Lines and ordinaries

Written By: Elena Johnston

The Ordinary Charges

Coats of arms frequently feature bold and simple geometrical designs. This is hardly surprising, since the whole point of a coat of arms was to be easily recognized from across a battlefield or amid the commotion of a tournament. In shield design, as in so many areas of life, the simplest solutions are among the most effective, and a handful of simple designs are so ubiquitous as to have earned the name “ordinaries.”

A “chief” consists of a bar across the top of a shield, as in the arms of the Scottish clan Menzies.

A “pale” is a stripe running down the center of a shield. If there are multiple smaller stripes, they are called pallets. 

A chief and a pale can also be combined together into a T-shape. 

A fess, as seen here in the arms of Austria, is a horizontal band across the shield.

The red cross of St. George, displayed on the arms of the City of London, is formed out of a pale and fess together.

A cross becomes a saltire when it is turned diagonally, as seen on the flag of Scotland. A saltire is also known as St. Andrew’s cross.

A chevron is a bar in the shape of an upside-down “V,” as in the arms of Trans, Switzerland. The arms of Boligen, Switzerland features a chevron interlaced with an inverted chevron. Where several small chevrons are displayed, they are called “chevronelles.”

A bend is a stripe running from the top of the shield, on the dexter side, to the bottom of the shield, on the sinister side, which is to say from the top left of the image to the bottom right. Although a coat of arms is typically a painted image in modern use, the vocabulary of heraldry originally developed in reference to actual coats worn by actual knights. Hence, the words “right” and “left”, or rather, “dexter” and “sinister”, are always used with reference to the hypothetical knight behind the shield, rather than to the viewer.

A bend running in the opposite direction is called a “bend sinister.” This is used much less frequently than its dexterous counterpart, and is not considered an ordinary. It was sometimes used as a mark of distinction, signifying bastardy, as in the arms of Arthur Plantagenet.


Party lines

The very simplest way to make a shield distinctly recognizable is to divide the field into two parts with a single line, then paint a metal (gold or silver) on one side and one of the five heraldic colors (blue, red, purple, black, or green) on the other. Of course, this method cannot produce very many distinct coats of arms by itself, but when combined with various charges, field divisions multiply the possibilities for unique designs. Divided fields are also used in the marshalling of arms, when multiple coats of arms are combined into one.

The lines dividing the field on a coat of arms go by the same names as the corresponding ordinaries. If a shield is divided by a vertical line running down the middle, it is said to be party per (or parted by) pale. A horizontally halved shield is party per fess, and a shield that is divided into quarters is either party per cross or party per saltire, depending upon the orientation of the lines.

The lines on a coat of arms do not have to be straight, but can be patterned in a variety of different ways, such as this fir pattern displayed on the municipal arms of Ylanaa, Finland.

A shield will often have separate charges on each part of the field, but when a charge crosses over a dividing line, it is an opportunity for counterchanging, as in these lovely arms from Behnsdorf, Germany.

What are the diffrences between a coat of arms and a Japanese kamon?

Written By: Eric Riley

Japanese family symbols, or kamon ((R)), were essentially the Japanese equivalent of the European coat of arms. Both were regarded as identifying symbols of families and both served similar purposes on the battlefield. As they are very similar in function, the main difference between a coat of arms and a mon is in the details.

In European heraldry, coats of arms were adopted by knights during the Middle Ages as a form of identification on the battlefield. A typical coat of arms consists of a shield with a helmet with mantle and crest atop it and oftentimes with a pair of symbols surrounding it and the knight’s family’s motto below it. Initially, only members of the nobility could have a coat of arms, although eventually, around the time of the 15th century, organizations such as corporations and universities were officially granted permission to have their own coats of arms.

In Japan, mon were initially adopted by the nobility as a form of identifying what clan they were from. They were eventually adopted by the samurai as a battle standard to identify each other. This is one difference between kamon and coats of arms: the order of adoption is reversed. Coats of arms were initially conceived by knights as a battle standard and eventually adopted by the nobility as a family identifier, whereas kamon were initially conceived by the nobility as a family identifier and eventually adopted by the samurai as a battle standard. A standard mon usually consists of a single symbol, such as the imperial family’s stylized chrysanthemum blossom or the Tokugawa’s three hollylock leaves inside a circle. There generally wasn’t a set standard as to what a mon could look like.

There is another significant difference between the two. In European heraldry, only noble families were permitted to have a coat of arms. In contrast, in Japan, all families, no matter what caste they were from, could and did have a kamon. This was essentially a necessity as during the Tokugawa period of 1600 to 1868, only samurai were permitted to have a surname – families needed kamon to identify their own lineages. Much like the coats of arms in Europe, organizations such as guilds, temples, shrines, and theater troupes could have mons. However, unlike European heraldry, there was no authoritative governing body that authorized the use of mons. Rather, the way in which a crest could be used was generally determined by social customs and propriety.

Today, there is still no official governing body determining how a kamon can be used, with the exception of the mon of the imperial family and the mon of the prime minister’s office. These are very common, and it is in fact quite likely that you see some on a regular basis. For example, one of the most famous kamons commonly seen is the logo of the Mitsubishi Group, which was originally the kamon of the company’s founding samurai family. Coats of arms require strict, formal guidelines for use as well as authorization from a governing body. That is not the case with kamon – anybody can have one so long as they don’t intrude on others.


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