Coats of Arms
An introduction by Georges Picavet
There is nothing mysterious about coats of arms. Many thick books have been written about them, and I am confident that there is quite some stuff on this subject to be found on the WWW. The subject only becomes complicated when one tries to understand the various symbols used, but that is not the purpose of this article, in which I will try to give the background of these medieval logos.
When, in the middle ages, say in the 11th and 12th century, the fighting class (roughly, there were: the fighting class, the praying class, the farming class, and the laboring class) was going to battle, to play or for real, they were covered with a suit of armor, and therefore totally unrecognizable for friend and foe. Since they were also using a shield to ward off the strokes of the opponent's weapon, it was a good idea to paint some symbols on that protective device. These paintings became the "coat of arms" of that person, and later on became hereditary, part of the family's assets.
In the 14th and 15th century firing arms became more popular and the good old days of the heavy suit of arms were over, except at the occasion of the famous tournaments. Ironically, it was exactly in those days that heraldry became the big thing. Every knight had to have this status symbol, and large registers were kept by the king's or duke's, or count's herald. (Basically, the herald was the person in charge of calling out the names of the contestants at a tournament.)
By the time the tournaments were out of fashion -- a dangerous sport in which many a promising young man had perished -- the coat of arms had becomes the family's symbol. In addition, not only the fighting class had one, but also any well-off family, as well as cities, monasteries, guilds, etc.
In the 15th and 16th century most people who had some responsibility in public life, the mayors, bailiffs, aldermen, and eventually everybody who possessed something and therefore may have had to sign a document, adopted a coat of arms. People who couldn't write down their name would proudly append their seal, a lump of wax in which their coat of arms was printed.
Therefore, a coat of arms does not indicate nobility. The only difference between "civil" and "noble" arms is that the nobility kept them in use, to show off, even when there was no practical use for them anymore.
The decline came in the 18th century. On the one hand, it became more fashionable to sign a document with his name, and on the other hand many of the new rich, and less rich, didn't respect the rules of heraldry anymore.
Due to its origins, a coat of arms was rather simple (a color, a cross, an animal, a flower, ...) but in the 18th century the newcomers were exaggerating. They started decorating their coat of arms with sceneries from the bible, landscapes, or threw together the coats of arms of various families in one shield.
Nowadays, only strange fellows, such as me, countries, cities, and some descendants of fighting families, are still using a coat of arms.
In Belgium alone, there are thousands of coats of arms that can be found on seals still hanging on original records. There are 550 listed in the "Wapenboek van het Land van Waas", the "Heraldry Book of the Waasland" alone. (This is in fact not a heraldry book, but a listing of the seals found in some archives.)
A word of caution though. You should establish that you are a descendant in direct line of the owner of a coat of arms before you can adopt it. It is not justified, from any standpoint, to pick one out because it once belonged to a namesake. E.g., in the "Wapenboek van het Land van Waas", seven seals can be found belonging to persons with the name D'HONDT, most of them carrying a dog.