Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Crests and Coats of Arms – 1st in a small series

Family crests need to be taken with a grain of salt. They stand on a foundation not of absolute truth, but on a foundation of a kind of truth that I call an as if truth. They were often used in preliterate times as banners to identify various sides in the midst of battle, and then became part of the economic system where the eldest son inherited the farm. They were often used as a kind of shorthand for tracking where important people belonged, and hence determined inheritance.

The as if part of all this is the implicit assumption that the eldest son is actually the biological heir. The truth is, of course, frequently other than that. The percentage of under-the-cover paternity events is small, some say about 1%, but the multiplier effect of this over generations is considerable. DNA tests are beginning to shed new light on this.

Even in families such as mine, who have old photos of an ancestral g-g-g-grandmother decked out in a lace Presbyterian cap and posing with her bible in her lap, well, such things happened even in families such as this. The effect on the biological validity of family trees is substantial enough that the only meaningful use of family crests, aside from pride, is to indicate the family line that people believe they belong to.

Being human, having a workable story is good enough for most of us. After all, we tend to rely on lots of as if to make sense of the world. For example, our legal system functions on the basis that it makes sense to assign individual guilt or innocence, even though we know full well that culture, economics, gender, genetics and a whole slew of other factors make this somewhat meaningless. Not that I would advocate throwing out our entire legal system simply because it stands on the clay feet of as if. It is like democracy - we haven’t come up with anything better yet.

A second important fact to understand about family crests is the way that they get created and how decisions are made about what elements to include. It is a bit like sausage making. It might feel more ennobling to simply enjoy the end product without seeing how it was created. At least, in many cases this is true.

I was at a literary event in Sechelt a few months ago, chatting with novelist, Theresa Kitchkan and told her about my curiosity about a sheldrake which was included in Sir Thomas Jackson’s crest. Was it because he was related to other Jackson families who had sheldrakes in their family crests? One of Theresa’s sons works with the Canadian Heraldic Authority, and few days later, he set me straight on a few things. At the same time, he quite reasonably diminished my hopes for using family crests to solve the question of which line of JACKSONs mine might reasonably think that they belong to.

My guess is that you are correct about the sheldrake being a reference to earlier Jackson arms, but it does not necessarily imply a direct connection to any particular Jackson line.  It is a very common practice in heraldry to use particular symbols or colours to indicate that individuals share a surname even if they are not closely related to each other.

Obviously, the little that I know about heraldic traditions and conventions would fit into a thimble. That being said, when I served on Mission City Council back in the late 1980s, I did have a brief inside look at one example of how arms are designed – at least in Canada. 

District of Mission, BC, Canada - Coat of Arms
It was a fairly new thing for municipalities to have municipal arms, and Canada’s Chief Herald, Robert Watt, paid us a visit with his rough draft of what Mission’s first Coat of Arms might look like. He had paid close attention to our history and therefore the elements that would be suitable for us, and had come with a draft proposal. As I listened, it became clear to me that there was something of a cookie cutter element in heraldry, but also that Watt was not a cookie cutter kind of guy. He wanted to know: What did we think? What did we want?

Since Mission as a town had begun as a Catholic mission run by the Oblates, the cross that Watt had placed in the center of the shield made total sense, but I asked it if could be a less generic kind of cross. He asked if I had something particular in mind. Sure, I said, take a look at the steel crosses in the cemetery up at the Abbey.  Well, he did, and as a result you can see the specific kind of cross used by the Oblates etched in gold and superimposed on the background of a larger green cross. This was a design that was new to heraldry. We broke new ground.

Watt was also kind enough to consider the addition of strawberries. For me, this was a nod to the pre-WWII farmers, many of whom were of Japanese extraction. Unfortunately, their farms were all seized after the bombing of Pearl Harbour, and they were shipped off to internment camps, and never properly compensated for their losses. Their history is part of what I remember when I look at the strawberry flowers included at the base of the shield.

The story of Mission encompasses many cultures, and many narratives, and so it is more than appropriate that crowning the District of Mission arms is a Sto:lo canoe with a sprig of salmon berries. A few years after these arms were completed, an excavation was begun beside a rock in a place known as a sacred transformer site in Sto:lo mythology. It didn’t take long before the archaeologists unearthed an ancient longhouse with elements around it dating back to 9,000 BC.  Until then, all that we knew of the settlements was through stories. Now, there was also the scientific evidence to back them up

All of which is why I am still holding out hope. I still do not know which line of JACKSONs our family connects to, but I do have the stories, and I also have this darned sheldrake like a hook in my mind. It is clear that I’ll have to keep on digging.

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