The Origins and Evolution of Heraldry in Medieval Europe

Heraldry, with its intricate symbols and designs, has a rich history that dates back to medieval Europe. But what was the purpose of heraldry? How did it come to be? And why do these symbols continue to hold such significance today? In this article, we’ll explore the origins and evolution of heraldry, from the early days of symbolism and the rise of feudalism, to the modern-day use of coat of arms. We’ll also delve into the meanings behind common heraldic symbols and the role of heraldry in various historical periods. Join us on this journey through time as we uncover the fascinating history of heraldry.

The Origins of Heraldry

The Origins Of Heraldry
The Origins of Heraldry can be traced back to the early symbolism and signs used by ancient civilizations, including the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. However, the heraldry that we know today began in medieval Europe with the rise of the feudal system and the need for identification in battle. At this time, knights would display their coat of arms on their shields, helmets, and banners to differentiate themselves from their enemies. The emergence of coat of arms as a symbol of family and personal identity led to the creation of elaborate designs, incorporating animals, weapons, and colors. The role of the Crusades also expanded the use of heraldry as knights from various regions came into contact with each other and needed to distinguish themselves from one another. With the evolution of heraldry being closely tied to medieval warfare and chivalry, it is no surprise that many medieval European flag symbols and designs feature heraldic beasts, weapons, and patterns. For more information on medieval flags and heraldry in European history, please visit /medieval-heraldry-flags-and-status/.

Early Symbolism and Signs

In the early centuries of medieval Europe, symbolism and signs played a significant role in identifying individuals or groups to others. In a time when literacy was limited, visuals were far more effective as a means of communication and recognition. Symbols like animals, flowers, and religious iconographies were embroidered onto clothing, weapons, and banners to indicate status, allegiance, or family ties.

The use of flags as a form of identification and an instrument of war was common during the medieval period, and many of the symbols and colors used on these flags had deep symbolic meanings. For instance, the black eagle on the Austrian coat of arms represented strength and courage, while the red cross on the flag of St. George symbolized martyrdom and bravery. Other symbols, such as the fleur-de-lis or the rampant lion, became associated with specific families or regions and came to be heraldic symbols.

Religion also played a significant role in the development of medieval symbols and signs. Icons and symbols from Christianity, such as the cross, the fish, and the lamb, were often used to denote religious affiliation or piety. Some flags bore religious imagery such as the Madonna and child that was believed to bring protection and hope to soldiers.

Chivalry and military culture also had an influence on the symbols used during this period. Knights wore their heraldry on their shields and banners, displaying their coats of arms with symbols of honor and loyalty, such as the Griffin, or the Boar. Medieval flags with these symbols became a means of identification and became an important part of the knightly culture.

As symbols became more complex and intricate, they began to incorporate patterns and designs as well. These were often based on simple geometric shapes like squares, triangles, and circles and sometimes integrated with complex designs like knotwork or filigree.

The early symbolism and signs in medieval Europe paved the way for the development of heraldry and were critical in identifying individuals, groups, and allegiances. These symbols became more elaborate over time and became associated with specific families, regions, and religions. Their evolution and continued use can be traced through the history of European medieval flags and coats of arms.

The Rise of the Feudal System and the Need for Identification

As the feudal system emerged in Medieval Europe, the need for identification became vital. During this time, lords and knights began to create symbols and logos that would help distinguish their armies and properties from others. This was because, even within the same feudal structure, various vassals and knights often fought each other or joined different armies, and there was no centralized military organization. As a result, they needed a way of distinguishing their allies from their enemies on the battlefield.

Coats of arms were initially created during this time to address this need for identification, as the design used on a shield was unique to each knight and could easily be recognized by allies and foes alike. These new symbols were worn on surcoats (loose outer garments worn over armor) or affixed to helmets and shields, allowing them to be seen clearly in battle. At that time, heraldic design was very basic and consisted of just a limited number of colors and shapes.

Some examples of early heraldic symbols in Medieval Europe were simple geometric shapes. For instance, the French knight Guillaume le Maréchal’s 12th-century seal featured six red roundels (circular shapes) that were arranged in rows, while the 13th-century seal bearing the coat of arms of King Henry III of England showed three gold lions passant (walking with one foot raised).

