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Heraldry is the practice of devising, granting, displaying, describing, and recording coats of arms and heraldic badges.

Officers of arms (Kings of Arms, Heralds and Pursuviants) practice heraldry and also rule on questions of rank or protocol.

Army units of the Roman Empire were identified by the distinctive markings on their shields (see left).These were not heraldic in the medieval sense, as they were associated with military units, not individuals or families.Truly heraldic devices seem to have been first used in Carolingian times.Seals and banners confirm that they were being used in the Flemish area of Europe during the reign of Charlemagne (768–814 AD).The emergence of heraldry as we know it today was linked to the need to distinguish participants quickly and easily in combat.

Distinguishing devices were used on surcoats ("coats of arms"), shields, and caparisoned horses, and it would have been natural for knights to use the same devices as those already used on their banners and seals.

A formal system of rules developed into ever more complex forms of heraldry to ensure that each knight's arms were unique (at least within the same jurisdiction).

The system of blazoning arms that is used in English-speaking countries today was developed by the officers of arms in the Middle Ages.

This includes a stylised description of the escutcheon (shield), the crest, and, if present, supporters, mottoes, and other insignia.

The language is an anglicised version of Norman French and does not always match modern heraldic French: for example the colour green is called in heraldic French.

Although heraldry is nearly 900 years old, it is still in use.