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Heraldry Through History

Tombstone of Djet, also known as Wadji, Wadj, Iti and Oenepes, from the 1st dynasty.

Every army in history needed a way to distinguish it from the enemy. This was accomplished by markings on clothing, helmets, armor, or shields that set one army apart from the other.

Distinctive colors and symbols were used so that the combatants could easily tell friend from foe in the heat of battle. They could also advertise rank and were a way of boasting about identity- one's homeland, ancestry and exploits. The Greeks often bore images of animals on their shields to identify their home city state. The Athenians bore an owl, the Thebans a sphynx, and so on. These images represented a shorthand of an important, defining myth about their city state or its patron deity.

Roman armies bore standards with distinctive symbols on them to identify each legion. It is believed that the Welsh dragon, a famous symbol in British heraldry, originally derived from the standard of a Roman legion posted in Wales 2. More like the heraldry of medieval times, the ancient Israelites carried banners that identified each tribe and Egyptian serekh emblems were used on trade goods to identify individual pharaohs. 3

Heraldry as we know it now has descended from these practices. The rules of today derive from regulations devised in early medieval northern Europe, mostly in France, England and the Holy Roman Empire, but their use extended as far east as Poland and as far south as Spain. Though heraldic arms first appeared during the reign of Charlemagne, true heraldic symbols that were passed down through noble families did not appear until the 12th century. 4 Heraldry began as a strictly military insignia for rulers and their dynasties. The Anglo-Norman term, "herald" derives from the Germanic "harja-waldaz" which means "military commander." The practice soon spread to the nobility, from high to low. From the mid-14th century onward, it also began to be used by rich non-nobles in non-military settings.

Enamel effigy of Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou on his tomb at Le Mans Cathedral.

The term "heraldry" derived from the military use of "heralds" who were experts in these insignia.

Heralds had the ability to "blazon" (read) an approaching knight's arms and determine his identity. This skill became so valuable that even smaller military groups and minor nobles employed a herald when going to battle.

The need for heraldic symbols came out of the evolution of armor that covered the face and body, making it hard to identify the knight. The warrior class also began to recognize a need to distinguish individuals and join groups under one symbol during the Crusades, when large groups from different parts of Europe fought for one cause.

At first, heraldic symbology had no rules. People simply designed their arms as they pleased. Rules for heraldry soon began to develop when different people used similar images, making it difficult to tell them apart. Another need for rules grew up from the practice of joining arms onto one shield to show acquisition of lands through marriage or important parentage. In addition, multiple sons required slight variations in the family shield to distinguish each one. Rules arose with the development of the heralds, who identified armory (the objects on which the symbols were placed) within the general field of heraldry (the practices and rituals surrounding the use of the symbols).

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