As the feudal system spread across Europe, the use of coats of arms became increasingly popular. Knights were not only using them on the battlefield but also on banners and flags, sewn into their clothing, and engraved on personal items. The coat of arms was also used to recognize a particular family and distinguish them from others in society.

There is evidence to suggest that coats of arms were used on flags and banners even before they were painted onto shields. Knights would march into battle under the colors of their lords or family, which often featured their own heraldic symbols. During the feudal period, these flags served as a quick way to identify a knight’s allies or enemies. For instance, the Battle of Agincourt, a major English victory over the French during the Hundred Years’ War, was fought under the English banner that showed a red cross on a white background.

Medieval European flags were not just about identifying military alliances, however. They could also hold religious meaning and serve as a statement of chivalry and loyalty. For example, Richard the Lionheart, one of England’s most famous kings and warriors, ordered his knights to carry a flag called the “Banners of the 5 Wounds” during the Third Crusade. This flag, which showed 5 red crosses, symbolized the five wounds inflicted on Jesus during his crucifixion.

The rise of the feudal system led to the creation of heraldic symbols that were crucial in identifying knights and their alliances on the battlefield. As designs became more intricate and coats of arms became increasingly prevalent, they became symbols of status and family pride. In the next section, we will explore the various symbols and their meanings in more detail.

The Emergence of Coat of Arms

As heraldry developed, it became more complex and needed a way of identifying more specific families and individuals. This led to the creation of the coat of arms, a unique design that could be easily recognized and associated with a particular person or family.

The exact origins of the coat of arms are unknown, but it is believed to have originated in the 12th century. The earliest forms of coats of arms were simple and consisted of basic patterns and designs.

Over time, these designs became more complex and individualized, incorporating specific symbols and colors that had personal significance to the bearer. A coat of arms might use animals to represent certain qualities, like strength or courage, or display religious symbols or representations of family history.

One of the earliest recorded examples of a coat of arms is that of the Norman conqueror William the Conqueror, who is said to have used a design on his shield during the Battle of Hastings in 1066. However, it was not until the 12th century that coats of arms became more prevalent and standardized.

As feudal systems evolved, the use of coats of arms became more widespread, with many lords and knights adopting a personal design. These designs were often recorded in armorial rolls, which helped to keep track of the different coats of arms in use within a particular region.

The emergence of the coat of arms was a significant development in the history of heraldry, allowing for greater personalization of designs and the creation of unique identifying symbols for families and individuals.

If you are interested in the use of flags in medieval warfare, read our article on medieval flags in warfare, or if you are curious about the role of religion in medieval European flags, check out our article on medieval European flags and religion.

The Role of the Crusades and Expansion of Heraldry

The Crusades played a crucial role in heraldry’s expansion as noble knights and lords needed a way to distinguish themselves and their allies from enemies on the battlefield. During the Crusades, the knights and their attendants would don armor made of metal and ride horses covered in chainmail. This metal armor made it difficult to distinguish between friend and foe in the heat of battle, especially when covered in blood, dirt, and grime.

To solve this problem, knights began to paint unique symbols onto their shields and surcoats. These symbols were usually brightly colored and featured animals, like lions, or objects, like crosses, as a way to visually grab attention on the battlefield. As heraldry became more standardized, these symbols were then transferred onto flags and banners, allowing armies to instantly recognize their allies and enemies from afar.

As crusaders traveled through different parts of Europe and the Middle East, they encountered new cultures and symbols that they brought back home with them. For example, the design of the Templar’s iconic red cross was likely inspired by the symbol of the Islamic star and crescent. This cross then became a popular symbol in medieval heraldry across Europe.

The use of heraldry continued to spread and evolve during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France in the 14th and 15th centuries. It was during this time that the use of quartered or divided shields became popular as a way to showcase alliances and family ties. This practice continued to develop over time, leading to the creation of elaborate and distinctive family crests and coats of arms.

