Monday, June 11, 2007

Why You Need to Design a Coat of Arms for Your Family

This is the first in a series of articles on creating and creatively using what's commonly (but erroneously) known as a "family crest".

First of all, there is no such thing as a "family crest". A "crest" is one segment of a "coat of arms, full achievement". When people speak of a "family crest" what they really mean is a "coat of arms". We'll get into more on that later. But you should know that a coat of arms is not granted to a family, or a surname, but to an individual person... at least in England that's the case. In other countries, such as Scotland, a clan could have a coat of arms (or a cool tartan ;-). In Poland too (until just recently the tartan wasn't an option for the Poles but now it is ;-). However, somewhere along the way the fact that some clans in some countries could share a coat of arms has led to a common misunderstanding that anyone with a surname in common with an individual or clan who had a coat of arms was entitled to use it. Not so. If you didn't personally earn it (a coat of arms was commonly bestowed for valor in Poland), or you didn't inherit it as a direct male descendant, than technically you can't claim it, own it, or use it. Now having said that, I've never heard of heraldic police going about arresting people for what is essentially a misunderstanding. But, hey. It's not your right, you know what I mean? It'd be like sitting on a neighbor's porch while they're not looking. You probably wouldn't get arrested, but it's just not your place to sit. You need to get your own porch.

As a genealogist, you've no doubt seen the advertisements on web sites promising (for a fee of course ;-) to find and deliver your family's coat of arms. Some of these sites come across looking pretty authentic, but don't be fooled. Remember, even if they do happen to have a coat of arms on file that was once used by an individual or clan somewhere that had your same surname, it's not really yours by right. You can dole out the money to legally change your surname to Bush, but no matter how much you spend you're never going to be kin to George W. Same thing goes with a coat of arms. You can buy a copy of someone's coat of arms that had your same surname but that won't really make it yours.

But don't despair! You can create you own coat of arms for your own family... then you own it and you can wear it with pride! (Sorta like sittin' on your own porch, the one attached to the house you've earned the money for and bought... now doesn't that feel better?) What's that you say... you've traced your ancestry and have the documents to prove your right to a heraldic coat of arms? Good for you! Take a lunch break. This article is for the rest of us... the vast majority who either have no ancestors with coats of arms we could inherit, haven't shown our worth on the field of battle to a king (or whoever does the bestowing these days ;-), or we haven't done our homework and come up with the documents to prove our claim. Are you still with me here?

Some may scoff at the idea of creating a coat of arms at first, but think about it for just a minute. Who do you think decided how a family would be represented on a coat of arms? People decided for themselves what would represent their families, that's who. Do you think a nobleman allowed his serfs/peasants to vote on his "colors"? No. Didn't happen. Do you think he let the local metal craftsman choose a hedgehog to represent the family on a battle shield because he saw one run across his path on the way to work in the morning? Nope. Didn't happen. Do you think a knight allowed his liege to choose his coat of arms? Well, O.K. maybe he would. And if you'd like to play knight you can let your liege choose your coat of arms too... or chop his head off, declare yourself king, and choose for yourself!

The point here is, you can choose your own colors, your own coat of arms. You can design one that's uniquely yours and has real meaning for you. And you know what else? You can make the rules on who can use it, inherit it, or earn it... because it's yours. Give it away for use to all your family, extended family, in-laws, whoever you like! Or, make it so unique to yourself or your immediate family that no one else would want to use it. The beauty is, when you make it it's truly yours.

A coat of arms is a symbol of something great. It's worn with pride by the owner. It's about identity. It's about unity. It stands for something that you respect and others will respect. It says, "proven worth", "elite", "class", and "tradition"... that's where it differs from gang symbols and colors (with the class and tradition). When you think about it, it could be a unifying symbol for a family in the same way gang symbols and colors are unifying markers for gangs couldn't it? And wouldn't we all be better off rallying around our family coat of arms rather than letting our kids turn to a street gang for unity and identity? Gotcha thinkin' didn't I?

O.K., O.K. so maybe I got a little carried away with street gang analogy... hey, I'm degreed in the field of psychology so I get to interpret and analyze human behavior and group dynamics a little now and then ;-)

So, what do you think? Have I sold you on idea of designing your own coat of arms yet?

Coming up next: Dissecting a Coat of Arms Achievement


jkc59 said...

Designing a Coat of Arms may just well be a tool to have our generations to see what our values and strenghts are. We live only a few years on the earth but our honors and expectations can go on for generations with a carfully planned Coat of Arms

Jasia said...

Very good point! Thank you for sharing it :-)