Where do I belong?
More often than not, we look for symbols or images to represent and connect us. This interest in symbolic representations of people, families and organisations is by no means small. From the insignias and coats of arms that bound people to legions and leaders, to logos and signatures that bind people to companies and ideas. We also commonly see symbolism in the avatars and online profile images of individuals. The relevance of symbols clearly persists.
I want to look at the essential design of a coat of arms and see how we might use it for ourselves. Skip to the bottom of the page for information on the peripheral details.
Connecting your family name to a lord or knight is awesome. You know, a coat of arms for your surname might just exist and it’s tempting to adopt it as your own. It only requires a small leap of faith to create that connection between you and that name-sake crest.
My significant other carries the surname Wong, meaning yellow, gold, and connotative of kingship. Crests and heraldry have never existed in China which does simplify things in that I don’t have anything to research. To back this up, her Hakka descendency makes a direct connection to an emperor or lord seem unlikely. Hakka people are known as nomadic or even migrant people. This could mean her ancestors were toppled from their position of power as a consequence of a power struggle or war. But, that’s another story.
A quick google search shows that a variant on the Askew (Ascough) name links to a crest. To understand why an apparently different name is worth considering, you must bear in mind that the standardisation of spelling in the English language only really began in the 18th century. To better understand this inconsistency, consider that an entire family of Ascoughs were found in a single grave, yet the gravestone bore several different spellings of Ascough.
Of further interest, it’s suggested that the Askew name could either be of Saxon or Norman-French descent, with a crest being made for a family in Anglo-Saxon Cumberland. But, this still means a 1000 years of separation.
Centuries have passed and generations have come and gone. Despite this huge passing of time and life, family coats of arms have remained a rarity. That should make sense to you given that even now power and wealth is reserved for the few. As with Kate Middleton, the odds are in favour of my ancestors being commoners. So if I happen to share my surname with a notable family, I shouldn’t jump to claim to their crest.
I do want to take something from the Coat of Arms. But what?
Today, the Coat of Arms is an obvious throwback to times of social inequality. Do I want to summon up that idea in my design? No.
The images involved in a coat of arms are symbolic and the colours are significant. The Donkey stands for the attributes, patience and humility, and the wheel symbolises a profession, that of the carriage maker or wheel repairman. These symbols formed a kind of personality statement in the way that they represented the nature or ideas of a particular family or individual. A modern Coat of Arms would still utilise these archaic and difficult to understand (esoteric) symbols. Would I want to make something to represent myself? Almost certainly.
Do I want it to use symbols I will have difficulty explaining? Probably not.
Since I’m thinking of designing for a family with separate cultural backgrounds, the symbols used should reflect that. Chinese culture has a strong symbolic system of its own that has global exposure and is still used today, the zodiac. Excuse the example.
What about flexibility in design? The coat of arms has undergone centuries of subtle changes but has grown larger rather than really transforming. Most notably, the shield element of the design has long been at it’s core. In keeping with the times and the fashions of the ruling aristocracy, the shape of the shield has changed. Today though, it’s perfectly acceptable to flick through history and select any shield you like for your design. That’s because the shield in itself is actually unimportant.
What is important? To answer this you simply have to know that a coat of arms is not a fixed design. It is drawn the way it is because of convention. If you like the convention, by all means follow it. However, it is only the symbols used that cannot be changed. They must be present within the design no matter how the design is structured.
Evolution… to take your design into the future. You may wish to consider the old way of amalgamating two family coats of arms. This can be researched. My feeling on this is that you should consider what it is you wish to preserve of your own design. Will your design have a prescribed way of developing? Expanding and growing in complexity perhaps, or, splitting and reducing?
Lastly, why would anyone want a coat of arms? Aren’t they old school and pretentious? Probably, yes. But then why can’t we recycle ideas and make something new? The social contexts of the coat of arms is long dead. Those families that hold on to them have something special but they are no longer special in the sense that the coat of arms would have once suggested. For example, today’s social normalization has decimated the education gap between social classes. Historical power struggles for land are largely over (corporations and governments aside), I won’t be printing this on the uniform of soldiers or hired thugs, but I’ll using it to represent my family via post or online. Ultimately, my intention is to see the coat of arms as something that can grow with a family.
I’ll follow this up with a detailed design next week. Here is a great visual explaining the elements found in a coat of arms.