The expansion of heraldry continued to flourish throughout the Middle Ages, and it remains an important part of European culture to this day. To learn more about medieval flags and heraldry, check out some of our related articles below:

The Symbols and Meanings of Heraldry

Heraldry is characterized by its symbols and meanings, which were carefully chosen to represent the values and beliefs of its bearers. In heraldry, each color and animal has a specific meaning that gives clues to the personality, accomplishments, and lineage of the person or organization bearing the coat of arms. For instance, the color red represents bravery, courage, and a warrior spirit, while blue symbolizes vigilance, truth, and loyalty. Likewise, the lion symbolizes strength, royalty, and bravery, while the eagle represents being noble, having high aspirations, and a willingness to defend one’s beliefs. Other important symbols of heraldry include crosses, swords, crowns, shields, and crescents, each of which has its own unique meaning. Studying heraldic symbols and meanings is essential to understand the history, traditions, and values of medieval Europe and its people.

The Colors and Metals of Heraldry

In heraldry, the colors and metals used have specific meanings and symbolism. These include both basic and precise shades, and each of them has its significance.

The primary colors in heraldry are red, blue, green, black, and purple. Red represents courage and strength, while blue symbolizes loyalty and truthfulness. Green is associated with youthful vigor and growth, while black symbolizes constancy and grief. Purple is considered to be the color of royalty and signifies regal power.

The metals used in heraldry include gold, silver, and bronze. Gold, also called “or,” represents generosity and elevation of the mind. Silver, known as “argent,” symbolizes peace and sincerity. Bronze, or “copper,” is used less often but represents valor and sacrifice.

It is important to note that in heraldry, a color can also have a metal counterpart, which is essentially the same color with a metallic shine. For example, red and its metal counterpart, “gules,” both represent courage.

Beyond the basic colors and metals, heraldry also includes additional shades and variations such as “murrey,” a dark red-purple color, and “tenne,” a shade of orange-brown.

Understanding the meanings and symbolism behind the colors and metals used in heraldry is essential to interpreting coat of arms correctly and comprehensively.

The Animals and Creatures of Heraldry

The Animals and Creatures of Heraldry serve as important elements in the design of many coats of arms. The use of animals and creatures in heraldic designs dates back to medieval times, and in many cases, the choice of animal or creature was symbolic, reflecting the qualities and values associated with that animal.

Lion: One of the most popular heraldic animals is the lion, which is often depicted as a rampant animal (standing on its hind legs) with a fierce expression and a forked tongue. In heraldry, the lion has come to symbolize bravery, strength, and nobility.

Unicorn: The unicorn is another popular heraldic creature. It is often shown as a horse-like creature with a single horn projecting from its forehead. The unicorn symbolizes purity, virtue, and grace, and it was believed to be impossible to capture. It often appears in the heraldry of noble families.

Dragon: The dragon is an important heraldic animal that is often depicted as a fire-breathing creature with large wings and a serpentine body. In medieval times, the dragon was often used to symbolize evil, but it could also represent strength and power. The Welsh flag features a red dragon, symbolizing the long heritage of this creature in that country.

Eagle: The eagle is often used as a heraldic symbol of courage, wisdom, and strength. It is typically depicted with outstretched wings and sharp talons, and it is often shown holding a scepter or sword. The American eagle is an example of a more modern use of this animal in heraldry.

Fleur-de-lis: The fleur-de-lis is a heraldic symbol that resembles a stylized lily. It was originally used to represent the French monarchy, but it has since been adopted by many other families and organizations. The fleur-de-lis is often used to represent purity, light, and life.

Bear: The bear is a heraldic animal that has been used since medieval times. It is often used to represent courage, strength, and fierceness. In some cultures, like the Native American tribes, it is considered a sacred animal.

Falcon: The falcon is a bird of prey that is often used in heraldic designs. It represents a combination of speed, agility, and power. Falcons were trained by nobles for hunting and were highly prized for their ability to catch prey.

Wolf: The wolf is a heraldic animal that is often used to represent loyalty, cunning, and bravery. It is often depicted in a fierce pose, with sharp teeth and claws. In some cases, it is shown with a lamb, symbolizing the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

The choice of animal or creature in heraldry was an important one, as it conveyed important values and qualities that were often associated with noble families.

