A coat of arms is a distinctive heraldic design on a tunic used to cover and protect armor, but the term is more broadly applied to mean a full heraldic achievement which consists of a shield and certain accessories. In either sense, the design is a symbol unique to a person, family, corporation, or state. Such displays are also commonly called armorial bearings, armorial devices, heraldic devices, or arms.
Historically, armorial bearings were first used by feudal lords and knights in the mid-12th century on battlefields as a way to identify allied from enemy soldiers. As the uses for heraldic designs expanded, other social classes who never would march in battle began to assume arms for themselves. Initially, those closest to the lords and knights adopted arms, such as persons employed as squires that would be in common contact with the armorial devices. Then priests and other ecclesiastical dignities adopted coats of arms, usually to be used as seals and other such insignia, and then towns and cities to likewise seal and authenticate documents. Eventually by the mid-13th century, peasants, commoners and burghers were adopting heraldic devices. The widespread assumption of arms led some states to regulate heraldry within their borders. However, in most of continental Europe, citizens freely adopted armorial bearings.
Despite no widespread regulation, and even with a lack in many cases of national-level regulation, heraldry has remained rather consistent across Europe, where traditions alone have governed the design and use of arms. Unlike seals and other general emblems, heraldic achievements have a formal description called a blazon, expressed in a jargon that allows for consistency in heraldic depictions.
In the 21st century, coats of arms are still in use by a variety of institutions and individuals; for example, universities have guidelines on how their coats of arms may be used, and protect their use as trademarks. Many societies exist that also aid in the design and registration of personal arms, and some nations, like England and Scotland, still maintain to this day the mediaeval authorities that grant and regulate arms.
In the heraldic traditions of England and Scotland an individual, rather than a family, had a coat of arms. In those traditions coats of arms are legal property transmitted from father to son; wives and daughters could also bear arms modified to indicate their relation to the current holder of the arms. Undifferenced arms are used only by one person at any given time. Other descendants of the original bearer could bear the ancestral arms only with some difference: usually a color change or the addition of a distinguishing charge. One such charge is the label, which in British usage (outside the Royal Family) is now always the mark of an heir apparent or (in Scotland) an heir presumptive.
Because of their importance in identification, particularly in seals on legal documents, the use of arms was strictly regulated; few countries continue in this today. This has been carried out by heralds and the study of coats of arms is therefore called "heraldry". Some other traditions (e.g., Polish heraldry) are less restrictive — allowing, for example, all members of a dynastic house or family to use the same arms, although one or more elements may be reserved to the head of the house.
In time, the use of arms spread from military entities to educational institutes, and other establishments. According to a design institute article, "The modern logo and corporate livery have evolved from the battle standard and military uniform of medieval times".
In his book, The Visual Culture of Violence in the Late Middle Ages, Valentin Groebner argues that the images composed on coats of arms are in many cases designed to convey a feeling of power and strength, often in military terms. The author Helen Stuart argues that some coats of arms were a form of corporate logo. Museums on medieval armory also point out that as emblems they may be viewed as precursors to the corporate logos of modern society, used for group identity formation.
When knights were so encased in armour that no means of identifying them was left, the practice was introduced of painting their insignia of honour on their shield as an easy method of distinguishing them. Originally these were granted only to individuals, but were afterward made hereditary in England by King Richard I, during his crusade to Palestine.
In Scotland, the Lord Lyon King of Arms has criminal jurisdiction to enforce the laws of arms. In England, Northern Ireland and Wales the use of arms is a matter of civil law and regulated from the College of Arms and the Court of Chivalry.
In reference to a dispute over the exercise of authority over the Officers of Arms in England, Arthur Annesley, 1st Earl of Anglesey, Lord Privy Seal, declared on 16 June 1673 that the powers of the Earl Marshal were "to order, judge, and determine all matters touching arms, ensigns of nobility, honour, and chivalry; to make laws, ordinances, and statutes for the good government of the Officers of Arms; to nominate Officers to fill vacancies in the College of Arms; to punish and correct Officers of Arms for misbehaviour in the execution of their places". It was further declared that no patents of arms or any ensigns of nobility should be granted and no augmentation, alteration, or addition should be made to arms without the consent of the Earl Marshal.
