So, setting things in the Middle Ages allows me to have a lot of fun with my writing, especially when it comes to heraldry. Everything from the colors, to plants and animals on display, even down to the pattern in the background, usually comes with deep meaning and a personal significance to the family involved. This lets me look at characters in the big picture. Like, the REALLY big picture. I get to sit back and think about, regardless of what the character themselves represent, what their family values are, especially at the foundation of their rise into nobility or significance.
Heraldic imagery can come from a lot of different places. Generally it’s involved in what made the family notable in the first place, or, at least, what the founders wanted to convey. There’s also a lot that depends on geography and economy.
For example: the royal family of Belanor, House Mallory, displays dark red grapes on a field of purple. So what does that mean? Well, grapes symbolize such things as felicity, liberty, and a lot of other things that have to do with freedom. They also symbolize wine-making. Where is House Mallory from? Redgrove. A city in, you guessed it: The Winelands. So while it certainly conveys many good ideas, it also shows that the house gained power in the wine trade. Probably red wines specifically. The purple background, on the other hand, displays the ideas of sovereignty, royalty, and the general “right of rule”.
The grapes also let you know where the family is from. Vineyards are only in the southern regions of Belanor, so that narrows down their origins to the Midlands, Shieldlands, or the Winelands. Further thought brings us to just the Winelands, as no native Midlands or Shieldlands family can grow enough wine to make a severe political or economic impact. You can grow grapes in these other places, but they’re not nearly as ideal as in the Winelands.
Heraldry also allows you to denote the roles of what are called cadet branches. These are essentially part of the family, just very significant within the family itself; enough to require specification, at least. House Mallory of Arkhansala, the ruling branch, decorates their field with crowns, obviously representing the monarchy. Their banner is also always impaled (meaning attached to) the old banner of the now-dead House Callach, the founding family of Belanor, affirming the connection to he monarchy. House Mallory of King’s Crossing, though, has their field decorated with an embattled line, symbolizing a fortification, as they guard the river crossing there, and so forth.
The main Mallory characters mostly display qualities outside of what their house symbol stands for ideologically, implying that the economic side of their symbolism is far more important. But what about a symbol that can encompass the personalities of a wide range of people?
For Clan Alwen, the ruling family in Edhaman, I decided on going with a swan on a field of red. The red symbolizes military might, the warrior, as well as martyrdom. This is fitting because I envisioned Clan Alwen as a warlike and militaristic clan, very influential in the military in particular, coming from a line of warrior-rulers. The martyr color also fits, as a past ruler sacrificed themselves on the battlefield to save the rest of their army and escaping citizens. But what about the swan?
Swans symbolize many things, and its this kind of fluidity that I needed for a family with so many important characters. Poetic harmony, love, and grace are some things the swan symbolizes. But it can also show knowledge and learning, or the love thereof. The swan can also show light and sincerity. Most importantly, though, the swan symbolizes perfection in all things. All of these things, in the end, symbolized the Alwens I hope to focus on in one way or another.
It also works out well because the flag I came up with looked really nice with a white swan on red!
The ideas of the swan work out with Clan Alwen’s motto, which reads as: “We Shall Endure”. Their perfection will endure, their knowledge and learned minds shall endure, the poetry of their house shall endure, etc. I didn’t plan that one out beforehand, so coming across the swan was quite the find indeed.
But, more generally, there’s a lot that goes into heraldry. The features are described in what’s called a blazon. So how does this work out?
Every animal displayed on a heraldic piece has a certain attitude which denotes certain things. There’s a whole language to each attitude. There’s rampant/segreant, passant/trippant, sejant regular and erect, couchant/lodged, courant, dormant, salient/springing/saltant, statant/guardian/at bay, and that’s just for beasts. Birds can be displayed, rising/rousant, volant, trussed/perched, and vigilant. Birds, unlike beasts, almost always face dexter, or left. There are more for rarer heraldic animals, but you can look those up yourself, haha.
Each band and bend and stripe and checkerboard means something, and often many things. Color combinations are not only done for aesthetic appeal, but also because of the symbolism I talked about before. Accessories like crowns, mantling, crests, supporters, etc. come last in blazons, and those have a whole set of meanings behind them as well.
Things get more and more complicated as family coats get subdivided and impaled left and right with other crests as things move along. Far more complicated, really, than I’d like to go into now, or would be comfortable going into in a blog post. I’ll end up talking in detail about characters’ crests and house symbols, if they have them, in greater detail when I address them on here as I inevitably will.
Whether it be a unicorn symbolizing honor, or a castle symbolizing strength and fortitude, heraldry can say a lot about a family, or serve to provide a stark contrast against character personalities. I’m still working on many of the houses, clans, and general families across the nations in terms of heraldry, but hopefully I can use the same thinking throughout to ensure that the symbols not only make sense, but that they are also meaningful.