The Heraldic Accoutrements and Weapons

One of the key elements of heraldry are the heraldic accoutrements and weapons that are often featured in coats of arms and other heraldic designs. These symbols were not just decorative, but also served as important reminders of an individual’s family history, accomplishments in battle, and social status.

One of the most common heraldic weapons is the sword, which represents strength, bravery, and military prowess. Other weapons, such as spears and bows, were also commonly featured, as were shields. Shields were not just used for protection in battle, but also served as a canvas for family crests and other heraldic symbols.

Another important category of heraldic accoutrements are the various crowns, helmets, and other headpieces that were used to denote different levels of social status. For example, a simple crown might be used to represent a noble, while a more ornate helmet might be used to represent a king or other ruling monarch.

Crests and badges were also important heraldic symbols. A crest typically consisted of a symbol or decoration that sat atop a helmet or coronet, while a badge might feature a specific animal or other symbol closely associated with a particular family or individual.

The variety of heraldic accoutrements and weapons is vast and varied, each with its own unique symbolism and significance. From swords and shields to crowns and crests, these heraldic symbols remain an important part of our cultural heritage, reminding us of the bravery, strength, and honor of our ancestors.

The Shapes and Ordinaries of Heraldry

are basic geometric shapes or devices that are used in coats of arms to represent different symbols and meanings. The term “ordinary” comes from the military term for the basic infantry formation, which was a line of soldiers.

The most common shapes include the shield, which is the primary shape of the coat of arms, and the cross, which can be seen in many different forms throughout heraldry.

Other typical shapes are the fess, which is a horizontal line that divides the shield in two, and the bar, which is a similar horizontal line but smaller.

The bend is a diagonal line that can be seen running from top left to bottom right, and the bend sinister runs from bottom left to top right. These two lines were originally used to differentiate between family members who were related by marriage or adoption.

There is also the chevron, which is an inverted V-shape, and the saltire, which is an X-shape.

Other shapes include the pile, which is a triangular shape that points downwards, the roundel, which is a circular shape, and the lozenge, which is a diamond shape.

Each of these shapes has its own specific meaning and symbolism, and they can also be combined with other symbols to create more complex designs.

The use of these shapes and ordinaries in heraldry dates back to the Middle Ages, and they have continued to be used in modern heraldry as well. They provide a visual shorthand for the stories, values, and ideals that a family or organization wishes to communicate through their coat of arms.

The Evolution of Heraldry

In the course of its history, Heraldry has evolved significantly, adapting to the societal changes and political events that have marked Europe’s development. During the Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment, Heraldry became more elaborate and ornate, integrating new design elements and incorporating classical motifs. The Age of Discovery led to the expansion of heraldry outside of Europe, reflecting the global nature of trade and political influence. With the Age of Revolution came a shift towards simpler designs and a greater emphasis on personal symbolism. Finally, in the modern world, Heraldry remains a prominent element of ceremonial and national identity, adapting to contemporary aesthetics while still paying homage to its centuries-old traditions. The evolution of Heraldry reflects the many cultural and historical forces that have shaped European society and its visual arts.

Heraldry during Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment

During the Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment, heraldry underwent significant changes. In this period, heraldry became more of an art form than a practical means of identification. The coat of arms was used less on the battlefield and more for decorative and ceremonial purposes.

One of the significant changes that took place during this period was the adoption of a more naturalistic style. Previously, heraldic representations of animals and plants were highly stylized, with little regard for realism. However, during the Renaissance, heraldic art became more naturalistic, with animals and plants depicted in a more realistic and lifelike manner.

Another significant change was the use of new symbols and motifs. In addition to the traditional symbols of heraldry, new motifs, such as classical figures and scenes from mythology, were added to the heraldic vocabulary. These new symbols were often used to reflect the humanist values of the Renaissance and the growing interest in classical art and literature.

