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Charges
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Composition Tinctures Charges Blazon Beasts of Charge Heraldic Beasts Design Structure Interpretation Crests Supporters

The charges

Tinctures make up the essential component of arms. For although arms without charges do exist, there are none without tinctures, even though some arms are only known to us through monochrome documents, as seals or coins. But the range of charges that can be displayed on them is obviously much wider. It is unlimited: any animal, plant, object or geometrical form can become a heraldic charge. Over the centuries, new devices continually widened the range of choice. In our century, for example, several cities that have airports display stylized airplanes on their arms, while some winter sports resorts depict two Skis in saltire. Similarly, in the former USSR and Romania under Communist rule, several kolkhozy or collective farms were attributed arms decorated with combine harvesters or other agricultural machines. In these cases we are far away from the heraldic spirit.

Stained Glass Scene For although anything can be a heraldic charge, not everything is. The range of charges normally used was in fact fairly small, at least until the l7th century. During the decades following the appearance of arms in the l2th century, it was confined to some twenty charges. Subsequently, the number continued to grow; but until the end of the Middle Ages not more than forty or so charges were in use. The range of choice became more diversified in the l7th and l8th centuries in particular, first in the Germanic countries and central Europe, then outside Europe, when other continents began to turn to heraldry: exotic plants and animals started to appear on shields. 

For a long time it was fairly rare to find plants, except for the fleur-de-lis and rose, and everyday objects on arms. The charges encountered most frequently consisted, in almost equal proportions, of animals, geometrical figures (or ordinaries) resulting from the division of the shield into a certain number of bands or compartments, and small charges that were also more or less geometrical but could be placed anywhere on the shield: bezants, annulets lozenges, stars, billets and so on. At the end of the Middle Ages and at the beginning of the modern age, when the range became more diversified, it was primarily plants (trees, flowers, fruit, vegetables) and objects (arms, tools, clothes) that were added to the original charges. After that shields were charged with buildings, parts of the human body, letters of the alphabet and even actual scenes, which turned some arms into small pictures that were illegible and contrary to the spirit of heraldry.

Mounted KnightAs the range of charges on which people could draw to create arms diversified over the centuries, so the number of charges placed on each shield increased. In the l2th and l3th centuries, there were generally  only two charges per shield; in the l8th century it was quite common to place four, five, six or even more different charges on a shield, which was therefore divided up into several compartments. Over the generations the main charge was joined by several secondary ones. Family arms rarely stayed exactly the same: they often tended to become more complex with time, especially among the nobility.

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Rampart of black and yellow shields