What is the primary purpose of arms? Is it to identify an individual or a bloodline?
I ask because I always assumed it was to identify a bloodline/family name, but maybe that’s how it evolved as opposed to how it started.
I saw a lively thread over on IAAH about this debate. Knowing which is the case will change how I choose to design my arms. So I’d like to get some good feedback on this.
Originally, they were used to identify an individual in the chaos of battle. Faces tended to be covered by helmets and later visors, people were moving everywhere, in a siege there could be smoke, and there was always a lot of noise. Carrying banners and/or large colorful displays on the largest surfaces a person carried, shields and horse flanks, was a useful and effective way to tell friend from foe… It was only latter when arms became associated with places and families, and besides there are many instances where a person did not always carry arms recognizable as being the son of one particular person (i.e., the Adams family).
Trent—at some point (when we have more time, he uttered with an air of futility…) perhaps the group could work on a more formal and comprehensive set of guidelines & suggestions for designing new arms—maybe "Heraldic Design for Dummies"
In the meantime, we’ve approached it pretty much ad hoc, though if you go through the forum archives you should find some pretty good nuggets. As to your immediate question, the answer is pretty much "both of the above." Some folks prefer to focus on themselves and their own immediate kin (e.g. spouse & descendants), in effect defining a new "armorial family" without much if any reference to antecedants or cousins. We could call that "personal arms" but if there are children they would presumably be inherited. While there’s no hard & fast rule, the "personal arms" approach suggests a focus on personal interests, achievements, values etc. rather than ancestral matters.
Others prefer to include varying wider ranges of relatives—in effect creating insignia identifying and (hopefully) uniting a whole lineage descended from some known & specified ancestor. Design-wise, this suggests a focus on charges & design elements that would be meaningful to this much broader "armorial family" rather than primarily personal symbolism. (In effect, I suppose this means you are designing "personal arms" for the common ancestor which will then constructively descend to you & your extended cousinage.)
Other than personal taste/preference/values. there’s arguably nothing intrinsically better in one or the other of these two starting points. SOme of us prefer & have followed one approach, others the other.