The use of crests also became more elaborate during the Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment. Crests began to incorporate more intricate designs and were often used to reflect the social and cultural values of the time. For example, a crest might include a book or a quill to represent learning, or a representation of a globe to represent exploration and discovery.

Heraldry during the Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment also saw the development of new rules and regulations for the use and design of coats of arms. The College of Arms in England, for example, was established in the fifteenth century to regulate the use of heraldry in England. Similarly, the French King Louis XIV established the Court of King’s Bench for Heraldic Matters in 1667 to regulate the use of heraldry in France.

The Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment brought significant changes to heraldry. Heraldic art became more naturalistic, new symbols and motifs were added, and the use of crests became more elaborate. The rules and regulations for the use of heraldry also became more formalized, reflecting the growing importance of heraldry as an art form.

Heraldry in the Age of Discovery

Heraldry in the Age of Discovery saw an increase in the use of heraldic symbolism as European powers explored and colonized new territories. During this time, many new coats of arms were created to commemorate successful voyages and conquests. One notable example is the coat of arms of Christopher Columbus, which features a green shield with golden anchors and red circles to represent the New World.

The following table shows some of the notable coats of arms created during the Age of Discovery:

Explorer/Conqueror Coat of Arms Description
Vasco da Gama The shield features a cross, representing the Portuguese Christian faith, and five blue escutcheons, representing the five wounds of Christ.
Hernán Cortés The shield features a golden castle and a black eagle, representing the cities of Castile and Mexico.
Francis Drake The shield features an arm holding a thunderbolt, representing Drake’s victory over the Spanish Armada.
Ferdinand Magellan The shield features an image of the Southern Cross constellation, which Magellan used to navigate during his voyage around the world.

Not only were individual explorers and conquerors using heraldic symbolism to showcase their achievements, but European monarchs were also using coats of arms as a means of asserting their power and control over newly discovered lands. The Portuguese coat of arms during this time featured a cross of the Order of Christ and a five blue sphere escutcheon, which represented Portugal’s exploration and colonization efforts.

The Age of Discovery also saw an increase in the use of crests, which were small decorations placed above or around a coat of arms. These crests typically featured decorative elements such as helmets, crowns, and animals. One notable example is the crest of Sir Walter Raleigh, which features a mermaid holding a comb and mirror.

Heraldry in the Age of Discovery served as a means of commemorating historical events and asserting European dominance over newly discovered lands. The symbolic language of heraldry ensured that even in places where language barriers existed, European settlers and explorers could communicate their cultural identity and heritage through their coats of arms and crests.

Heraldry in the Age of Revolution

The Age of Revolution marked a period of significant social and political upheaval in Europe, which had a profound impact on heraldry. As the power of monarchs and nobles was challenged, many of the symbols and traditions associated with heraldry came to be seen as outdated and elitist.

In France, the Revolution saw the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of a republic, with the new government seeking to distance itself from the old heraldic symbols associated with the Ancien Régime. The fleur-de-lis, which had long been associated with the French monarchy, was replaced as the national symbol by the more abstract concept of the tricolor – a blue, white, and red flag that came to represent the values of liberty, equality, and fraternity.

In Britain, the Industrial Revolution brought about significant social and economic change, leading to the rise of the middle class and the decline of the aristocracy. This led to a shift in the use of heraldry, with more people from outside of the traditional nobility seeking to use coats of arms as a symbol of their own achievements and status.

One notable example of this was Josiah Wedgwood, the famous potter, who created a coat of arms to signify his membership in a new class of wealthy industrialists. His coat of arms featured a crest of a horse’s head, symbolizing his use of horsepower in his factories, and a Latin motto “Amicus Plato, amicus Aristoteles, sed magis amica veritas” meaning “Plato is my friend, Aristotle is my friend, but my greatest friend is truth”.

Despite the changing social and political landscape of the Age of Revolution, heraldry continued to be used as a means of identification, particularly in military contexts. In the United States, for example, the newly formed army relied heavily on the use of heraldic symbols to identify different units and regiments. This led to a renewed interest in heraldry, with many people seeking to create their own coats of arms as a means of expressing their identity.

