Knightly armours, crowns, lions and naked swords: the origin of the theme world of blazons

As of ancient times, members of human communities have aspired to show somehow their belonging to a relational, ethnic, religious group, or their status in the group. The appearance of blazons can be related mostly to the tradition of making personal emblems and seals, which goes back to the Bronze Age. Using a strategic identifier as a sign spread in the era of knights in the 12th century. In the beginning, it was necessary due to military technological reasons.


Identifier in whirls of battles and gemmy accessory for crowning

85_2480_b.jpgThe spreading of blazons in Europe can be connected to the time of crusades. During the first crusade that was announced at the Council of Clermont in 1095, Pope Urban II ordered that crusaders had to wear a red cross on their clothes. The first religious knight orders were also formed related to the crusade. But why did they need blazons at all? It had military technological reasons inherently: knights who fought in closed armours had difficulty in recognizing their comrades in the whirls of battles. In the beginning, armoured knights wore identifying cognizances on their shields, later on the flags and other parts of their armaments and the equipment of their horses as well, which they also wore proudly in peacetime at knightly tournaments or jousts. This is how the battle cognizances became personal coats of arms in course of time.

86_2515_d.jpgAs the equipment of an armoured knight cost a fortune in the early Middle Ages, which only the members of the highest social layer could afford, wearing blazons was also their privilege in the beginning. Before the tournaments, participants had to show their helmets with their blazons to the expert heralds and to the public. Thus, participants proved not only their readiness for the tournament, but also published their knightly status and introduced their coats of arms to the public. In the case of primitive coats of arms, you should not think of coloured shields, because they were made by covering wooden shields with animal skin and fixing different objects on them, like cut shapes, straps, metal plates and nails:

“The shields with coats of arms used in battles and tournaments were made out of light hardwood, and the ordinaries and blazon images were not painted on them as often as people think, because there was no oil paint that time and the rain would have washed away tempera and glue paint. It is true that some painted shields with coats of arms remained from the Middle Ages, but they were decoration shields, not used in battles and tournaments, but at ceremonial events, just like a metal shield and the shield that was carried before the King of Bohemia Wenceslaus II at his crowning ceremony (1297), on which a lion was embroidered with pearls and its claws were rubies.” – 1897 Oszkár Bárczay

Coat of arms to everybody!

CII155PD_0006_e.jpgDespite that the development of military technology resulted in ousting armoured cavalry from battlefields, this did not go with the disappearance of coats of arms. Moreover, its increasingly wide spreading was owing to the fact that its usage did not connect to military activities any more. Thus, civilians unpractised in military technology and even some peasants made their own coats of arms further on. But the real renaissance of blazon making started when not only persons could have them, but corporations, towns, seigniories or provinces were provided with blazons as well. Saxoferrato, jurisconsult in the 14th century, thought that everybody was entitled to wear a coat of arms; the only restriction was that the coat of arms had to be unique, which had to be checked by heralds of arms.

Coats of arms given by rulers and family blazons


Naturally, blazons donated by rulers were worth more than the ones that common people made. There are evidences for coat of arms donations together with certificates as of the era of Philip IV (the Fair) of France (1285-1314) in Western Europe.

“Regarding the Blazon of Arms Certificate (B.O.A.C.), we have to note first, that a B.O.A.C. was not necessarily a nobility certificate as well, because rulers gave arms even to non-nobles without ennobling them and to nobles who did not need nobility.” 1897 Oszkár Bárczay

Arms could be inherited, just like family lands. On the basis of the western heraldry, different identifying marks had to be placed in different branches of families. Changing the family coat of arms allowed marking the primogeniture, the matrilineality, and even a natural child. Turning the blazon over meant the extinction of the family.


Heraldica oder Wapen-Kunst, 1735 - Evangélikus Egyház Miskolc, CC BY-NC

The blazon appeared on letters, seals and facades of buildings gradually. The earliest Hungarian blazons that remained are the seals of the members of the House of Árpád. They were made around 1190. About this time, national dignitaries also started using coats of arms illustrating regalia. The noblemen and dignitaries who had large lands and were obliged to protect the country with minor or major military troops ordered that also their soldiers wore their coat of arms.103868.jpg

“Pester Lloyd commented: The troops of Esztergom County had a militant look. Every equestrian wore a chain-mail and a golden knight necklace with a fine blazon of the county. The fur cap was decorated with a raven wing.” – Esztergom és Vidéke, 1896

The most important cities started using shields with coats of arms as of the 13th century. Certificates written by rural people and confirmed with emblazoned seal appeared as well, and from the 14th century, the silversmith’s, smith’s and house signs turned up, too. Under Sigismund of Hungary, the use of coats of arms became general in the Hungarian gentry. Among the Hungarian counties, Somogy was the first to receive a blazon in 1498, from Vladislaus II of Hungary.


Symbols of strength and power 

Knightly motifs are usual in coat of arms pictures due to historical reasons: armours, shields and naked swords. Besides military themes, the most popular and beloved motifs are related to the concepts of strength and power, like the bastion and the crown, and predators like the lion and the eagle.


Erdélyi Károly

Translated by Zita Aknai




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