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Although the use of various devices to signify individuals and groups goes back to antiquity, both the form and use of such devices varied widely, and the concept of regular, hereditary designs, constituting the distinguishing feature of heraldry, did not develop until the High Middle Ages.The use of helmets with face guards during this period made it difficult to recognize one's commanders in the field when large armies were gathered together for extended periods, necessitating the development of heraldry as a symbolic language.For example, the Bayeux Tapestry, illustrating the Norman invasion of England in 1066, and probably commissioned about 1077, when the cathedral of Bayeux was rebuilt, depicts a number of shields of various shapes and designs, many of which are plain, while others are decorated with dragons, crosses, or other typically heraldic figures.

Seals from the latter part of the eleventh and early twelfth centuries show no evidence of heraldic symbolism, but by the end of the twelfth century, seals are uniformly heraldic in nature.In England, from the time of the Norman conquest, official documents had to be sealed.Beginning in the twelfth century, seals assumed a distinctly heraldic character; a number of seals dating from between 11 appear to show the adoption of heraldic devices in England, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy.In the late Middle Ages in the Netherlands, coats of arms were apparently not controlled by any official heraldic system as they were in England, nor were they used exclusively by the nobility.Anyone could design and use a coat of arms, and thus many burgers or merchants had coats of arms, although they were not members of the nobility.

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But these fabulous claims have long since been dismissed as the fantasy of medieval heralds, for there is no evidence of a distinctive symbolic language akin to that of heraldry during this early period; nor do many of the shields described in antiquity bear a close resemblance to those of medieval heraldry; nor is there any evidence that specific symbols or designs were passed down from one generation to the next, representing a particular person or line of descent.

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