The Age of Revolution brought about significant changes to the use and perception of heraldry in Europe. While many of the traditional symbols associated with the aristocracy were challenged and replaced, heraldry continued to be an important means of identification and expression for people from all walks of life.

Heraldry in the Modern World

Heraldry has evolved through the ages, and it still remains relevant in the modern world. While its practical applications may have diminished, heraldry is still a prominent feature of various institutions, organizations, and families. Heraldry has become a source of inspiration for art, fashion, and design.

One of the most notable examples of heraldry in the modern world is the coat of arms of the United Kingdom. This coat of arms features the royal crest, a lion and unicorn, as well as elements from the national emblems of England, Scotland, and Ireland. The coat of arms appears on numerous official documents and is also displayed in various public places.

Various organizations and institutions have their own coat of arms or heraldic symbols. For instance, many colleges and universities have their own coat of arms, which often reflect their history, values, and achievements. The coat of arms of Harvard University, for example, features a shield with three books and the Latin motto “veritas”, which means truth. The coat of arms of the University of Oxford, on the other hand, features an open book and a crown of three golden lions.

Heraldry has also inspired and influenced various art forms and designs. For instance, heraldic symbols and motifs can be found in modern logos, flags, and branding materials. Fashion designers often incorporate heraldic elements into their designs. One of the most famous examples is the “bar coat” style, which features horizontal stripes of different colors, inspired by the coat of arms of some noble families.

Heraldry may not have the same practical importance as it did in the Middle Ages, but it remains a prominent feature of our cultural heritage. Its symbols and meanings continue to inspire and influence various aspects of modern life, from institutions and organizations to art and fashion.


In conclusion, heraldry played a significant role in medieval Europe and its influence can still be seen in modern times. Through the development of symbols and signs, the feudal system required identification for knights and lords. This brought about the emergence of the coat of arms, which eventually became a symbol of power and prestige.

The colors and metals used in heraldry conveyed specific meanings, as did the animals, creatures, and weapons depicted. The various shapes and ordinaries used in heraldry provided a way to differentiate between different coats of arms.

As Europe evolved through the Renaissance, Age of Enlightenment, and Age of Revolution, heraldry continued to evolve as well. The use of heraldry in the modern world has expanded beyond its original purpose of identification and has become intertwined with branding and advertising.

Overall, heraldry has a rich history and serves as a fascinating glimpse into the medieval world. Understanding the symbolism and meanings behind the various coats of arms can provide insight into the cultures and societies that used them. It is a testament to the enduring impact of heraldry that its symbols and designs continue to be used and appreciated today.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is heraldry?

Heraldry is a system of visual identification that was common in medieval Europe. It uses symbols and colors to represent families, organizations, and regions.

When did heraldry originate?

The earliest forms of heraldry can be traced back to ancient civilizations such as Egypt and Greece. However, modern heraldry as we know it today began to emerge in the 12th century.

Why was heraldry important in the medieval period?

Heraldry was important in the medieval period as it helped identify individuals, families and kingdoms on the battlefield or at tournaments. It also reflected social status and signified achievements or occupations.

What are the colors and metals in heraldry?

The colors in heraldry are referred to as “tinctures” and include black, red, blue, green and purple. The metals are gold (or yellow) and silver (or white).

What types of animals and creatures are commonly used in heraldry?

Animals and creatures such as lions, eagles, dragons, horses, and stags are frequently used in heraldry.

What are heraldic accoutrements?

Heraldic accoutrements are items such as helmets, shields, swords, and banners that are associated with a coat of arms or family crest.

What are ordinaries in heraldry?

Ordinaries are simple geometric shapes used in heraldry such as stripes, crosses and chevrons.

How did heraldry evolve during the Renaissance?

During the Renaissance, heraldry became more complex and ornate with an increased emphasis on symbols and allegorical stories.

What impact did the Age of Discovery have on heraldry?

The Age of Discovery brought forth a greater diversity of people and cultures which resulted in more unique and exotic designs in heraldry.

Is heraldry still used today?

Yes, heraldry is still used today, though mainly in ceremonial and decorative contexts such as military and government insignia.


Leave a Comment