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Self-Representation in Heraldry

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The Components of a Coat of Arms: The Shield

Correctly, the term "coat of arms" should be applied only to the shield of arms, the design of which was repeated on the surcoat or jupon of the medieval armiger: hence "coat" of arms. However, it is now widely used to include all the component parts of an achievement - the shield, helm, crest, supporters, etc.

The shield is the essential element of a coat of arms and, with the banner, is the principal means of heraldic display. Effigies, monumental brasses, and other objects may be dated with reasonable accuracy by reference to the type of shield held by a figure or depicted elsewhere on a monument. In the eleventh century, and at the beginning of the twelfth, shields were long, narrow and kite-shaped, covering most of the body. They had rounded tops and were made of wood covered with tough boiled leather. Such shields were in use at Hastings and during the first Crusade, where raised edges, studs and bosses were often picked out in colour. During the twelfth century the tops of shields became flatter, and decoration more personal.

In the thirteenth century shields became shorter and were shaped like the base of a flat-iron, called a heater shield, and this style remained in use for heraldic purposes throughout most of the fourteenth century. But the increasing efficiency of the long bow and cross bow, and the rapid development of plate armour, reduced the effectiveness of the shield as a means of defence and by the fifteenth century it had been abandoned by mounted knights except for heraldic purposes, notably at tournaments.

The "shield" in a woman's arms is conventionally depicted in the shape of a lozenge, there being an assumption that women did not make war or participate in tournaments and, therefore, had no practical use for a shield. For the same reason, a lozenge is never accompanied by a helm and crest, though there are exceptions, in which such cases it is possible that a local craftsman was unaware of armorial convention. The lozenge is such an unattractive and inconvenient shape that considerable artistic skill may have been required in order to accommodate the heraldry.

The shield is the most important part of the achievement, for on it are depicted the signs and emblems of the house to which it appertains; the difference marks expressive of the cadency of the members within that house; the augmentations of honour which the Sovereign has conferred; the quarterings inherited from families which are represented, and the impalements of marriage; and it is with the shield principally that the laws of armory are concerned, for everything else is dependent upon the shield, and falls into comparative insignificance alongside of it. While shields were actually used in warfare, the utilitarian article largely governed the shape of the artistic representation, but after the fifteenth century, the shape was determined rather by art and design. The earliest shape of all is the long, narrow shape, which is now but seldom seen. Other forms of the same period are found with curved tops, in the shape of an inverted pear, but the form known as the heater-shaped shield is to all intents and purposes the earliest shape which was used for armorial purposes.

The making and decorating of the shields lay mostly in the hands of the herald painters, who, in addition to attending to the shield and crest, also had charge of all the riding paraphernalia, because most of the articles comprised therein were heraldically decorated. Many of these shield-workers' fraternities won widespread fame for themselves, and enjoyed great consideration at that time. The shield was of wood, covered with linen or leather, the charges in relief and painted .


Leather plastic was very much esteemed in the early Middle Ages. The leather was soaked in oil, and pressed or beaten into shape. Besides piecing and leather plastic, pressed linen (linen dipped in chalk and lime) was also used, and a kind of tempera painting on a chalk background. After the shield was decorated with the charges, it was frequently strengthened with metal clasps, or studs, particularly those parts which were more especially exposed to blows and pressure. These clasps and nails originally had no other object than to make the shield stronger and more durable, but later on their nature was misunderstood: they were treated and used as genuine heraldic charges, and stereotyped into hereditary designs. The long strips with which the edge was bound were called the "frame," the clasps introduced in the middle of the shield the "buckle" or "umbo" from which frequently circularly arranged metal snaps reached the edge of the shield.

The earliest shields of arms were essentially simple. Many knights adopted unadorned stripes or crosses which, it has been suggested, may have had their origins in the bands of leather or metal which were used to strengthen wooden shields, and which offered an obvious surface for painting a simple pattern. For instance, it has been suggested that chevrons originated in battens on the shield which evolved into 'V's due to the pointed convex surface of the shield. Others adopted specific objects such as the crescents, suns, lions, and eagles which, as we have seen, may have descended from the symbolism of Charlemagne's court via the Flemish comtés. An important factor is the use of common charges by groups of families linked by blood or feudal tenure.

The shape of the shield throughout the rest of Europe has also varied between wide extremes, and at no time has any one particular shape been assigned to or peculiar to any country, rank, or condition, possibly with one exception, namely, that the use of the cartouche or oval seems to have been very nearly universal with ecclesiastics in France, Spain, and Italy, though never reserved exclusively for their use. Probably this was an attempt on the part of the Church to get away from the military character of the shield. It is in keeping with the rule by which, even at the present day, a bishop or a cardinal bears neither helmet nor crest, using instead his ecclesiastical mitre or tasselled hat, and by which the clergy seldom made use of a crest in depicting their arms. In the second half of the fourteenth century, when the tournament provided the chief occasion for the shield, the jousting-shield came into use, and from this class of shield the most varied shapes were gradually developed. These shields were decidedly smaller than the earlier Gothic shields, being only about one-fifth of a man's height. They were concave, and had on the side of the knight's right hand a circular indentation. This was the spear-rest, in which to place the tilting-spear. The later art of heraldic decoration symmetrically repeated the spear-rest on the sinister side of the shield, and, by so doing, transformed a useful fact into a matter of mere artistic design.
 
 

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