[rec.heraldry] Heraldry MFAQ: Please Read!

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Francois R. Velde

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Jan 1, 2022, 2:00:12 AMJan 1
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Summary: "What are my arms?"
Archive-name: heraldry/mfaq
Posting-Frequency: weekly
Last-modified: 1997/3/25
URL: http://www.heraldica.org/faqs/mfaq


The Most Frequently Asked Question on rec.heraldry is:

"My name is Smith, what are my arms?"

A common variant is:

"Some guy in a mall told me he could look up my name in a database
and tell me my family arms? Can I trust him?"

The Second Most Frequently Asked Question on rec.heraldry is:

"My coat of arms contains a widget azure. What is the significance of a
widget in heraldry?"

This posting answers these questions. We've noticed that these questions
are usually asked by people from the US, so the answers are intended to fit
the US context.

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"My name is Smith, what are my arms?"

The short answer is this: Your family probably has no coat of arms. Most
families don't. Discovering whether _your_ family has arms is a
time-consuming problem in genealogy. Anyone who claims to be able to find
your arms simply by looking in a book or a database is either ignorant or
lying.


To explain in more detail, we have to clear up some misconceptions:

* There is no such thing as "the arms of Smith". Arms are associated with
families or lineages. A coat was inherited by a child from his parent,
either intact or somewhat modified. But any individual's claim to use a
specific historical coat of arms rests on a family link with someone
acknowledged to have used those arms.

* Many unrelated families share the same surname. (There are 2.5 million
Americans named "Smith".) Sharing a surname does not mean that you share
the right to the same arms.

* Conversely, many families with different names have the same coat of
arms. A coat of arms does not uniquely identify a family.

* A fairly small fraction of society ever used coats of arms at any time.
Only a few Smith families actually bore arms. Arms were used throughout
the social scale, but much moreso at the top than at the bottom. Most
Americans are descended from lower-class immigrants. Statistically, then,
the chance that an immigrant ancestor of yours bore arms is not very high.

* No one on Earth has a complete record of all coats of arms used or
granted throughout history.

Therefore, if your name is Smith, and a book or a guy in a mall shows you a
coat of arms with the name Smith under it, that proves nothing at all. You
are just as likely to be related to the founder of the Virginia colony, or
the Scottish economist, or the nephew of Senator Kennedy, or none of the
above. The guy in the mall with the database is fudging these issues and
trying to sell you a pig in a poke. His database is certainly incomplete
and probably very inaccurate, and he doesn't care about pedigrees. He is
just out to exploit the similarity between your name and some name in his
database.

In order to determine what your arms are, we would need much more than your
name: We would need your pedigree traced back to someone who used a coat of
arms. The standard of proof will vary with the needs: If you are of
Scottish descent and wish to matriculate arms with the Scottish heraldic
authority, you'd better have a well-documented pedigree, probably
stretching over several centuries. If you only want to use arms for
yourself in a country such as the USA where heraldry is unregulated, then
it is just a matter of satisfying yourself. Strictly genealogical matters
are best discussed in the soc.genealogy.* hierarchy.

On the other hand, if you do live in a country where heraldry is
unregulated, you are free to choose arms for yourself. You can choose any
arms you want, whether or not your family relationships entitle you to
those arms. You may decide to choose unique arms, created especially for
you, or borrow arms from some existing family. Some people consider it bad
taste to use existing arms if you cannot prove your descent from the family
that bore them. In any case, it behooves you to acquaint yourself with
heraldry, its rules and its aesthetics, so that you can design, or have
designed for you, a coat that pleases you and others as well.

The monthly FAQ posting, which can be found at

<http://www.heraldica.org/faqs/heraldry.faq>

provides more detailed information and a bibliography.


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The Second Most Frequently Asked Question on rec.heraldry is:

"My coat of arms contains a widget azure. What is the significance of a
widget in heraldry?"

This posting answers this question.

The short answer is that there are no systematic meanings assigned to the
charges and tinctures in arms. There is no way to look at a set of arms
and decypher the original designer's intended symbolism.

At various times in the history of heraldry -- mostly between the 16th and
early 19th centuries, and mostly in England -- various authors tried to
create systems of meaning for every charge and tincture in arms. Some of
them went so far as to claim that their system had _always_ been in use,
and therefore that the symbolism of ancient arms could be deduced from
their charts. It was all bunk. Some heralds probably did design arms
according to one or another of these systems -- which aren't consistent, by
the way -- but we have no way of know, in general, when this was done.

In some instances, the heraldic designer left us notes explaining why he
chose certain charges for someone's arms. Designer's notes are almost
standard in modern cases, but as you look further back in history, they
quickly become an exceptional rarity. We do have a few amusing early
examples. One herald from the Tudor period, for example, left us the
information that he provided a particular knight with arms featuring an ox
because the knight had been castrated in battle.

In the absense of specific information about a set of arms, we can only
guess what symbolism was intended by the designer. Of course, we can make
informed guesses.

Some charges are easy: Crosses were probably always intended to express
Christian devotion. Lions and eagles have always represented nobility.
And there is a small number of charges which always have a particular
meaning: the red hand of Ulster, the royal tressure of Scotland, etc.
But when we look at more common charges or at tinctures, there is no
general answer.

To go further, you need to research the person who bore the arms and the
circumstances under which he received or adopted them. This research may
reveal other clues to the motives of the designer.

For example, we might find that the arms are a variant of arms held by a
related family. This practice is called "cadency" and is quite common in
medieval armory. A similar practice might be called "feudal cadency"; some
minor noblemen adopted arms incorporating a charge from the arms of their
overlords.

Merchants and craftsmen often included the tools of the trades in their
arms, or an attribute of their patron saint.

Very frequently, the family name of the original owner of the arms sounds
similar to the name of one of the charges used in his arms. This practice
is called "canting" and was extremely common in medieval armorial design.
Sometimes the cant is easy to recognize: A lion for "Lyons" or a fox for
"Fuchs". Sometimes it takes specialized knowledge: The fish in the arms of
"de Lucy" is called a "lucy", an archaic name for a species of pike. The
cant can involve more than one language: An English family "Harrison" bears
a hedgehog, called "herisson" in Middle French.

There are other patterns of armorial design found in one part of Europe or
another, at one time or another. The more we know of the history of the
people who originally bore the arms, we more likely we can make an
intelligent guess as to the intent of the designer of those arms. But when
it comes right down to it, we can very seldom know for certain.

The monthly FAQ posting, which can be found at

<http://www.heraldica.org/faqs/heraldry.faq>

provides more detailed information and a bibliography.

---------------------------------------------------------------------
This MFAQ written by :
Josh Mittleman and Francois Velde.
---------------------------------------------------------------------

--
François R. Velde
ve...@nospam.org (replace by "heraldica")
Heraldica Web Site: http://www.heraldica.org/
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