Monday, August 20, 2012

Answering a Ten-Year-Old Question

A full decade ago (gosh, has it really been that long?), back in 2002, I gave a presentation entitled  New Directions in Heraldry (subtitled “But there really is ‘nothing new under the sun’”).  (If you'd like to read it, a copy of this presentation, with illustrations, can be found on-line at:

When I wrote that paper, it was not my intention to necessarily lend support to any of the “new directions” of which I spoke; I was merely trying to document a long-standing  trend that I saw.  My interest in the topic had been aroused because of some of the on-line discussions occurring at the time which were very much opposed to some of the new “innovations” being introduced into heraldry by one heraldic authority or another.  You know, radical stuff like modern charges, new complex lines of division, and even (horrors!) new tinctures.  It was then, and remains today, my belief that heraldry from its inception has regularly opened itself to new things like these, and that the innovations being written against (by some, not by all) were really nothing “new.”

In a conversation following that presentation, I was approached by an individual who seemed to believe that I was espousing the introduction of such innovations I mentioned in my talk.  During that conversation I did note, as an example, that I thought perhaps that sufficient time had passed since its invention to allow heralds to define a more or less standard “heraldic” locomotive.  His immediate response was, “Why can’t they just use a wheel?” (to keep whatever symbolism was being sought for in the design).  A third party joined the conversation at this point, and I never did get around to answer the question.

My short answer, however, would have been something along the lines of, “Perhaps because they didn’t want to.”  A longer answer would have included the fact that heraldry is not a static art (the main point of my presentation, after all); it has always added new charges, and many of these are now accepted without even a question as to their propriety for use in coats of arms.  Someone wants a scimitar?  “Why can’t they just use a [regular] sword?”  Someone wants to use purple?  “Why can’t they just use gules [red]?”  And how many different variations of ermine do we need in  heraldry, really?  Even going way back, we have ermine, ermines [or, counter-ermine], erminois, pean, erminites.  “Why can’t they just use ermine?”

I don’t think that heraldry should immediately adopt every new object or tincture or idea for such that comes along.  (I have, for example, some very strong reservations about “rainbow” as a tincture.*)  But I believe that when an object has been around long enough to have acquired a comparatively distinctive, identifiable shape, the fact that it has not appeared in heraldry before now should not be a bar to its entry into the heraldic lexicon.

So, copper as a new metal?  Sure, why not?  Chinese dragons?  You bet.  An art that has introduced purpure [purple] and unicorns in its past should be able to include these newer items without causing the heraldic world to shake from its foundations and fall.  And to me, this ability to innovate, to change somewhat with the times, is part of the appeal, and longevity, of this art that we call heraldry.

* No, really.  It’s been suggested.  And here’s an example, Ermine a wyvern erect rainbow:


  1. the problem with copper as a new metal is that it is too easily confused with gold. Previously, heralds have used argent and or to describe not only any white or yellow metal, but white or yellow themselves.

  2. And yet, when it's done well copper cannot be mistaken for or (gold)/yellow. See, for example, the arms of the City of Whitehorse, which uses a copper field, at, or the three salmon in the arms of Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver at