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A coat of arms is a unique heraldic design on an escutcheon (i.e. shield), surcoat, or tabard. The coat of arms on an escutcheon forms the central element of the full heraldic achievement which consists of shield, supporters, crest, and motto. The design is a symbol unique to an individual person or family (except in the UK), corporation, or state.
The ancient Romans used similar insignia on their shields, but these identified military units rather than individuals. The first evidence of medieval coats of arms is found in the 11th century Bayeux Tapestry in which some of the combatants carry shields painted with crosses. Coats of arms came into general use by feudal lords and knights in battle in the 12th century. By the 13th century, arms had spread beyond their initial battlefield use to become a flag or emblem for families in the higher social classes of Europe, inherited from one generation to the next. Exactly who had a right to use arms, by law or social convention, varied to some degree between countries. In the German-speaking regions both the aristocracy and "burghers" (non-noble free citizens) used arms, while in most of the rest of Europe they were limited to the aristocracy. The use of arms spread to the clergy, to towns as civic identifiers, and to royally chartered organizations such as universities and trading companies. Flags developed from coats of arms, and the arts of vexillology and heraldry are closely related. The coats of arms granted to commercial companies are a major source of the modern logo.
Despite no widespread regulation, heraldry has remained consistent across Europe, where tradition alone has governed the design and use of arms. Some nations, like England and Scotland, still maintain the same heraldic authorities which have traditionally granted and regulated arms for centuries and continue to do so in the present day. In England, for example, the granting of arms is and has been controlled by the College of Arms. Unlike seals and other general emblems, heraldic "achievements" have a formal description called a blazon, which uses vocabulary that allows for consistency in heraldic depictions. In the present day, coats of arms are still in use by a variety of institutions and individuals: for example, many European cities and universities have guidelines on how their coats of arms may be used, and protect their use as trademarks. Many societies exist that also aid in the design and registration of personal arms.
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