You can get a copy of your family crest online or even in a shopping mall, but what is it you're getting? And what does it really mean, if anything? The answers aren't as straightforward as you might think.
What's the difference between a family crest and a coat of arms? Historically, they're related ‒ both have to do with pictorial announcements of the identity of the bearer. The “coat of arms” was originally the cloth worn in battle over a nobleman's war shield. Both the shield and the coat of arms bore the same pictorial representations of the bearer's lineage. The reason for the apparently redundant cloth representation, according to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, is that the coat of arms prevented the metal shield from overheating in the sun. After battle, coats of arms also quickly identified the dead.
In popular usage, “family crest” and “coat of arms” have come to mean the same thing, but the difference between the cloth coat of arms covering a shield in battle and the family crest attached to a warrior’s helmet is still sometimes observed by historians and genealogists.
The Origins of Family Crests
Historically, only noble families had family crests. These were pictorial depictions of family identity, and each element of the crest symbolized something specific about that particular family. A Maltese cross on the crest, for instance, signified that the bearer or an ancestor participated in the Crusades. These depictions were detailed. The eight points of the Maltese cross, for instance, referred to the eight participating European countries. A portion of the shield gilded or painted gold announced that the bearer’s family descended from kings and queens.
The general assumption is that these crests originated with noble European families in the Middle Ages, probably gaining widespread use during the first crusades in the 11th century. This isn’t exactly wrong – most European family crests originated at that time. But it’s also worth noting that family crests were, if anything, even more common in Japan around the same time, where all families, not just nobles, had them. Pictorial identifications of familial identity and history exist on every inhabited continent.
What’s on a Family Crest?
Originally, not much. The crest was another device often worn in battle and consisted, as the name suggests, of a small metal plume attached to the warrior’s helmet. Each warrior had his own distinctive identifying crest. Among other things, it served the practical purpose of helping deflect a blow to the head. Soon, however, the term “crest” broadened in usage to include a fuller pictorial depiction of the bearer’s identity, first on the actual battle shield, then on noble residences and possessions.
One interesting aspect of a family crest is that in its origins, it continuously mutated. Every generation of a noble family added pictorial information about their own identities to the previous generation’s family crest. Gradually, possibly in response to the limited space on the crest for more and more pictorial additions, a family’s crest became fixed and passed unchanged from generation to generation.
Family Crests Today
Although only the descendants of noble families are likely to have an historic family crest, no one can stop you from having a family crest designed for you by any competent artist. You’re responding to the same urge for identity that inspired earlier family crests. What you put on that crest is up to you and whoever you hire to create it.