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Heraldry, Shields and Christian Names

How early European Coats of Arms were granted

Since the early 13th Century, Coats of Arms and Heraldry have been a source of great fascination as well as a subject of true historical importance. It is easy to understand why more than half a million Coats of Arms recorded by individuals with their respective family names are still being researched and studied after more than seven centuries.

How the term "Coat of Arms" evolved makes an interesting story. Because wars were almost a continual occurrence during the Middle Ages, more and more armour was added to a knight's battle uniform until the medieval warrior was finally protected from head to toe. The metal suit of armour always included a helmet to protect the head, thus it was virtually impossible to tell one knight from another.

In order to prevent any mishaps on the battlefield such as one friend injuring another, a means of identification was necessary. A colourful solution first came as knights painted patterns on their battle shields. These patterns were eventually woven into cloth surcoats which were worn over the suit of armour. In fact, many a horse was also seen prancing around in a fancy cloth surcoat with its masters Coat of Arms on the side.

This colourful identification was certainly displayed with great pride. As more designs were created, it became necessary to register or copyright these designs to prevent two knights from using the same insignia. Records were kept that gave each knight exclusive rights to his arms. In many cases, records were then compiled listing the family name and an exact description of its Coat of Arms. These are called "Armorials" or "Blazons".

The word "heraldry" is associated with Coats of Arms due to the role of the herald in recording the blazons, and comes from a common practice at a medieval sporting event. Tournaments (or jousting contests) were popular during the days of knighthood and as each soldier was presented at a tournament, a herald sounded the trumpet and then announced the knight's achievements and described his Arms. The heralds would then record the Arms as a way of ensuring that a family maintained its protective rights to have and use its individual Arms.

History Shield Designs

Coats of Arms are intertwined with herald and history. Historically, different creatures of nature denoted certain characteristics, and various inanimate shapes implied certain traits, historical factors or aspirations.

For example, the chevron symbolized protection and has often been placed on Arms to tell others that its bearer achieved some notable feat. A symbol (or charge) placed on a Coat of Arms usually provided clues to a person's being. Some Arms are an artistic interpretation of a person's name, e.g. many of the Fisher Arms include dolphins or other fish. Many Arms reveal a person's occupation. Others tell about less tangible characteristics, such as the early bearer's hopes, wishes and aspirations.

For example, hope is shown by a wheat garb or sheaf, and joy by garlands of flowers or a red rose. Crosses and religious symbols often meant the person felt a closeness to his god, or could have symbolized that the knight was a veteran of one of history's bloodiest series of battles - The Crusades.

Origins of Christian names around the world

We generally think of names with three parts: first, middle and last. First names are called "Christian" or "Given" names, because early Christians changed their pagan first names to Christian names at baptism.

Most first names used in the Western World today originate from five languages: Hebrew, Teutonic (which included Germanic), Greek, Latin and Celtic (which includes Irish, Welsh and Scottish).

NameOriginProbable Meaning
AlexanderGreekHelper of humanity
AmyFrenchBeloved
AndrewGreekManly
Ann, AnneHebrewGrace
AnthonyLatinPraiseworthy or priceless
BarbaraGreekStranger
BenjaminHebrewSon of the right hand
BrianCelticStrong
Carl, CharlesTeutonicMan
CatherineGreekPure
ChristopherGreekChrist bearer
DanielHebrewGod is my judge
DeborahHebrewBee
DennisGreekOf Dionysus, god of wine
DorothyGreekGift of God
DouglasCelticDark water
EdwardTeutonicRich guardian
Elain, EllenGreekLight
ElizabethHebrewOath of God
EmilyLatinIndustrious
EricTeutonicKingly
EthelTeutonicNoble
Francis, FrankTeutonicFree
FrederickTeutonicPeaceful ruler
GeorgeGreekFarmer
GeraldTeutonicStrong with a spear
GloriaLatinGlorious
HaroldTeutonicWarrior
HelenGreekLight
Henry TeutonicRuler of the home
JamesHebrewMay God protect
Jane, Janet, JeanHebrewGift of God
JeffreyTeutonicGod's peace
JenniferCelticWhite wave
JoanHebrewGift of God
JohnHebrewGod's gracious gift
JosephHebrewThe Lord shall add
Judith, JudyHebrewJewess or praised
Julia, JulieLatinDowny face
KarenGreekPure
Kevin CelticGentle and beloved
LauraLatinLaurel
LoisGreekDesirable
Margaret GreekPearl
MarkLatinOf Mars, Roman god of war
MaryHebrewBitter
MatthewHebrewGift of God
MelanieGreekBlack
MichaelHebrewGodlike
MorganCelticSea dweller
NancyHebrewGrace
NatalieLatinChristmas child
PatriciaLatinOf noble birth
PaulLatinLittle
PhilipGreekLover of horses
RachelHebrewEwe
RichardTeutonicRule hard
RobertTeutonicBright flame
RonaldTeutonicAdvice, power
SamuelHebrewGod has heard
Sara, SarahHebrewPrincess
Steven, StephenGreekCrown or garland
Susan, SusannahHebrewLily
Teresa, TheresaGreekHarvester
TheodoreGreekGift of God
ThomasAramaicTwin
VictorLatinVictory in battle
VirginiaLatinPertaining to spring
WalterTeutonicPowerful ruler
WilliamTeutonicHelmet

Middle Names

Middle names weren't used until the 15th Century when a second 'First' name was used as a status symbol by German nobility. Many years passed before this practice became widespread, and in the United States, it did not become popular until after the Revolutionary War, when the fashion was to use the mother's maiden name.