The historical importance of seals and family crests

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While many people think that family crests are simply a way of paying homage to their roots, the fact is that in the Middle Ages, both seals and coats of arms played a critical role in society. In fact, in some areas it was a criminal offence to use a coat of arms if you were not entitled to use one or if you utilized the coat of arms of another person without their consent.

A coat of arms could display your position in society

Certain elements of a coat of arms were only present if you belonged to a certain social class. The helmet (often called a helm) that sat on top of the shield was an indicator of a personís social standing or class. For example, if you were a landed, titled noble you were permitted to have a closed helm on your coat of arms. Lesser nobles that may not have had a particular title or lands granted to them had to utilize a helm that would leave the face uncovered in battle.

A charge is an icon that appears in the shield of a coat of arms. Certain charges were used to denote the standing in a particular family. For example, there were separate decorations for each birth order. A fourth son or an individual who had had their land taken away from them would have a different item appear on their coat of arms than a first son or a landowner would have had.

A way of officially sealing documents

If you were sending a private letter in the past you needed to ensure that it was not read by the wrong people. In modern times, simply placing a letter in an envelope can make it difficult for people to open the letter and read it without being noticed. Envelopes that use glue to seal them shut are a fairly new invention and so a method of sealing a letter was important.

Seals could be used for just such a purpose. Sealing wax (which is thicker and more durable than candle wax) could be dripped on a letter or an envelope. Then, it could not be opened and read without leaving obvious signs that somebody had been looking at the letter or document.

In some cases, a seal was used by a monarch or other official in order to indicate that a document was official. Whether it was to indicate that a law had been passed or that a proclamation had come from official sources, a wax seal could be placed on a document in order to indicate that it was not a forgery.

Seals in modern times

Now, seals are not used as much as they were in the past. Individuals will still often use a seal in order to lend a personal touch to a letter or display their family coat of arms on a plaque or tapestry in their home. Some governments will still place seals or coats of arms on official documents but for the most part, they are a way of displaying family pride and feeling a connection to your ancestry

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