in presence. Bearing both names and arms it replaced personal signatures in a time where most were illiterate and could not sign. Today a document is still not considered legal until it has received the seal of the authority producing it.
Coats of arms are not awarded to a family or a name, but to an individual. There is often more than one coat of arms associated with a given surname. In England, direct descent is required for any heir to have the legal right to bear his ancestor's coat of arms. Further complicating the issue is that the authoritative source information for most coats of arms only lists a city and/or county or origin, and sometimes only a country. That is why, unless you can trace your family history to one individual, and unless the sources list that individual, then the best that you can hope for is to find a coat of arms that is the oldest for a given name from a given region or the one most frequently used.
Much more to the development of symbols and colours on Wikipedia’s History of heraldy.
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