The heraldic tradition and style of modern and historic Germany and the Holy Roman Empire — including national and civic arms, noble and burgher arms, ecclesiastical heraldry, heraldic displays and heraldic descriptions — stand in contrast to Gallo-British, Latin and Eastern heraldry, and strongly influenced the styles and customs of heraldry in the Nordic countries, which developed comparatively late.
In the Nordic countries, provinces, regions, cities and municipalities have a coat of arms. These are posted at the borders and shown in official documents advertising the area.
At a national level, "coats of arms" were generally retained by European states with constitutional continuity of more than a few centuries, including constitutional monarchies like Denmark as well as old republics like San Marino and Switzerland.
In Italy the use of coats of arms was only loosely regulated by the states existing before the unification of 1860. Since the Consulta Araldica, the college of arms of the Kingdom of Italy, was abolished in 1948, personal coats of arms and titles of nobility, though not outlawed, are not recognised.
The Queen of Canada has delegated her prerogative to grant armorial bearings to the Governor General of Canada. Canada has its own Chief Herald and Herald Chancellor. The Canadian Heraldic Authority is situated at Rideau Hall.
The Great Seal of the United States uses on the obverse as its central motif an heraldic achievement described as being the arms of the nation. The seal, and the armorial bearings, were adopted by the Continental Congress on June 20, 1782, and is a shield divided palewise into thirteen pieces, with a blue chief, which is displayed upon the breast of an American bald eagle. The crest is thirteen stars breaking through a glory and clouds, displayed with no helm, torse or mantling (unlike most European precedents).
Only a few of the American states have adopted a coat of arms, which is usually designed as part of the respective state's seal. Vermont has both a state seal and a state coat of arms that are independent of one another (though both contain a pine tree, a cow and sheaves of grain); the seal is used to authenticate documents, whilst the heraldic device represents the state itself.
Some Popes came from armigerous (noble) families; others adopted coats of arms during their career in the church. The latter typically allude to their ideal of life, or to specific Pontifical programmes. A well known and widely displayed example in recent times was Pope John Paul II's coat of arms. His selection of a large letter M (for Mary) on his coat of arms was intended to express the message of his strong Marian devotion.
Roman Catholic Dioceses also are assigned a coat of arms. A Basilica, or papal church also gets a coat of arms, which is usually displayed on the building. These may be used in countries which otherwise do not use heraldic devices.
However in countries like Scotland with a strong statutory heraldic authority arms will need to be officially granted and recorded.
With the formation of the modern nation states of the Middle East in the second half of the 20th century, European traditions of heraldry were partially adopted for state emblems.
These emblems often involve the star and crescent symbol taken from the Ottoman flag. Another commonly seen charge is the eagle, which is a symbol attributed to Saladin, and the hawk of the Qureish.
The Japanese equivalents, called kamon (often abbreviated "mon"), are family badges which often date back to the 7th century, and are still actively used in Japan today. The Japanese tradition is independent of the European, and thus very different in style; but as in Europe many abstract and floral elements are used.
Yet, even these simple designs often express an origin. An example in recent use is the logo of Mitsubishi corporation which started as a shipping and maritime enterprise and whose emblem is based on a water chestnut derived from its maritime history with a military naval influence. The word mitsu means the number 3 and the word hishi meaning "water chestnut" (pronounced bishi in some combinations; see rendaku) originated from the emblem of the warrior Tosa Clan. The battleships of the Tosa Clan had been used in the late 19th century in the First Sino-Japanese War to reach Korea and their name was given to a modern battleship. The Tosa water chestnut leaf mon was then drawn as a rhombus or diamond shape in the Mitsubishi logo.
Flags are used to identify ships (where they are called ensigns), embassies and such, and they use the same colors and designs found in heraldry, but they are not usually considered to be heraldic. A country may have both a national flag and a national coat of arms, and the two may not look alike at all. For example, the flag of Scotland (St Andrew's Cross) has a white saltire on a blue field, but the royal arms of Scotland has a red lion within a double tressure on a gold (or) field.
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