Coats of arms, hereditary graphic signs identifying families of nobility, first appeared in Poland in the 13th century. The Polish use of these signs differed in some aspects from what was typical in other countries - a single coat of arms may have been used by numerous Polish families. Culture.pl takes a quick look at the basics of heraldry and its Polish specificity.
A crowd of foreigners
The origins of coats of arms date back to the times of the first crusades that took place in the 11th and 12th centuries. During these escapades of warriors from different European countries to the Middle East quite a significant problem arose: how to distinguish friend from foe? When you had just a single country’s armed forces it was fairly easy to grasp who your brothers in arms were, but a crowd of foreigners armed to the teeth, that was a different story – in the confusion of battle friendly casualties could well occur. To solve this problem the crusaders’ shields were painted with identifying signs. When you saw a familiar mark you knew the man carrying it was an ally and, as such, shouldn’t die by your hand. These marks eventually evolved into coats of arms, hereditary graphic signs identifying families of the nobility, used not only on shields but in a variety of places including books, architectural details, even tableware. Coats of arms first appeared in France in the 12th century and made their way to Poland a century later.
Sometimes less means more
The discipline that deals with all things linked to coats of arms is called heraldry, after its earliest practitioners – heralds. These historical state officials were tasked with overseeing the observance of knightly customs. Over the centuries, the traditions around coats of arms grew ever richer, giving rise to immensely elaborate graphic signs, but still the basics of heraldry remained surprisingly close to its origin.
In its simplest form a graphic sign constituting a coat of arms consists of a plain shield with an emblem on it. An example of such a design is the Jagiellonian Cross, the mark of Poland’s royal Jagiellonian dynasty. This coat of arms shows that sometimes less means more, as in this case very few graphic elements stand for a great deal of power (the Jagiellonians ruled over Poland when it was one of Europe’s most formidable states).
Generally, in coats of arms the shield serves as a background and often comes in one of the seven colours mainly used to compose coats of arms: blue, red, green, purple, black, silver (often substituted with white) and golden (often substituted with yellow). These colours are also used to create the emblems, which can show a great variety of objects, from geometrical shapes, holy crosses, human figures to plants, animals, weapons, musical instruments and more.
Both the colours and emblems have symbolic meanings that can be decoded by one privy to the so-called ‘hermetic language of heraldry’. For example, the colour silver is associated with such things as honesty, peace or the moon whereas the image of a lion evokes courage and strength. Due to the complexity of, amongst others, this language, the noted French writer Victor Hugo called coats of arms the ‘hieroglyphs of feudalism’. However, the symbolic sphere of coats of arms isn’t very precise unlike some of the meanings carried by the ancient Egyptian pictographs.
The basic form of a shield with an emblem can be embellished by a number of traditional elements. The shield may be held by animal or human figures called ‘supporters’. On top of the shield there can be a helmet with a crest. The helmet can have draperies otherwise known as mantlings attached to it, which flow ornately around the shield. A crown holding down the draperies is sometimes found on top of the helmet. Its shape varies depending on the rank of the nobleman who’s coat of arms it’s part of. Counts get a different crown than dukes and so on and so forth. The coat of arms is, in some cases, shown on a background consisting of an ermine-lined cloak.
Some coats of arms include more than one emblem, for example, to convey the ancestry of its owner. An example of a heavily embellished coat of arms is the sign of the Polish Światopełk-Czetwertyński dukes, who traces their lineage back to the Rurikids, the well-known Rus dynasty that emerged in the 10th century. This mark contains many of the elements listed above.
The Polish practice of using coats of arms differed in some aspects from what was typical in other countries, over the years a local specificity came into existence. The peculiarities of Polish heraldry may be explained, for instance, by taking a closer look at a very traditional Polish coat of arms called Rawicz, dating back to the 14th century (in this article we only discuss coats of arms of the nobility leaving out those of cities and regions due to how broad the latter two topics are).
Over 300 families, including the Arciszewskis, Ostrowskis and Stanowskis used this sign which shows a maiden riding on a bear. The noted Polish writer Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz was entitled to it as well. So as you can see, in Poland, unlike in other countries, a given coat of arms wasn’t restricted to identifying just the one family. The various families that shared a single mark (often related, even if distantly) could very well have different surnames – and to make things more complicated the sign itself often had a name or, in some cases, a many different names.
The coat of arms Rawicz was also called Rawa, Niedźwiada and Rawita. The name of a Polish coat of arms could stem from different things, like the surname of its initial holder, the name of his seat, or the shape of his emblem. The origins of the name Rawicz aren’t entirely clear, but some scholars argue that it comes from a battle cry that predates the mark. A battle cry was used by a knight as a short vocal signal given to the warriors under his command to attack or to gather at a certain point. A number of Polish battle cries were used also as the names of coats of arms.
The Rawicz coat of arms has the battle cry ‘Rawa!’ (pronounced: Rah-Vah) assigned to it, which suggests that there might be a link here. A fixed correlation between a given coat of arms and a particular battle cry (or sometimes even a few) is also something that’s distinctive of Polish heraldry. Moreover, in Poland you can find variations of the same coat of arms, which in other heraldic systems would simply be considered separate marks. For example, Rawicz can be composed of a maiden in a red dress and a black bear on a golden or blue background. It’s crest, a black bear, may be shown either holding a rose or with an empty paw.
A famous fictitious character bearing the coat of arms Rawicz is Andrzej Kmicic, the protagonist of the historical novel The Deluge by Nobel prize-winner Henryk Sienkiewicz. Interestingly enough, his real-life protoplast, Samuel Kmicic held a different coat of arms, namely Radzic. Just another piece of the immensely rich tradition behind Polish heraldry…
Author: Marek Kępa, June 2017
P.S. Part two is coming up! It’ll include some pretty unusual Polish coat of arms (ever seen a sea cat?), as well as the stories and legends behind them.