The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 22, Number 52, December 29, 2019, Article 7


Dick Johnson submitted this entry from his Encyclopedia of Coin and Medal Terminology. Thanks. -Editor

Heraldry. The creation and description of coats of arms, mostly inherited, which traces its origin to the symbols used on shields, banners and cloaks of armored knights of the Middle Ages. Heraldry is very important to numismatics because of its influence in symbolism and the widespread use of coats of arms that appear on coins and medals. These arms have been established for countries, states, provinces, municipalities, corporations, firms, families, universities, church organizations, other institutions and organizations.

Heraldry is very symbolic. It has a technical language all its own and prescribed rules for designing and describing the coats of arms. While it has little formal standing in the United States, Americans still use heraldry for a number of national symbols, seals, logos and trademarks – including our national shield, "Stars and Bars." The military utilizes heraldic symbolism extensively, for insignia, emblems, badges, patches, and uniforms. The Department of Defense maintains an institute of heraldry to design and coordinate all such symbolic use.

Heraldry is far more accepted, respected and has legal statues in Europe, especially Great Britain. The institution in control of heraldry there is the Royal College of Heralds which is the arbitrator of correct heraldry symbolism and use in the English language. It also presides over armorial rights and maintains a large collection of records.

Blazoning. Heraldry symbols – primarily coats of arms – have been used for devices of coins and medals for many countries and other issuing authorities. Such armorial designs are described and cataloged in numismatic literature, the act of heraldic describing – called blazoning – requires knowledge of heraldic rules and the subject's own technical language.

Heraldic terms are mostly of French origin (from Norman French of Middle Ages) but are pronounced as English. While easy to pronounce they are sometimes difficult to comprehend. For example, right and left are dexter and sinister. But heraldry rules require this to be the shield's right and left in opposition to the viewer's fright and left as in all other numismatic describing.

Heraldic coats of arms often become an entity's modern trademark, logo, seal or symbol. Philip Morris Company, for example, has an elaborate coat of arms as its trademark. The symbol of a snake and eagle, long used in Mexican coin design, is taken from Mexico's coat of arms.

Blazoning is – like numismatic describing – a formal wording for a coat of arms design. In addition to a broad and colorful language it also has prescribed rules for all descriptions. Adjectives are always placed after their nouns. Lion gules is red lion. The elements of an elaborate coat of arms are blazoned in precise sequence and form.

Some heraldic terms are the same as those in numismatics. These include field, crest, engrailed, escutcheon, bar, cross, lozenge, couped, erased, banderole, canton, regardant, among others. In fact, heraldic terms were the source of many numismatic descriptive terms.

Beasts real and imagined. There are numerous beasts in heraldry, any one or two of which may appear on a coat of arms. These include mythical, imaginary, symbolic and mystical beasts, in addition to realistic animals, birds, fish and insects. They are often combined with parts of man to give them an anthropomorphic attribute. These need to be correctly identified in all numismatic description.

Shields. Forms and shapes of the shield are important, as well as sectioning (the dividing of a shield in halves, or quarters to reflect four predecessors, say, or the merging of four families, or a quartet of other design influences). The designs on a shield are called charges (on a coin or medal such a design would be the device).

Color is added by what is called tinctures. Unless a medallic item is enamelled, color is indicated on coins and medals by a code of shading (similar to that devised by print engravers several centuries ago). Thus horizontal lines indicate blue (azure), vertical lines mean red (gules), descending diagonal means green (vert), ascending diagonal is purple (purpure) and crosshatch is black (sable). Also a repeated small dot pattern indicates gold (or) and no shading or texture means silver (argent).

Like the knights' cloaks, the shields were infrequently embellished with furs. This presented another problem for engravers who solved it by limiting the symbolism of furs to black tails and white (ermine) tails. Often this was in contrast to the tincture of the shield.

Other design elements. Coat of arms were often surmounted with crowns (in heraldry called coronets). Each rank of nobility had a coronet of distinct design. A duke's crown was ornamented with strawberry leaves, a marquess with alternating strawberry leaves and balls, a viscount with nine balls, an earl with five balls, a baron with four balls.

Ribbons and banners are prominent in heraldic design, often with an inscription or motto appearing as a single line occupying the narrow ribbon. Lettering was limited somewhat to what would fit on a flowing ribbon. Language was most often Latin. Heraldic ribbons and scrolls are called banderoles and listons.

In creating a numismatic or medallic design which includes a coat of arms great care must be taken to insure absolute accuracy. The artist must understand the symbolism and faithfully execute an existing heraldry design.

Describing numismatic items. A numismatic description is not complete until it fully describes every coat of arms or other heraldic design. It is the cataloger's option whether to use plain English in describing (as the viewer's right and left) or blazoned version (dexter and sinister), or both (making sure the reader understands).

Because coin designs are so small, and somewhat true or medals, the heraldic design may be meager. It is the cataloger's chore to decipher the lines irrespective of how crude or tiny (or obscure) the engraving may appear on the coin or medal.

Thus in describing numismatic items with coats of arms it is often useful to do so with a heraldry reference book at hand. The heraldic terms listed here and the adjacent chart, the more notable ones used in numismatics, are only a small portion of the total heraldic technical language.


H1 {1840} Berry.
H2 {1889} Elvin.
H3 {1895} Zieber.
H4 {1945} Butler.
H5 {1979} Pastoureau.

Heraldry Terms Frequently Used In Describing Coins and Medals

It's too lengthy to republish here, but scroll to the end of the dictionary entry on the Newman Numismatic Portal for Dick's great list of Heraldry Terms Frequently Used In Describing Coins and Medals. -Editor

To read the complete article, see:
Heraldry (

Book lovers should be word lovers as well.

Looking for the meaning of a numismatic word, or the description of a term?  Try the Newman Numismatic Portal's Numismatic Dictionary at:

Or if you would like a printed copy of the complete Encyclopedia, it is available. There are 1,854 terms, on 678 pages, in The Encyclopedia of Coin and Medal Technology. Even running two a week would require more than 19 years to publish them all. If you would like an advance draft of this vital reference work it may be obtained from the author for your check of $50 sent postpaid. Dick Johnson, 139 Thompson Drive, Torrington, CT 06790.

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