The term coat of arms occurred in the middle ages. Because the suits of armor made their carriers at tournaments or armed conflicts unrecognizable, distinctive marks were necessary. These signs were usually painted on the shields, which were part of the armament. So called heralds took care that nobody wore a coat of arms they were not entitled to, and they kept records. Therefore, it is called heraldry.



Description of the coat of arms
Each coat of arms can be described in a special language. The official description is called a blazon. For example the armorial bearings of Berne is:
"In red a golden diagonal bar, occupied with a black bear in motion with red claws."
A characteristic of the blazon is that the right and left side are always described from the point of view by the bearer of the coat of arms or shield respectively. This means for the observer, it is reversed. E.g. is there a star in the upper-left corner of the coat of arms, the blazon indicates it is top right.



Heraldic coloring
In heraldry, following colors are admitted:

and the so-called metallic colors:
Gold = yellow
Silver = white


An important heraldic rule is, colors may never touch each other. Of course, the same rule for metallic colors applies.
The coat of arms of the Swiss canton of Ticino with red alongside with blue is a heraldic misconduct!



Who may bear a coat of arms?
In contrast to coat of arms of noble families, coat of arms of country families (and that includes most people) are not protected. This means everyone can accept any family crest and refer to it as “his” and bear it.
Cases are known from the past, in which a bearer changed his coat of arms several times within a few years. Whether it's fun to bear a coat of arms that has no history and not passed from one generation to the next, remains a question.
In Switzerland, at the end of the 18th century, to have a coat of arms was fashionable. He who considered himself to be someone of importance, and who could afford it, created a coat of arms in glass for personal use or to give as a gift. Flying "heraldists" went from door to door and offered their services. Not only today, but also at that time they played fast and loose with coat of arms. Elaborate research was saved and any coat of arms (very often a stolen one) was offered to the client. A method that is unfortunately used by some contemporary heraldists plying their wares at many trade fairs.



Where do I find my coat of arms?
People who are originated in the canton of Bern, for example, will most probably find his coat of arms in the State Archives of Berne. Information is free of charge.
Usually, the index card will list who has worn the coat of arms as well as the oldest known source (letter, seal, etc.). Very often, several coats of arms are available per name. He who seriously wants to run the whole heraldry, doesn’t just take any coat of arms which he likes best, but tries to find out, by genealogy, which one was actually held by his ancestors.

Today they are also published on http://www.sta.be.ch/sta/de/index/staatsarchiv/staatsarchiv/familienwappen.html. Unfortunately, the details as above are missing on the web site.
Other sources: "Emmentaler Geschlechter und Wappenbuch", Hans Rudolf Christen, ISBN 3-85681-405-1 or CD-ROM family names of Swiss citizens until 1861 published by the GHGB.



What represents the coat of arms?
Family names have arisen around the Reformation period (Canton of Berne 1528), coat of arms often hundreds of years later, when the meaning of the name no longer was known. Subsequently they tried to create a descriptive coat of arms. For example, some family coat of arms of the Lüthi families (as a verb = to pull a bell) show a bell because the name was associated with the activity of the people. But the name Lüthi has neither in the rarest cases something to do with a bell, nor was the ancestor a ringer, but it is clearly derived from the old name of Leuthold or Leuthard.

Represented symbols are interpreted completely wrong. In many cases, for example, it is claimed that a three mountains on a coat of arms is indicative of large land holdings. The aforementioned popular glass discs were usually oval. The creators tried with stars, moons, three mountains, etc to fill only upper and lower roundings of the oval. The election was random. Sometimes a subsequent bearer of a coat of arms added a celestial body or a rose, so that it distinguished him from his predecessors.


Those who are interested with family coat of arms, would be wise not to take it too serious and consider it rather playfully, as our ancestors did.




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