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Coat of Arms: Symbols & Meanings

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

If you were to draw a picture of all of the things that represent you as a person, what would that picture include? This lesson explains the various symbols and meanings of Medieval European coats of arms.

Who are You?

Imagine it's your first day at a new school. You walk into a classroom filled new people...some of whom will probably be your new friends! Before you introduce yourself, you take a moment to think -- what do you want these new friends to know about you? Maybe you're an awesome dancer, or you're a math genius. Perhaps you hold a world record for the most burritos eaten in an hour, or you can sink 50 free-throws in a row. Wouldn't it be nice if you could share all of this information without having to say a word? In Medieval Europe, individuals and families shared all sorts of information with each other using a coat of arms, or a collection of symbols that represented various aspects of their family history, social status, and beliefs.

Color Symbolism

Did you know that colors can represent the qualities or aspects of a person, place, or thing? In Medieval Europe, the colors found on a coat of arms could mean many different things. For example, the color gold represented generosity while the color silver indicated peacefulness. Blue was a sign of loyalty, while red was used to represent both warriors and martyrs. Just like today, the color black signified grief or loss. Colors like purple were largely used by royalty. This is because the dye used to make that color was rare and hard to come by...only the very rich and very powerful could afford it.

Shields

Many coats of arms feature a large shield in the center. As you probably know, shields were used as a way for knights to defend themselves. The way a shield was decorated shared a lot of information about the person carrying it. Some shields were painted to look like different animal furs. For example, a white shield with black spots was supposed to look like ermine, a very expensive fur.

Other shields featured various patterns and geometric shapes that carried different meanings. Shields that featured a large cross in the center signified faith. Shields with a stripe extending from the upper right corner to the lower left side and shields with a large X were signs of protection.

Cross and Striped Shields

Some shields featured horizontal lines that moved from left to right. Wavy lines represent water while other lines were used to represent the walls of a fortress like the example below.

Fortress Shield

Helmets

Many coats of arms feature a helmet at the top. Helmets varied from family to family based on their social status. The majority of helmets face left. Helmets that face forward symbolize royalty. The example below is a real coat of arms. As you can see, the helmet is facing to the left.

Baron Buttlar Coat of Arms
Baron Buttlar Coat of Arms

Animal Symbols

In addition to a shield and a helmet, many coats of arms include images of various animals, mythical beasts, and objects to represent qualities about a person or family. Fierce warriors chose strong animals like tigers or bears, while courageous men adopted boars or lions to represent their houses.

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