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How to Make an Authentic Medieval Coat of Arms


Using Shields, Knights and Heraldry educational software to print a shield and traditional medieval devices for your coat of arms


Introduction

     During the Middle Ages, knights used a coat of arms to identify themselves. One man in armor looked a lot like another, so the coat of arms was used to identify a knight in battle. In a society where few people could read and write, pictures were very important. A coat of arms was more like a label for instant identification than it was like a painting. You wanted to know instantly who was coming toward you, so you could know which side he was on. Coats of arms later took on further significance and meanings. They also became a way of showing membership in the aristocracy, after they lost their significance in warfare.
     Only the oldest son would inherit his family's coat of arms unchanged; his younger brothers would usually add a symbol to show who they were. The symbol a younger son added was often a smaller picture placed in the middle of the shield. When a woman married, especially if she had no brothers, the coat of arms of her family was often added to her husband's arms. Sometimes the arms were quartered, or divided into parts. In this case, the man's family coat of arms was in the upper left quarter (as you look at the coat of arms) and lower right, while the woman's family's arms were in the other two quarters. Shields are generally "read" like a book, starting at the upper left, going across and then down.
     A coat of arms can have several parts. The main part is a shield, which can have a crest above it, a motto, and animals supporting the shield. We will deal only with shields.
     The blazon was a description of the shield in words, using a special vocabulary. The terms used in heraldry are similar to a kind of old French. French was the language used by the aristocracy during the Middle Ages. The idea is that a shield can be described by one expert in heraldry so that another expert could draw it correctly without ever seeing it. To draw the coat of arms from the description is to emblazon it.

Pick a color for your shield

     The background of a shield is called the "field" If you want a divided shield, click here to see the traditional divisions. Most shields were undivided. Traditional heraldry used only the following colors and metals (except for an object that was ‘proper', which means in its natural colors)

Colors:

Gules     Bright Red
Azure      Royal Blue or Sky  Blue (not pastel)
Vert     Emerald Green
Purpure     Royal Purple
Sable     Black

Metals:

Or     Gold (yellow)
Argent     Silver (white)

  

     Or can be light yellow, and argent can be white. However, medieval people would have preferred metallic paint to the ordinary colors. You will probably want to use metallic colored pencils or markers if you have them.


     Another color designation is "proper", which means in the most common colors found in nature for that object. A "bear proper" would be brown and a "tree proper" would be green with a brown trunk. The rule "metal on color and color on metal" is not always used when the charge is ‘proper".

Select the other colors for your shield

     The basic rule is "metal on color, or color on metal, but not metal on metal or color on color". This means that the field (the background) on your shield can be either a metal or a color. The main object or objects should be a color if the field is a metal, or it should be a "metal" (silver or gold) if the field is a color. If there is another object on top of the main object, it should be a metal if the background is metal, or a color if the background is a color. It doesn't have to be the same metal or color. You can have color-metal-color or metal-color-metal. The rule "metal on color or color on metal" is not always used when the charge is proper.
     However, if the background is divided (such as per pale), those are considered as being next to each other, not on each other, so you can have two or three colors or two metals. This rule about colors and metals provides contrast, making the shields bright and easy to see. If you have a shield with a circle with a horse on it, the base color, the circle and the horse have to follow the metal/color/metal or color/metal/color rule. A gold shield with a green circle and a silver horse would be correct (metal/color/metal); a gold shield with a green circle and a black horse (metal/color/color) would not. However, if you have a horse below a circle, both the horse and circle have to be a color if the shield is a metal, or metal(s) if the shield is a color.

