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Heraldry in the Middle Ages

Heraldry in the Middle Ages

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Published by Steven Till
Heraldry, defined as a system of inherited symbols or devices for the purpose of identifying individuals or families, became one of the most distinguishable elements of feudalism and knighthood during the Middle Ages.
Heraldry, defined as a system of inherited symbols or devices for the purpose of identifying individuals or families, became one of the most distinguishable elements of feudalism and knighthood during the Middle Ages.

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Categories:Types, Research
Published by: Steven Till on Aug 01, 2008
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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10/12/2011

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Heraldry, defined as a system of inherited symbols or devices for the purpose ofidentifying individuals or families, became one of the most distinguishableelements of feudalism and knighthood during the Middle Ages. The term “heraldry”comes from the the fact that heralds at tournaments became experts in the designof these types of devices; though the act of using symbols to represent civil andmilitary authority goes far back to the ancient world.Territorial districts in ancient Egypt used devices to recognize theseauthorities, and the Romans used the symbol of the eagle on their standards. Butwe can even go back to the books of the Old Testament to find mention ofhereditary devices being associated with individuals and families:Every man of the children of Israel shall pitch by his own standard, with theensign of their father’s house: far off about the tabernacle of the congregationshall they pitch.And the children of Israel did according to all that the LORD commanded Moses:so they pitched by their standards, and so they set forward, every one after theirfamilies, according to the house of their fathers- Numbers 2: 2, 34Skipping forward to the early Middle Ages in the 8th century, Bede comments on thebanners of King Edwin of East Anglia: “[they] were not only borne before him inbattle, but even in time of peace, when he rode about his cities, towns orprovinces … the standard bearer was wont to go before him.”The Bayeux Tapestry also shows possible evidence of heraldry. Most of the flags inthe tapestry have devices attached to them, though whether these devices have somesort of personal or territorial significance is up for debate. In looking atimages of the Bayeux Tapestry, I did not see any emblems painted on the shields ofthe soldiers, though Joseph and Frances Gies claim in their book Life in aMedieval Castle that symbols on banners and shields to distinguish leaders werecommon in the eleventh century. The Bayeux Tapestry was likely created some timein the later part of this century.In the 12th century, the tradition grew of passing a device down from father toson. Geoffrey of Anjou received a shield with golden lions painted on it at thetime of his knighting; Henry I, Geoffrey’s father-in-law, gave this shield to him,and William Longespee, Earl of Salisbury and grandson of Geoffrey of Anjou, laterinherited the emblem of the golden lions. The Clare family, lords of Chepstow, hadthree chevrons as their heraldic device. Gilbert de Clare, around 1140, adoptedthis emblem as the family insignia. Today, you will see chevrons on the uniform ofa U.S. army sergeant.By the time of the 13th century, the heraldic device became a symbol of chivalricideology and societal status. Also called coat of arms for its use on surcoats,these devices took on a sense of art and science in their development. Shieldswere divided into segments in a specific manner — tierced in fesse meant theshield was divided into three horizontal segments and in saltire meant it was cutinto four partitions by a diagonal cross. All sorts of animals and naturalelements were used in the design: dragons, lions, leopards, eagles, fish, stars,moons, trees, bushes, flowers, etc. The embroidering and painting of emblems onshields, banners, helmets, and surcoats is still in use today, most notably onmodern sports teams’ jerseys, helmets, and flags. So while the medieval form ofheraldry no longer exists, the spirit of it certainly lives on.Which leaves one final question: if you could design your own medieval coat of

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