Heraldry – a study of armorial bearings – has an ancient origin deeply rooted in biology. All living organisms have a genetically coded order for extraction of food and protection of living space. It is realized either passively, like in case of plants or fish, through carefree fertility, or through designation of territory, scaring away or discouraging competitors. Well known is the habit of lions to leave a characteristic smell of excreta to indicate the boundaries of their territory or sound announcements by nightingales claiming ownership of part of a grove or a park. In a society, one of the many ways to confirm ownership is to use a sign of the owner – a ruler, a clan or just a private owner. Such signs used to be laid stones, notches on rocks, trees, stamps burned on the skin of animals. They were also used by primitive tribes, then burghers, artisans, bee keepers, and put on seals of feudal lords. And it was those unique notches, dashes and pictures designed by a particular owner that became a prototype of the future coat of arms.
In times of emergence of medieval states, the elite of the society was chivalry – family groups that owned their own territories and had obligations to the ruler (prince) to provide an armed unit and participate in battles. The core of such a unit – a kin war banner – were knights, heavily armored, fighting with swords, spears and axes, sitting on strong horses and belonging to one family. Since the face of a knight was partially or even completely covered with a helmet, to distinct one from another they used sound signals such as a call, a family motto, a battle cry, as well as visual signs – a banner with a coat of arms as well as colors and coat of arms depicted on garments, helmets and shields. In addition to knights, a unit consisted of mounted crossbowmen, foot archers, squires and servants – also bearing heraldic colours.
In the midst of a battle, it was important to have a clear distinction of friends and foes. Identification of soldiers was so important that it was necessary to treat the matter with all seriousness and thoroughness. Ownership signs of drawn dashes were no longer enough. Signs in contrasting colors and in concrete, recognizable forms appeared on weapons and war banners. Like cats buckle their backs and bristle up to intimidate their foes, knights placed intimidating decorations on their helmets, which made them visually higher and fiercer, frightened enemy horses, and also made them visible from afar. Similar to visual signs, distinctive voice signs, or appeals, were, like coats of arms, attributed to particular military units.
Knights were the elite of the state, a prince or a king chose his officials, generals and judges from among them. Only they, except for the Church and the monarch, had the right to own land. They represented a closed and solidified social group aware of its own superiority, exclusiveness and strength. They had a sense of pride and dignity, and in battles observed the knightly code. Within several hundred years, knights received all possible privileges, starting from extraordinary tax exceptions, to a monopoly on clergy posts, to having their own legal proceedings, exemption from customs duties, and, finally, to liberum veto and the right to elect kings.
In the Polish Crown and the Grand Duchy of Litva *), there were three ways to obtain a status of nobility (i.e. Polish-Litvan gentry or šlachta): adoption, ennoblement and indigenat (from the French indigénat).
Adoption was a recognition of a non-nobleman as a member of a noble family that gave him their coat of arms. The famous group adoption took place in 1413 as a result of the Gorodel Union, when the most influential Polish families granted their coats of arms to Litvan magnates. However, it was most common to adopt close friends, workers who had shown their worth in service, faithful and loyal subjects, combat companions, and sometimes wealthy middle-class men. Adoption became so widespread that in 1633 it was completely banned.
Up until 1578 ennoblement, that is, granting of an unique coat of arms and knighthood, was performed by the King (the Grand Duke) himself, after that it was done by the King under control of the Sojm, and finally, from 1601, by the Sojm, that is, by nobility brotherhood itself through their representatives.
Indigenat was an addition by the King and the Sojm of a foreign nobleman to the nobility and recognition of his coat of arms as Polish. Indigenat was a rarity in the Rzeczpospolita, in its history it was granted just a little more than 400 times. In addition to appropriate merits, a candidate was required to take an oath of allegiance to the Rzeczpospolita.
Unlike other European states, a coat of arms and other privileges were granted not to a particular person, but to the entire family forever. Inheritance greatly increased the number of nobility estate. In the 18th century, it accounted for almost 10 per cent of the population, which was several times more than in other European countries. At the same time, there was a great economic stratification, from great landlord to impoverished gentry without land and income leading a miserable life in towns or in the service of powerful gentlemen. However, in 1505-1775 the gentry was prohibited to trade or to be craftsmen under threat of deprivation of nobility.
A coat of arms indicated continuity of a family line and membership of a privileged class. There were no surnames in medieval Poland and the Grand Duchy of Litva, instead a combination of a name, place of origin and coat of arms were used, for example, Jan from Lyčki of Sulima coat of arms. Over time, this form turned into the family name of Lyčkovski and corresponded to the owners of Lyčki. When descendants of Jan came into possession of other estates, they took their names as their surnames, for example, Chojnicki was derived from Chojny, Nahorski from Nahorki, Alšeŭski from Olša, but all of them belonged to Sulima coat of arms, all were member of the same kin. Therefore, sometimes a single coat of arms refers to several hundred surnames of noble families creating a gigantic heraldic family, with a small degree of kinship or without it, but having a common family root back in ancient times and calling each other crest brothers. Since gentry surnames were often of topographic origin, and less often came from nicknames, they could multiply as many times as there were villages of the same name, for example, Kuzniecy, Dubrava, Jastreby, Vasili, etc. Sons of one father could (and that often happened) have different surnames derived from the names of their estates. A man could also changed his surname when changing his estate. At times a nickname (prydomak). became a surname, but a coat of arms remained the same.
A coat of arms, as a family identification mark, required legal protection of the state. Everywhere outside the Rzeczpospolita specific institutions, usually heralds offices, served this purpose. They kept registry of coat of arms including their images and descriptions, as well as names of their owners, the so called heraldic scrolls. An official of a herald office – a herald – checked, for example during tournaments, if coats of arms were used correctly and legally. They were royal institutions, therefore they had a high rank and authority. Herald offices still exist in monarchies. Polish kings made an unforgivable mistake – they did not create a royal institution that would register ennoblements and indigenats, and collect images of coats of arms along with the surnames of those families to whom coats of arms belong. As a consequence, the Polish-Litvan heraldry is in a dreadful condition. Images of thousands of coats of arms are unknown. Thousands of gentry families do not know their coats of arms. The noble origin often was and is being proved only indirectly, for example, by high posts and performance of honorable functions by ancestors, possession of estates, participation in the Sojm and local sojmik, documents in which a family name or a surname was written with a noble title (generosus, nobiles, urodzony), seals or officer’s diplomas. An intact legal act of ennoblement is a true rarity. It was quite common to try to restore a forgotten coat of arms based on survived handwritten texts, inprints of seal rings (signets) on old documents, church paintings and tombstone sculptures. The quality of such reconstruction depended on skills of a provincial and often poorly educated artisan from a distant past.
*) Hereafter authentic name of medieval Belarusian State (the historical Lithuania).