What is Heraldry? What is Vexillology?

The flag of the Federation of Vexillological Associations.
The flag of the Federation of Vexillological Associations.

Heraldry refers to the display, design, and study of armory and coat of arms. Vexillology is the study of the symbolism, history, and usage of flags. Armory is the popular branch of heraldry which deals with transmission and design of heraldic achievements commonly referred to as the coat of arms. The coats of arms include crest, helmet, and shield together with all the accompanying devices like mottoes, banners, badges, and supporters.

Technically, the phrase "coat of arms’’ encompasses the whole heraldic achievement together with the shield of arm. The shield is the only vital part of a coat of arms; in fact, no coat of arms exists without the shield. The study of flags was considered to be a branch of heraldry until 1957 when Whitney Smith coined the term "vexillology". A vexillographer is a person who designs flags while the art of developing a flag is known as vexillography. A vexillologist is a person who studies flag while a vexillophile is a general fan of flags.

The Origin Of Vexillology

Although the usage of flags dates back to the earliest civilization, the study of the use of flags is quite recent that the name for the study did not appear in prints until 1959. Whitney Smith, a U.S scholar, formalized vexillology in 1961 when he published "The Flag Bulletin". Before the term vexillology was coined, the study of flags was considered to be a branch of heraldry.

The History Of Heraldry

Even though the usage of these devices to signify groups and individuals dates back to antiquity, the use and form of such devices varied widely, and the concept of hereditary designs with the distinguishing features of heraldry did not develop until the high Medieval era which began around 1000 AD and ended around 1250 AD. The usage of helmets, which had faceguards, made it hard to recognize the commanders in a field with armies gathered together, and this necessitated the need for the development of heraldry.

The spread of the armory all over Europe gave rise to a new role known as the "herald". A herald was a messenger who was employed by noblemen to learn and know the heraldic devices, pedigree, and rank of various lords and knights. The Herald was also required to learn all the protocols and rules governing the description and design of the coat of arms, and by the late thirteenth century numerous heralds were given the title "king of arms".

Previously the arms were worn by anyone without the need for a heraldic authority, but during the mid-fourteenth century, the principle of only one person bearing a specific arm was accepted. The disputes over the arms led to the creation of a heraldic authority to help regulate their usage. The increase in the number of conflicts arising from many people using the same coat of arm forced Henry V to issue a proclamation which barred all those who did bear the arms in the Agincourt battle from assuming the arms except by a grant from the crown or inheritance. Currently, organizations, towns, cities, and regions use heraldry to symbolize their achievements, aspirations, and heritage.


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