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In heraldry and heraldic vexillology, a blazon is a formal description of a coat of arms, flag or similar emblem, from which the reader can reconstruct the appropriate image. The visual depiction of a coat of arms or flag traditionally has considerable latitude in design, while a blazon specifies the essentially distinctive elements; thus it can be said that a coat of arms or flag is primarily defined not by a picture but rather by the wording of its blazon (though often flags are in modern usage additionally and more precisely defined using geometrical specifications). Blazon also refers to the specialized language in which a blazon is written, and, as a verb, to the act of writing such a description. This language has its own vocabulary, grammar and syntax, or rules governing word order, which becomes essential for comprehension when blazoning a complex coat of arms.
The word blazon is derived from French blason, "shield." It is found in English by the end of the 14th century.
The blazon of armorials follows a rigid formula:
- Every blazon of a coat of arms begins by describing the field (background), followed by a comma ",". In a majority of cases this is a single tincture; e.g. Azure (blue). If the field is complex, the variation is described, followed by the tinctures used; e.g. Chequy gules and argent (checkered red and white). If the shield is divided, the division is described, followed by the tinctures of the subfields, beginning with the dexter side (shield bearer's right, but viewer's left) of the chief (upper) edge; e.g. Party per pale argent and vert (dexter half silver, sinister half green), or Quarterly argent and gules (clockwise from top left: white, red, white, red).
- The principal charge(s) are then named, with their tincture(s); e.g. a bend Or.
- The principal charge is followed by any other charges placed around or on it. If a charge be a bird or beast, its attitude is described, followed by the animal's tincture, followed by anything that may be differently coloured; e.g. An eagle displayed gules, armed and wings charged with trefoils Or (see the coat of arms of Brandenburg).
A composite shield is blazoned one panel at a time, proceeding by rows from chief (top) to base, and within each row from dexter (the right side of the bearer holding the shield) to sinister; in other words, from the viewer's left to right. A divided shield is blazoned "party per [line of division]" or "parted per [line of division]", though the word "party" or "parted" is almost always omitted (e.g. "Per pale argent and vert, a tree eradicated counterchanged"). A tincture is sometimes replaced by "of the first", "of the second" etc. to avoid repetition of tincture names; they refer to the order in which the tinctures were first mentioned. "Counterchanged" means that a charge which straddles a line of division is tinctured of the same tinctures as the divided field, reversed (see Behnsdorf arms pictured above).
But as to the rigid formulae of blazoning, John Brooke-Little, Norroy and Ulster King of Arms, wrote in 1985: “Although there are certain conventions as to how arms shall be blazoned ... many of the supposedly hard and fast rules laid down in heraldic manuals [including those by heralds] are often ignored.”
A given coat-of-arms may be drawn in many different ways, all considered equivalent, just as the letter "A" may be printed in many different fonts while still being the same letter. For example, the shape of the escutcheon is almost always immaterial, so long as it is not of an anachronistic variety, a rare exception being the coat of arms of Nunavut, for which a round shield is specified.
Because heraldry developed at a time when English clerks wrote in Anglo-Norman French, many terms in English heraldry are of French origin, as is the practice of placing most adjectives after nouns rather than before.
Several websites (cited below) give illustrations of coats of arms with blazons; these can give the reader a good practical feel for blazons and blazoning.
Full descriptions of shields range in complexity, from a single word to a convoluted series describing compound shields:
- Arms of Brittany: Ermine
- Azure, a bend Or, over which the families of Scrope and Grosvenor fought a famous legal battle (see Scrope v. Grosvenor and image above).
- Arms of Östergötland, Sweden: Gules a griffin with dragon wings, tail and tongue rampant Or armed, beaked, langued and membered azure between four roses argent.
- Arms of Hungary dating from 1867, when part of Austria-Hungary:
Quarterly, I azure, three lions' heads affrontés crowned Or (for Dalmatia); II chequy gules and argent (for Croatia); III azure, a river in fess gules bordered argent thereupon a marten proper beneath a six-pointed star Or (for Slavonia); IV per fess azure and Or, overall a bar gules in the chief a demi-eagle sable displayed addextré of the sun in splendour and senestré of a crescent argent in the base seven towers three and four gules (for Transylvania); enté en point gules, a double-headed eagle proper on a peninsula vert holding a vase pouring water into the sea argent beneath a crown proper with bands azure (for Fiume); overall an escutcheon barry of eight gules and argent impaling gules, on a mount vert a crown Or issuant therefrom a double cross argent (for Hungary).
- "blazon, n.". OED Online. June 2012. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/20024 (accessed September 10, 2012).
- Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 9th. ed., vol.11, p.683, "Heraldry"
- J P Brooke-Little: An heraldic alphabet (new and revised edition), p. 52. Robson Books, London, 1985.
- Velde, François (August 1998). "Hungary". Heraldry by Countries. Retrieved 2007-12-13.
- Brault, Gerard J. (1997). Early Blazon: Heraldic Terminology in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries, (2nd ed.). Woodbridge, UK: The Boydell Press. ISBN 0-85115-711-4 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].
- Elvin, Charles Norton. (1969). A Dictionary of Heraldry. London: Heraldry Today. ISBN 0-900455-00-4 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].
- Parker, James. A Glossary of Terms Used in Heraldry, (2nd ed.). Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Co. ISBN 0-8048-0715-9 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].
- Media related to Illustrated atlas of French and English heraldic terms at Wikimedia Commons
- A Heraldic Primer, by Stephen Gold and Timothy Shead, explaining the terminology in detail. URL last accessed 2010-12-27
- Luz Herald: free access to web versions of Burke's General Armory (incomplete, 1,500 British surnames) and Pimbley's Dictionary of Heraldry, as well as Blason des familles d'Europe, Grand Armorial Universel (15,000 European surnames) (in French)
- A Grammar of Blazonry by Bruce Miller. URL last accessed 2012-08-31.
- "Commonly Known" Heraldic Blazon/Emblazon Knowledge, an SCA page with a lengthy dictionary of blazon terms
- Scottish Ensigns Armorial, the blazon of the Arms of the Baron of Kilmarnock.
- Public Register of the Canadian Heraldic Authority with many useful official versions of modern coats of arms, searchable online
- Civic Heraldry of England and Wales, fully searchable with illustrations
- Arms of members of the Heraldry Society of Scotland, fully searchable with illustrations of bearings
- Arms of members of the Heraldry Society (England), with illustrations of bearings
- Members' Roll of Arms of the Royal Heraldry Society of Canada, with illustrations of bearings