Coat of arms

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A coat of arms is, strictly speaking, a distinctive heraldic design on a cloak used to cover and protect armour, but the term is more broadly applied to mean a full heraldic achievement which consists of a shield and certain accessories. In either sense, the design is a symbol unique to a person, family, corporation, or state. Such displays are also commonly called armorial bearings, armorial devices, heraldic devices, or arms.

Historically, armorial bearings were first used by feudal lords and knights in the mid-12th century on battlefields as a way to identify allied from enemy soldiers. As the uses for heraldic designs expanded, other social classes who never would march in battle began to assume arms for themselves. Initially, those closest to the lords and knights adopted arms, such as persons employed as squires that would be in common contact with the armorial devices. Then priests and other ecclesiastical dignities adopted coats of arms, usually to be used as seals and other such insignia, and then towns and cities to likewise seal and authenticate documents. Eventually by the mid-13th century, peasants, commoners and burghers were adopting heraldic devices. The widespread assumption of arms led some states to regulate heraldry within their borders. However, in most of continental Europe, citizens freely adopted armorial bearings.

Despite no widespread regulation, and even with a lack in many cases of national-level regulation, heraldry has remained rather consistent across Europe, where traditions alone have governed the design and use of arms. Unlike seals and other general emblems, heraldic achievements have a formal description called a blazon, expressed in a jargon that allows for consistency in heraldic depictions.

In the 21st century, coats of arms are still in use by a variety of institutions and individuals; for example, universities have guidelines on how their coats of arms may be used, and protect their use as trademarks.[1][2][3] Many societies exist that also aid in the design and registration of personal arms, and some nations, like England and Scotland, still maintain to this day the mediaeval authorities that grant and regulate arms.

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