What Is Vexillology?

Vexillology focuses on the different flags of the world.
Vexillology focuses on the different flags of the world.

Vexillology refers to the scientific study of flags and their associated emblems. The study covers the research into all manner of flags in history as well as the modern flags, their creation, design, usage, and the theory behind the development. Vexillology strives to explain and understand the significant roles of the flags in the modern world. The term vexillology has its roots in Latin language from the word vexillium, which a term is used by the Romans to refer to a standard fabric which was hung on a horizontal cross bar.

History of Flags

Flags are distinctively designed fabrics essential to nations around the world mainly because they are a symbol for the country. Flags date back to ancient times when they were a common sight on battlefields to represent the armies battling at a particular time. Some of the most notable designs used in antiquity include the eagle which was used by Augustus Ceaser's legion. The development of flags progressed on into the middle ages, particularly among the knights. During the middle ages, various communities such as the Old Swiss Confederacy started using flags as field signs. While at sea, ships began flying the flags of their country in the 17th century and the tradition later evolved into a legal requirement. Vessels at sea also used flags to communicate with one another. The Danish flag is the world's oldest with a history dating back to the 13th century. The Danish government officially adopted it in 1625. Mauritania was the last nation in the world to select their current flag which they did on August 15, 2017.

History of Vexillology

Before vexillology became an independent branch of study, flags were studied as part of heraldry. Whitney Smith bears most of the responsibility or the establishment and organization of the discipline as an autonomous discipline. In 1961, Whitney and his colleague Gerhard Grahl were the first to publish a journal about flags. Whitney Smith was a distinguished flag designer having created the Guyanese flag. Several governments and organizations utilized his skills to design their flag with one of his most notable contributions being to a committee that developed the design for the flag of Bonaire. His death in 2016 at the age of 76 was a significant blow to the vexillologist community. One of the most well-known vexillologists is Željko Heimer from Croatia who received the highest award in vexillology from The International Federation of Vexillological Associations. Seven individuals including Željko Heimer and Whitney Smith have been awarded the honor. Captain Edward Murray was the first person to receive the honor in 1983 due to his contribution to vexillology. He was given the honor in recognition of his contribution to vexillology such as establishing the Heraldry Society Flag Section. The section would later become the Flag Institute.

International Cooperation

Various international organizations have been established to promote collaboration between vexillologists across the world. These organizations are mainly tasked with creating a universal standard to which their members strive to live up to in their professional lives. The organizations also provide an opportunity for vexillologist to network and meet with colleagues from around the world. The International Federation of Vexillological Associations, established in 1969, is the international body to which most vexillological associations belong. Members of the association are drawn from countries such as Argentina, Germany, and Canada. Whitney Smith played a significant role in establishing the association together with his colleagues Klaes Sierksma, and Louis Mühlemann. The three distinguished individuals worked together to establish the International League of Vexillologists, and they served on its Governing Board for about two years. The association would later replace the league, and Whitney Smith would serve as the first secretary general. The precursor to the league was the First International Congress of Vexillology held in the Netherlands in 1965. Klaes Sierksma and Whitney Smith were credited with the organizing of the Congress. The International Federation of Vexillological Associations confers honors to members as recognition for their work. The association's current secretary general is a distinguished British vexillologist Graham Bartram. Some of Graham's most iconic designs include the flag used by the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom and the flag used by Tristan da Cunha, a group of islands within the Atlantic Ocean. He is also a published author with British Flags and Emblems being his most famous book.

Importance of Vexillology

The study of flags is an essential field as it allows a deeper understanding of a people's history. Studying flags particularly those used in battle will enable historians to figure out who won a battle especially if there were no written records. The color a nation chooses to use within its flag may hold historical significance such as if a state was colonized and attained its independence through armed struggle red may be used in the flag to represent the bloodshed. Flags such as the American flag involve symbols to represent the territories that form the nation. Studying the symbols on such a flag may allow people to understand the history of a nation's regions. Studying flags is also vital to understanding the economic activities of a particular group. Flag designs usually include the most significant economic activity such as agricultural produce or minerals. The design allows one to have a partial understanding of the major economic sectors. Various flag designs incorporate religious symbols of the dominant religion within a nation. Studying the symbols within such a flag enables one to understand the religious landscape of a country as well. The main religion practiced in a country dramatically influences the culture and how individuals live their lives. The faith may also affect the nation's laws.

Efficient Flag Design

A nation's flag is critical to its international image; therefore, a lot of care is taken to ensure that the proper design is chosen. Vexillologists follow several important rules when creating the design for their flags with the most basic being that the flag needs to be simple. A simple design ensures that a flag is memorable for people to instantly recognize. The colors and symbols selected should also have significance to the country or the organization that will make use of the flag. Since colors and symbols are some of the most enduring means of communicating a message great care needs to be taken to ensure that the message being conveyed is the right one. Another essential rule as set out by the editor of the Raven, the official journal of the American Vexillological Association, is that flags should be unique. Each nation has a unique heritage and history, and the design of their flag should convey this. Since national flags will be used on the international stage, they should be unique for easy recognition. In case a country's flag is based on another nation's flag, steps should be taken to ensure uniqueness.


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