What Is a Coat of Arms?

Instructor: Christina Boggs

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

Does your family have a special symbol that helps identify its members to other people? In this lesson you will learn about the history of the coat of arms, beginning in Medieval Europe.

Identify Yourself

How do you identify yourself to other people? On the first day of school, your teacher may ask you to place a name card on your desk so he or she can learn names more quickly. If you go to a conference or an event, you might wear a name tag. When you're old enough, your driver's license will become another important form of identification. What do each of these forms of identification have in common?

Medieval Identification

In Medieval Europe, the majority of people were unable to read and write. If they were presented with a name tag or a license, they wouldn't be able to figure out what it said! Up close and personal at a banquet or a party, this was probably not a big deal...after all, you could just walk up and introduce yourself!

On the battlefield, however, it was important to know who was who. People needed to quickly distinguish friends from enemies. To solve this problem, different individuals and families developed their own symbols that let other people know who they were, without having to read the information. This use of symbols grew into a system called heraldry.

Coat of Arms

Beginning in the early 1100s, family symbols were used on a garment called a surcoat that was worn over suits of armor. Knights and warriors wore surcoats for two reasons: to help protect them from the sun (those suits of armor could get really hot!) and to protect their armor from damage. As their popularity grew, symbols were also put on other things like shields. Eventually shields became a central part of the coat of arms, a much larger visual representation of a family's heredity.

Parts and Symbols of a Coat of Arms

Coats of arms are divided into several key parts:

  • a shield in the center
  • a helmet with mantling (an item that protected a knight's neck)
  • a crest
  • a wreath that connects the crest to the helmet and mantling

The shield at the center of the coat of arms is broken into different sections as well:

  • chief - top of the shield
  • base - bottom of the shield
  • sinister - left side
  • dexter - right side
  • pale - middle third of the shield from top to bottom
  • fess - middle third of the shield from left to right

15th century German Hyghalmen Roll featuring different coats of arms
15th century German Hyghalmen Roll featuring different coats of arms

At the beginning of heraldry, families were limited in the colors they could use. White, yellow, red, and blue were very common, largely because the dyes needed to make those colors were easy to make. Other colors like black, green, and purple were much more rare and expensive. Shields featured different geometric patterns.

Popular symbols included animals, mythical beasts, or various objects that represented different meanings. For example, a bear could mean strength while a lion represented courage.

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