Heraldry, the fine art of armorial bearings, such as coats of arms or heraldic badges, dates back at least to the early-mid 12th century. The varieties of coats of arms have greatly expanded, but the symbolism behind their basic elements is rooted in history.
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One historian, Sir Bernard Burke, determined that the art of blazoning and marshaling coats of arms began during the Crusades and flourished in the age of feudalism. Many scholars assert that the first purpose of a coat of arms was to broadcast its wearer's identity on the field of battle. Others dispute that the coat of arms served any practical martial purpose and was instead born of "individual vanity." The earliest recorded example comes from A.D. 1127, when King Henry I gave to his son, Geoffrey Plantagenet, a shield emblazoned with a coat of arms.
The earliest coats of arms were rudimentary compared with later varieties, generally featuring a single dominant color in bars or fleurs-de-lis and a lion or other creature. Coats of arms became increasingly detailed and ornate with the rising popularity of tournaments throughout the 12th century, in which knights competed against each other for fame and fortune. Newly married knights began altering their coat of arms to incorporate that of their new family--this technique was called "quartering." Over time the coat of arms became a status symbol among nobles and warriors alike.
According to Fleur-de-Lis Designs, each color has a meaning, which include: gold means generosity; white or silver mean peace and sincerity; red means warrior, strength and magnanimity; blue means truth and loyalty; green means hope, happiness, fidelity; black means constancy or grief; purple means royal majesty, sovereignty, justice; orange means ambition; and maroon means patient and victorious.
Symbols also have distinct meanings on coats of arms, per Fleur-de-Lis Designs. Among them laurels symbolize peace or triumph; scythes or sickles symbolize agricultural labor; finger rings symbolize fidelity; axes symbolize execution of military duty; banners symbolize specific action or events in which the bearer has taken part; bears symbolize strength and fierce family loyalty; bucks symbolize a person who won't fight unless provoked; chevrons symbolize religious protection; crosses symbolize Christ and Christianity; dragons symbolize a defender of treasure; two-headed eagles symbolize joined forces; fleurs-de-lis symbolize purity; hammers symbolize honor; hawks symbolize doggedness; lambs symbolize gentleness and patience while suffering; and lions symbolize undaunted courage.
Even the design of heraldic lines and ordinaries (patterns not falling easily under the category of other symbols) indicated specific concepts. Wavy lines, for instance, denoted sea or water. Indented lines (flush on the top, choppy on the bottom) stand for fire, while embattled lines (lines mimicking the shape of a crown, or battlements) symbolize a wall, fortress or town.