Frequently Asked Questions
Before you read this FAQ, please take note of the following:
Most people in the world can not claim an existing coat-of-arms. Exactly what conditions you have to meet to establish a claim varies considerably from one country to another. At the very least you must be able to prove that a recognized holder of the arms is your ancestor.
Arms are usually not associated with surnames, but with individuals. In some countries, like the Netherlands and Italy, arms may be borne by all members of the same family. The important thing is who your ancestors are, not what surname you happen to bear. The fact that your name happens to be "Smith," for example, gives you no claim whatsoever on any of the thousands of arms borne throughout history by various people named "Smith."
For more answers to frequently asked questions about heraldry in general, please read François Velde's excellent rec.heraldry FAQ.
Q: What is the best way to search?
A: There isn't really a best way to search, only different ways to search. A lot depends on what you are searching for. Naturally, if you are searching for a family name your approach is different then when searching for a particular blazon. Various methods for searching can be found in the How to Search section.
Q: What is a blazon?
A: A blazon is a proper description of arms according to the rules of heraldry.
Q: Arms, coat of arms, crest, family crest... What's the difference?
A: Arms are really what most people refer to, even when using the other terms. Arms consist of a shield with various charges (divisions, colors and pictures). In extension, full arms may include a.o. a helmet on top of the shield, usually with mantling, supporters that hold the shield, and a motto.
A coat-of-arms technically refers to the cloth covering worn by knights over their armor to display their arms.
The crest is the piece found on top of the helmet, which may or may not reflect an element depicted on the shield.
Family crest is somewhat of a misnomer, like family arms or family coat of arms. It simply refers to the crest, but the notion is that the arms, and hence the crest, can be claimed by all members of the family. This, however, is true only for certain countries.
Q: What do the abbreviations in Rietstap's blazons mean?
A: Blazon Search has a listing of all abbreviations found in the Armorial, its expanded forms, and its English translations. However, this list is only accessible to subscribers. This is an extra service, though, as in the online version of the Armorial all abbreviations have been expanded.
Q: Why can't I find my family name?
A: There may be several reasons:
Not all families have or had members with a coat-of-arms.
In most European countries prior to the early 1800s written forms of both first names and surnames were not consistent. Prior to the early 1600s surnames for commoners were largely non-existent. Descendants were usually known as so-and-so's son or so-and-so's daughter. Subscribers can search for variations on a family name by using the equal sign.
Armories can never be considered complete or absolutely accurate. A member of your family may have or have had a coat-of-arms, but simply not have been included in an armory. There have been millions of arms throughout the last millennia. Only a fraction has been recorded in armories, subject to human error.
Your family hails from outside of what was considered Europe in the days of Rietstap. Also, many English families are not included in the Armorial.
Q: Can you do a search for me?
A: Searching with Blazon Search is really so easy that we can hardly imagine why you couldn't do it yourself. If you are insisting, however, we may be willing to do a search for you. We would appreciate it then, if in return you would be willing to help us out in the development and maintenance of this site with a donation.
Q: Why do I have to pay for searching if you did't even write any of these armories?
A: You know, a couple of years ago we would have asked the same question. Now we know better. Yes, you are right, we didn't write the original books, but we did create this website -- and with it the database that contains all the blazons, the search engine that underlies it, and the help documentation.
After putting in over a hundred man hours, we initially put the service up for free. A few months later, in an attempt to offset some of our development and maintenance expenses, we appealed to the hundreds of users to help us out with donations. A year and a half went by, after which we had received a total of 70 US$ -- despite having hundreds of people from several libraries worldwide using the service daily. To keep the resource online, yet make it worthwhile to develop and expand, we switched to a subscriber based system in November of 2005. This has allowed us to keep working on many exciting new features that we hope to add in the near future.
The bottom line is that you don't pay for access to the armories. After all, you can most likely find them in your nearest big library or, if you're lucky, in some second-hand bookstore. What you pay for is the ability to search through the armories quickly, accurately and with ease, and use them as ordinaries. This ability is the fruit of our ongoing efforts.
Q: I never get any results when searching, how come?
A: Most likely because of one of the following:
The name you are searching for does not appear in the armories.
You are entering terms in a language other than French or English. The Armorial is available in its original French and as an English translation, and although the search is insensitive to accents on letters, the search terms must still be in the language of the version you're searching in.
You are entering partial terms or names without using the equal sign. The search engine only searches for whole words. So, entering johan will not find johanson. But johan= will find all names that start with johan, like Johanson, Johannes, Johanz, etc.
You are entering large copy-and-pasted parts of a blazon you found elsewhere, which may include abbreviations. In this version of the Armorial, abbreviations have been expanded.
You are entering too many keywords, or too many keywords between quotations marks.
You are searching for blazon terms in Names or names in Blazons. Make sure you are searching in the right field, or check both.
Q: I found a mistake. How do I report this?
A: You can contact us with feedback of any kind.
Q: Isn't making this work available publicly a copyright violation?
A: The copyrights to all editions of Rietstap's Armorial prior to 1965 have expired and those works are therefore in the public domain. Editions from 1965 and later contain supplements from Henri and Victor Rolland's works, the copyrights of which are held by Heraldry Today (see next question).
Q: Why are there no pictures of the arms included?
A: Illustrations of most of the arms blazoned by Rietstap can be found in Henri and Victor Rolland's 3 volumes of the Illustrations to the Armorial General, the copyright of which is currently held by Heraldry Today. The expiration of that copyright lies somewhere close to 2030. We sent a request for permission to include those illustration to Heraldry Today in early July of 2004. Their answer was as follows:
"Obviously, as we keep this in print and hold stocks of it we do not want it put on the Internet where everybody can get at the information for free."
In other words: permission denied. This is rather unfortunate, as the £300 ($550) price tag on these 3 volumes sold by Heraldry Today is obviously way too high for the general curiosity of the majority of users of Blazon Search. These books are for serious heralds or connoisseurs, not for the average seeker who just wants to know what particular arms may look like. To "get at the information for free" is one thing, to have to shell out £300 plus shipping to take a look at a couple of arms is a totally different matter.
But if you would put these illustrations on your site people could get a free copy of the whole work by just downloading all the images, right? Yes, right, but it would take a very dedicated person to download over 100,000 separate images -- one by one... The search engine does not allow a complete listing of all entries, less than 3 characters input for a search, or listings of more than 500 results.
There are easier ways to get a copy of the illustrations other than from Heraldry Today. For instance, you can find these books in most large public libraries, where you can make photo copies of as many pages as you want. Copying all 2,500 pages for 10 cents a page will still cost less than half of the retail price. And then there are several websites that offer CD-ROMs for sale with high quality scans of all 3 volumes. These CDs are not sold by Heraldry Today, yet they don't seem too worried about their copyrights in this case. You go figure...
Q: Can you add <insert feature> to your search engine?
A: As things stand now, the features are fairly balanced with the speed that results are returned. We will only add features when they really offer a major improvement over the current version. But you can always suggest...
Q: Can I search with regular expressions?
A: No. Regular expressions were an option, but both the search time due to server overhead and the steep learning curve for the average user have made us decide to drop the idea. However, you will find that the equal sign option offers ample power and flexibility to your search.
Q: How can I help support your website?
A: What we need help with most is covering the expenses involved in developing and maintaining this site, especially because we want to keep it free from banners and advertising. So the best way to belp out it to become a subscriber and/or send a donation. It is much appreciated!