A short history of heraldry

Even in ancient times certain symbols were used to demonstrate authority. Military leaders of Babylonia, Persia, Greece and China bore animals like lions, horses or birds on their standards that should bring good luck and ward off evil.
Hereditary signs linked to individuals and families rather than to civic or military authorities are first mentioned in the Bible:

The LORD said to Moses and Aaron: "The Israelites are to camp around the Tent of Meeting some distance from it, each man under his standard with the banners of his family." (Numbers 2:2)

Most historians see the beginnings of western heraldry in the times of the crusades. Pope Urban II, who called for the first crusade (1096 to 1099), decreed that the knights should bear the cross of Christ on their breast and shoulders as a symbol of their salvation.

In battle the usefulness of the Saracen habit of bearing military insignia and colours on their clothes and standards, under which the leaders gathered their men, was quickly established. During the third crusade (1189 to 1192) the English wore a white cross, the French a red cross and the Flemish a green cross to distinguish their forces.

Soon the nobility adopted the animal symbols of the Saracene as well as the Bycantine armies, linked these oriental elements with the cross, symbols of their Normannic cultural heritage or their own history and thus created coats of arms that were unmistakably linked to their family. These coats of arms decorated their tunics and standards from where, according to many scholars, they migrated onto their weapons (shield, helmet, sword, armour). Others think that the migration took place in opposite direction, that is from the shield onto the tunic because on occasions when the knights did not carry their shields, they could thus be announced (heralded) by their “coat of arms”.

The word heraldry derives from “herald”, a new profession necessitated by the large and unmanagable number of coats of arms. The herald´s job was to announce the knights at tournaments, which had developed from military exercises to social, festive and sportive events by the twelfth century. Since knights in full armour and wearing helmets were hardly recognizable, heralds began to keep rolls of arms in which coats of arms were recorded either pictorially or in blazon (description in words). The word blazon has its roots in the German word “blasen” which means to blow or to trumpet, as knights arriving at court or at a tournament were often trumpeted out.

There were no rules regulating the assumption of arms. Marriages, split-ups and trends of fashions resulted in frequent changes of the nobility´s coats of arms, which made the heralds´ task a difficult one. They were the true founders of modern heraldry and their rolls of arms still provide valuable clues to genealogists.

European heraldry undoubtedly reached it´s peak during the age of chivalry, that is from the mid twelfth to the end of the fifteenth century. In the thirteenth century the bourgeoisie, monasteries and cities and in the fourteenth century peasants began bearing coats of arms.

During the fourteenth century the first letters patent, granting armourial rights to noblemen, were issued. This, however, did not so much set up heraldic rules, but shows that rulers had discovered heraldry as a valuable source of income and a means to decorate loyal noblemen.
During the fifteenth century the number of the letters patent issued rose sharply. The plethora of arms and symbols facilitated the creation of a complicated system of blazoning and a kind of technical language, which enabled heralds to draw a coat of arms just by reading (or hearing) its blazon.

The political changes, development of new weapons and warfaring techniques, that came along with the end of the Middle Ages, also lead to the extinction of heavily armoured knights and their tournaments. Heraldry declined from a practical to a merely theoretical art.
The Age of Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the bourgeois revolutions of 1848 and (in Austria) the end of aristocracy and their privileges after WW1 all accelerated this decline.

Only in the second half of the twentieth century, under influence of English heraldry, the art and science of armourial bearings is being revived in German speaking areas of Europe. Today it has become fashionable again to wear one´s family´s coat of arms in a ring. Numerous heraldic and genealogical societies continue to keep rolls of arms and help those who want to adopt, register (which is not necessary by law) and bear a coat of arms.