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Thursday, November 8, 2012

A Heraldic Primer: part 1

A few weeks ago I posted an entry here and at Family TreeFirsts on Heraldry.  Unless you are one of my close friends, you would never guess that I have a love of heraldic display.  Heraldic display is the use of personal heraldry on banners, clothes, embroidery, wood, glass, metal, or anything that a person owned or used.  The personal display of heraldry harks back to medieval tournaments where you could look out over a field and know, on sight, who was fighting who.
There are some amazing uses of heraldry over the centuries, many being quite breathe taking.  My favorites are the ones in stained glass.  However, do you know what all the colors, flora, fauna, and symbols mean?   Over the next few weeks I want to take you through the world of heraldry and give you the basics to understand what you are looking at during your research.  Each culture in Europe has a different view on heraldry, from who can use it to how it was drawn, and with that in mind, these posts will concentrate on English Heraldry.
The basics of heraldry come down to the colors, field divisions, and the charges used.  It can be very complex, but it can also be very simple, it all depends on how it is drawn.    English heraldry had its beginnings with the Normans and because of this the language of heraldry is French.  Now, let’s start with the colors used.
Color is a main aspect of heraldry. All those amazing colors and textures bring the images to life in some cases, and make them unforgettable in others.  There are only 7 colors you need to know, 5 non-metal colors and 2 metals.  They are:  azure (blue), vert (green), purpure (purple), gules (red), or (yellow/gold), and argent (white/silver).  I have left off, and won’t discuss in detail, the 20th century addition of blue-celeste (sky blue).   In addition to the colors there are stains and furs.  The 3 stains are:  tennè (orange), murrey (purple-red of the mulberry), and sanguine (deep blood red).  Ermine (white with black spots), erminois (yellow with black spots), ermines (black with white spots), pean (black with yellow spots), and vair (blue and white pelts) are the types of fur.  There are more complex fur patterns, but we will stick with the most common for now.
Fájl:Coa Illustration Tincture Ermines.svg
 On the other hand, what happens if you come across an image that is black and white?  Or you don’t have any markers with you to make color notes on arms that you are researching?  How would you know what all the colors are supposed to be?  Easy!  In the late 16th century heralds developed a system of hatching to show color in black and white drawings.  This is an easy way to sketch arms while taking notes and you do not have access to something to color with. 
Now that you know the colors, tinctures, and furs used, let’s look at how they were placed on a person’s device.  There are specific rules as to what colors are allowed to touch and which are not.  For instance, you may not place a metal object on a metal background or a non-metal object on a non-metal background.  If you think about it, it should be clear as why.  Would a gold goblet show up on a gold background?  Or a red flower on a red background?  Contrasting a metal and non-metal makes the arms pop so to say.  Furs, on the other hand, are technically a neutral color, but common sense should be used.  While technically correct, a black panther on an ermines background would not be a good choice because you would not see the panther, or the charge, on the device. 
Next time, field divisions.
Brooke-Little, J.P.  An Heraldic Alphabet.  Robinson Books, Ltd; London; 1996.
Parker, James. AGlossary of Terms Used in Heraldry. Oxford: James Parker & Co., 1894 (Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1970); see online version



  1. I'm glad to know these basics. Is sable one of the 5 non-metal colors? Once you add the 3 stains and the types of fur, there are quite a number of possible combinations! I look forward to finding out more!

  2. I like learning the basics! Is sable the 5th non-metal color? I can see how 3 stains and 5 types of fur could add up to many combinations and permutations! Will look forward to the next lesson!

  3. Yes it is! How did I miss that not being in the paragraph? So sorry.