heraldry, system in which inherited symbols, or devices, called charges are displayed on a shield, or escutcheon, for the purpose of identifying individuals or families. In the Middle Ages the herald, often a tournament official, had to recognize men by their shields; thus he became an authority on personal and family insignia. As earlier functions of the herald grew obsolete, his chief duties became the devising, inscribing, and granting of armorial bearings. The use of personal and family insignia is ancient (it is mentioned by Homer), but heraldry proper is a feudal institution developed by noblemen using personal insignia on seals and shields that came to be transmitted to their families. It is thought to have originated in the late 12th cent., and to have been prevalent in Germany, France, Spain, and Italy, and imported into England by the Normans. The crusades and tournaments which drew together knights from many countries caused heraldry to flourish in Western Europe and the Muslim world. The practice of embroidering family emblems on the surcoat, or tabard, worn over chain mail in the 13th cent. accounts for the term “coat of arms.” The use of armorial bearings spread rapidly thereafter through all grades of feudal rank above squire. Private assumption of arms became so common that Henry V forbade it, and on the chartering of the Heralds' College in 1483 the regulations pertaining to heraldry were placed in the hands of the Garter King-of-Arms. Arms were borne by families, corporations, guilds, religious houses, inns of court, colleges, boroughs and cities, and kingdoms. In the United States the seals and insignia of colleges, cities, and the like are examples of the persistence of the heraldic tradition. For methods and conventions of displaying armorial bearings, see blazonry.
See A. R. Wagner, Heralds and Heraldry in the Middle Ages (2d ed. 1956); C. Boutell, Manual of Heraldry (1863; rev. ed. by J. P. Brooke-Little, 1970); S. Friar, The Dictionary of Heraldry (1987); T. Woodcock and J. Robinson, The Oxford Guide to Heraldry (1988).
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