Written By: A Thompson
“Heraldry” as a word descends from the Germanic phrase harja-waldaz, which means “army commander.” Its meaning can be taken in three ways: [1.] all the issues relative to the duties and responsibilities of an officer of arms; [2.] the exercise of creation, display, recitation, and recording of heraldic badges; and finally, [3.] the profession or study of granting and/or blazoning arms as well as ruling on questions of rank or protocol. The practice of heraldry began as a way to distinguish individuals in battle. However, it has since diffused into a rather general practice”for example, municipals commonly apply for them in Eastern Europe.
The characteristics and history of heraldry can be geographically grouped. The grouping discussed here focuses on the German-Nordic tradition. Included under the heading of German-Nordic are: Germany, Estonia, Latvia, the Czech lands, parts of Switzerland, and the Scandinavian countries. The tradition of heraldry in these areas has remained fairly static over time. A characteristic of particular note in German-Nordic heraldry is the treatment of the crest. Many times the crest is indistinguishable from the shield, although multiple crests are also common. Unlike, for instance, British heraldry, it can sometimes mark the difference between branches of a family. Another important trait is that the usage of torse is optional, but courtoisie is often observed.
The holding linchpin of German-Nordic heraldry is German heraldry. German heraldry is a cultural tradition and style harking back to the Holy Roman Empire, which includes national, civic, noble, burgher, and ecclesiastical heraldry under its heading. It is a singular style that has strongly influenced the rather late developing Nordic customs. Characteristics of the German tradition include a lack of furs, multiple crests, inseparability of the crest, and charge repetition upon shield and crest. Other things of notice are that the mullets have six points instead of the normal five, and beasts included can be patterned. That said, there are similarities to other European heraldic traditions, such as prominent usage of the eagle and lion. In the Germanic tradition, the eagle came to represent the Holy Roman Empire whereas the lion was a sign of the feudal lords.
Speaking of feudal lords brings us to Danish heraldry, a rather prominent subset of the German-Nordic standard. Danish heraldry has its roots in the medieval period when coats of arms made their initial appearance. This particular branch is of importance due to providing an excellent example of the tradition”for instance, the usage of vesselhorn (pairs of buffalo horns) common to Scandinavian and German heraldry or the usage of a single standard for an entire family versus unique crests per each individual. Other traits are the lack of badges or using crests without shields. That said, not all of those found under the umbrella of German-Nordic standard are without differences. The Swedish version is known for multiple peculiarities.
Most of this entry has been about the past or specific traits, but it should be noted that the tradition, while relatively static, continues to change.