Choose the charges on your shield:

     A charge is what is shown on the base color of your shield. Animals were frequently used as a main charge.
     Animals were shown in certain traditional postures, which were not meant to be realistic pictures of the animals. They were not drawn to look three dimensional, but were shown as if they were flat, and with the most characteristic parts of them the most obvious. The pictures were to represent the animal as a symbol. Generally the animals chosen were fierce, and they were often show in postures of combat. Whatever their main color, fierce animals were often shown with red tongue and claws. Small details on a charge do not have to follow the metal/color rule. A gold griffin can have red claws on a blue field. Here are a few of the most common animals on shields:

Lion
Bear
Boar
Eagle
Horse
Dragon
Griffin

     There were also names for the positions in which the animals were shown. Here are some of the most common.

rampant - standing on hind legs
rampant guardant - standing on hind legs, face turned toward viewer
passant - walking
couchant - lying down
sejant - sitting

     The dragon and griffin, of course, are mythological animals. They often combine characteristics believed to be found in more than one animal. The griffin was part eagle, part lion. Since the animals were symbols of qualities, such combination animals were meant to indicate a combination of those qualities.
     A common design on a shield was a pun on the family (last) name. The coat of arms for "Wheatley" has sheaves of wheat on the shield. Some other shields showed allegiance to one side in a dispute by putting its symbol on their shields. The cross on a coat of arms often meant that the original bearer had been to the Crusades. A cross used on a shield was always taken very seriously. There are many forms of the cross.

Historically Accurate Designing of Shields

     Here are some basic ideas of how medieval shields were designed, so that you can create your own in a historically accurate way.
Static - A blazon represented a family, on an estate. When the head of the family died, his eldest son inherited the family arms, as well as the estate. The coat of arms represented something permanent, stable and unchanging. Medieval people believed that everything, and every person, had a certain place in the universe, and this was not supposed to change. Movement and the suggestion of change were not generally seen on medieval shields.
Symbolic - Pictures on shields were symbolic, that is, they were something that represented a quality to the viewer beyond what he saw. For instance, a lion or an eagle meant "courage". The picture was drawn so that everyone would know what it was, but it was not important that it look like a real eagle.
Stylized - Animals and other things on shields were meant to be instantly recognizable, but they were stylized. They were drawn according to rules, not realistically. Usually they were drawn a position that showed their most important characteristics clearly (a lion's mane, a unicorn's horn, etc.) Animals were drawn from directly in front, or in profile, not from a three-quarters view, or partly turned. This also helped to ensure that the same blazon, or description of a shield, could be drawn by different artists and still look very much the same.
Flat - images on a shield were shown in pure, flat colors, without any shading. They were not in drawn in perspective. Items were not shown in the proper size to each other, either. Things might be drawn larger because they were more important, but not because they were in fact larger. A horse might be as large as a castle, not because it was closer to the viewer than the castle, but because it was equally important, or because it made a balanced design.
Bold - shields were meant to be seen across a battlefield. Also, they were a proclamation of who you were. Lords in the Middle Ages were not shy about who they were or their accomplishments.

How to describe your shield -- Blazonry

     Emblazoning is the drawing of the actual shield. Blazoning is the description in words. This can get very complicated, in the case of complex shields. We will cover only the fairly simple types of blazoning.
     The simplest type of shield has only one main charge, (the "things" on a shield are called charges) so it is emblazoned with the color of the background, and then the charge and its color:


vert, a lion rampant or

A gold lion in profile standing on his hind legs on a green shield.

When there is only one charge, the "a" (a lion, a rose) is sufficient description.

If the background is divided, it become a bit more complicated, as in:

per bend azure and sable, a lion rampant argent

A shield divided diagonally, upper left to lower right, blue on top and black on the bottom, with a silver lion standing on his hind legs
 

per paly tierce azure, sable, vert, in chief three roses or

A shield divided vertically into three parts, the first one blue, then black, then green with three gold roses across the top of the shield.

Sable, a chevron or charged with three mullets (stars) gules

black, with a chevron (an inverted V-shape) on which there are three red stars (the red stars are on the chevron).


     It can get MUCH more complicated, with extra colors, "furs" in addition to metals and colors, and specific names for each position of an animal or other charge, and names for lines, circles and drops in each color. See the list of links for more information on blazons.
     If you make the castle, using Make a Castle, you might want to do a small shield for the lord of your castle, and perhaps ones for the lords and ladies who are visiting them, enjoying the feast set out for special guests in the Great Hall.

     Shields, Knights and Heraldry is and online program that needs not downloading or installation and will work on a PC or a Mac.  We still have the older download version available for PC only:
 

Go To Shields, Knights and Heraldry Download Instruction Page


 

 

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