So lately I’ve been looking into heraldry; i.e., coats of arms and stuff. I started thinking about it ‘cause the prospect of having kids soon got me interested in looking into some of my family history. I thought it might be nice when it comes time to decorate a nursery for it to include a couple of family trees and the Beyer and Walker family arms. At any rate, I just thought I’d share some of the more interesting elements with you.
The first and most fundamental rule of medieval heraldry is called the Rule of Tincture. Tinctures are heraldic colors and they fall into three main categories: metals, colors, furs (which are conventional geometric approximations of traditional furs), and “proper.” The metals are Gold (traditionally called Or and often represented in paint by yellow) and Silver (called Argent and represented by white). The colors are Azure (blue), Gules (red), Sable (black), Vert (green), and Purpure (purple). Interestingly, there are also for determining a color in a monochromatic setting like etching. Or is dots, Argent blank, Azure is horizontal lines, etc. “Proper” refers to when specific images (like a lion, horse, or dog) is pictured as it would be naturally (e.g., “a palomino horse proper”).
So the Rule of Tincture states that no metal shall ever lie on another metal and no color shall ever lie on another color (furs and “proper” are exempt). The thinking is that since the metals are light colors (gold/yellow and silver/white) and the colors dark (blue, black, etc.) they should never lie one on top of the other because it decreases clarity. One must remember that the original purpose of heraldry was anything but ceremonial. You as a Lord (or whatever) bored a shield with your house-specific colors and designs on it so you could be easily identified in battle. Either that or a herald carried your shield or a flag version of it. It is imperative, then, that your colors be legible and distinguishable from others’ at a good distance.
This is also why the fifth category of tinctures is all but ignored. In the nineteenth century it became fashionable to include more varied tinctures (called “stains”) like brown (brûnatre), sanguine (deep, blood-red), and bleu-celeste (sky blue). Of course pink and orange weren’t included originally either, because they could too easily be mistaken for Argent and Gules. They also liked over-using “proper.” In other words, having your coat of arms tend more towards a naturalistic painting than bright, bold, easily recognizable colors and designs. (Of course, this tendency was also due to the fact that by the nineteenth century heraldry had lost its practical purpose and become solely ceremonial.) Thankfully, almost everyone now rejects this tendency as decadence contrary to the true and traditional purpose of heraldry.
Another interesting fact, since women don’t traditionally go to war, women’s arms (if they have their own) aren’t represented on a shield but on a “lozenge” (which is exactly like the diamond on playing cards). Likewise, clergy display their arms on a “cartouche” (or oval) as can be seen on the façade of countless cardinalatial titular churches in Rome.
Also, turns out the actual heraldic device has little to do with any pictorial representation of it. The heraldic device itself is a traditional description of elements to be represented by an artist. This process is called “blazoning,” according to the heraldry scholar John Woodward, it is not just any description, but to describe arms “in heraldic terminology so exactly that anyone acquainted with the language of armory may be able accurately to depict it from its concise description.” For example, the simple blazon “argent, three palets sable” translates to a silver (white) field onto which are laid three black vertical bands:
This is to be distinguished from “paly argent and sable” which describes a field which is itself divided into alternating bands of silver (white) and black:
Imagine how complicated that can get.
And that’s just the beginning. A couple of hours of research convinced me that in order for me to feel comfortable enough with all the rules to blazon my own Beyer family arms I would need to keep studying for at least several months. Of course, I wouldn’t exactly feel comfortable doing so anyway. Even though there’s no legal prescription against doing so in this country, I don’t really like the idea of doing what amounts to knighting myself. I certainly wouldn’t want to follow the path Monsieur Napoleon did. Seems like a better idea to go back far enough on Ancestry.com or the like to see if the Beyers ever had a real one.