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Monday, November 19, 2012

Heraldic Primer: Part 2

File:Balduineum Wahl Heinrich VII.jpgLast time we talked about colors and common furs that were used on heraldic arms.  This time I want to talk about common field divisions: ordinaries, and sub-ordinaries.  These help build the structure of the arms and give you definition to them as well as defining places that the charges can go.
Before we can get into that, let’s go through the parts of the shield/arms/device.  This is important because you may not see a pictorial representation of the arms; someday you may only get the blazon, or written description.  If you are not comfortable with the basic terms you won’t be able to decipher the heraldic language.  First, all directions are giving from the shield bearers perspective.  Right, or dexter, is the bearer’s right side not the observers, just like in stage directions.  Left is sinister, the top of the shield is chief, and the bottom is base.  The background of the shield is the field and anything placed on this field is called a charge.
Field divisions, or the way you can divide the background of the device, are created from ordinaries.  They are large geometric charges that cover the field from one side to the other.  They were not required to be used and you will see many arms that have no field divisions on them.  Common ordinaries are shown below. 
Smaller, or diminutive, geometrical charges are sub-ordinaries.  There is some argument as to whether or not these should have an ordinary category.  Some people feel they should be lumped in with charges, but since they can be used to make patterns on the field I like to separate them out.  Common sub-ordinaries are shown below.

Heraldry would be boring if it was only a bunch of straight lines wouldn’t it?  Each of these ordinaries and sub-ordinaries may have various line treatments to add variations to the arms.  Common line treatments you may see are shown below.

Now, what about color?  In the last post I talked about metals and non-metals and how similar colors cannot be used on top of each other.  This is when you can really begin to understand the need for contrast in color and appreciate the rules.  An or field with an argent pale would not be visible from across the field let alone look right.  However, an or field with an azure pale would be visible and contrast nicely.  Think about sports teams.  What colors and charges stick out in your mind from community, high school, college, or professional teams?  Do they have a nice contrast?  Are the charges visible?  This is modern day heraldry!  Heralds wanted the same type of gut reaction from people when arms were designed.  Yes, they need to have significance to the bearer, but they also need to make a statement to those who see them. 
Next time:  animal charges

Images of the parts of the field and ordinaries are from Heraldry Clipart
Main image from wikimedia


  1. I am enjoying this education. I never knew these terms. Dexter and sinister (from the bearer's view) are new terms to me, never mind the ordinaries, sub-ordinaries, or line treatments. Fascinating, and definitely more appealing to me than football uniforms. (modern heraldry, yes) Guess I'm just old-fashioned.

  2. One of my friends always gives examples using fast food restaurants. Modern day heraldry in use by advertising agencies!

    Glad you are enjoying!!