The use of shields in the coat of arms became a popular practice in Europe during the High Middle Ages.
It primarily evolved in response to a need for knights to recognise each other on the battlefield. However, over time, the coat of arms came to be used by the royalty, nobility and the knightly class.
Initially, the coat of arms comprised of a simple symbol on a banner or the surcoat but this gradually expanded to include the full heraldic achievement.
The shield was the central piece of complete heraldic achievement and in this position, it was of vital significance. The size, shape, colour and designs of a shield each signified some quality or trait of the owner.
A wide range of colours was used in the shields of the coat of arms. In some cases, a plain colour was used as a background and then different-coloured patterns or stripes were used in the foreground. In other cases, multiple background colours could be used.
The background of a shield was termed the “field” upon which further heraldic elements were drawn. The colour of a shield was typically called a “tincture”, so a shield with a single-coloured field was called a single-tincture shield.
When using multiple tinctures on the background of a shield, the field was typically divided into multiple sections which would then each be individually treated.
In general, the colours used on heraldic shields were categorised into three types. These are called metals, furs and colours.
Metals refer to colours that are typically associated with notable metals, such as gold and silver.
Colours refer to the regular and most frequently used tinctures in heraldic shields, including shades such as azure, green, purple, black and red. Finally, furs refer to coloured patterns which include ermine and vair.
Ermine is the use of powdered black dots on a white field while vair refers to a shield with blue-grey and white colours. These patterns are called furs because they resemble the furs of specific animals.
Every tincture, or colour, used on a heraldic shield signifies some quality or trait, reflecting the personality or family of the owner.
While most colours were generally accorded a universal significance, such as purple which denoted royal majesty, the meaning of most heraldic colours varied from one region of medieval Europe to another.