Summarizing nine centuries of practices is no small feat….
Heraldy was born in the middle of the twelfth century in an area roughly limited by the Rhine to the North and the Loire to the South. It came to life in the midst of a medieval arms race which saw the fighters disappear under protective equipment more and more sophisticated. Becoming unrecognizable to both friends and foes, a solution had to be found by the warriors to provide an easy mean of identification. Coat of arms are the response to that vital need. They started to cover shields, banners and helmets. The most important rule of heraldry has been a direct consequence of the need to easily identify people encased in armour, at a distance. This rule basically states that none shall use metal tinctures (or, argent ) on metal tincture nor colours (azure, gules, vert, purpure, sable) on colours. As a matter of fact if we try to draw a golden eagle on a silver background it will be incredibly difficult to see from afar.
Heraldic charges did not come to life spontaneously. Neither were they inspired by middle eastern motifs brought back to western Europe via the crusades. Lions, crosses, lilies and dragons had always been part of an iconography thousand years old, used by Mediterranean civilisations in antiquity and constantly improved and reinterpreted through the middle ages till now.
Tournaments, with there high risks and even higher reward, worked as a replacement to war and were in fact the single most important factor for the spreading of heraldry.
As coat of arms were being displayed on battlefields they also started to be engraved on seals in the first half of the 12th century. Until the middle of the 13th century, coat of arms are used exclusively by the warrior class. They slowly spread to the rest of the medieval society with an ever increasing use of heraldic seals by the elites. Seals have a tremendous impact on the diffusion on heraldry. In the middle ages no document can be considered valid unless it has been marked by the seal of the parties in presence. Bearing both names and arms it replaced personal signatures in a time where most were illiterate and could not sign. Today a document is still not considered legal until it has received the seal of the authority producing it.
A wax seal and its matrix (end of the 15th century).
By 1330 coat of arms were used by all in France. Chronogically they were adopted by, noble women, clergy, burghers and artisan, peasants, cities, corporations and religious institutions. Coat of arms were slowly losing their exclusive use as a battlefield related emblem to become a mark of ownership placed on precious object as well as on every day items (jewels, frescoes, clothing, weapons…)
As far as France was concerned during what was called “l’Ancien Régime” anybody was entitled to bear arms without religious or status restriction. This however is not the case everywhere in Europe since in some countries coat of arms were, and still are, reserved to the nobility. Until the “Révolution” the heraldic capacity was universal in France, however, in the heat of action, fierce “Sans-culottes” associated coat of arms with the feudal nobility. Beginning june 19th 1790 use of arms was forbidden. The visible result was that heraldic carvings were destroyed en masse on buildings and other public venues. Today French heraldic enthusiast can only lament those excesses which have robbed them of an important heritage which is made all the more flagrant when compared with other European countries.
After the birth of the Empire Napoleon 1er reinstated the use of coat of arms but would limit it only to the nobility by controlling it. Louis XVIII, Charles X and Louis-Philippe followed him in this matter. The 2nd Republic forbade again titles without getting involved with the matter of coat of arms. The Second Empire did the same as the Premier Empire and the Troisième République did not care to issue laws to regulate their utilisation.
As of today anyone can use a coat of arms in France, just like before 1789. The position of the court is that arms are a part of the name, noble or not and are protected as such. The only condition being to use your own arms and not those of someone else.
Recently more and more French are taking an interest into heraldry. A “flourish” of publication by scholars from various field of studies, on Internet and in magazine is representative of this revival. It started in the 1970’s when more and more French found an interest in genealogical studies. Many, discovering that their ancestor had a coat of arms and even more that their ancestors had none.