During the medieval period, the use of shield became popular as a central part of the coat of arms. As the use of coat of arms spread among the knights and nobility of the medieval period, a wide range of symbols came to be used in association with heraldic shields.
These symbols were meant to denote the exact family or person represented as well as certain traits that the owner of the coat of arms wanted to be associated with his identity. Animals, plants of different types and trees, birds of various types and fruits were commonly used as shield symbols.
Animals were the most common type of symbol used in association with heraldic shields. They were used to represent the defining trait or quality of the owner of the coat of arms. The antelope, for instance, represented peace and purity of the owner. A bear denoted the strength of the owner while a boar symbolised courage and mettle in combat.
A bull symbolised generosity and strength while a cat denoted courage and liberty. A dragon typically symbolised the wealth of the owner while an elephant symbolised courage and regal stature of the owner. A goat symbolised great diplomatic powers of the owner while a griffin symbolised many qualities including bravery and endurance. A horse symbolised strength, loyalty to the King and speed while a lamb symbolised purity of spirit.
Like animals, different types of plants and trees were used to denote different qualities on the heraldic shields during the medieval period. The bay leaves, for instance, were used to denote peace and quiet while a cypress symbolised eternal life.
A stylised depiction of lily called fleur-de-lis was used to denote “flower of light” in French heraldic achievements. A palm tree symbolised righteousness of the owner while a rose symbol joy, beauty and hope. An oak tree symbolised ancient nobility and high stature of the owner while a wheat sheaf denoted abundance of wealth.
Feathers have been used to denote royalty and high social stature since antiquity. Likewise, birds came to occupy a significant position in medieval heraldic achievements. A cock, for instance, denoted courage in the battlefield while a crow symbolised constancy of purpose.
A duck was used to symbolise a person with abundant resources while a dove symbolised soul and spiritual elevation. A two-headed eagle, commonly used by medieval German nobility, was a symbol of being the prime protector of a region while a regular eagle symbolised high intellect and a man of action.
A falcon symbolised someone who pursued a goal until he had achieved it while an owl symbolised vigilance. A raven denoted knowledge while the swan denoted poetical and literary connections of the owner. A phoenix symbolised resurrection and a parrot was used in heraldic achievements to denote loyal service.
Although a general science and literature surrounding heraldic symbols and achievements developed in medieval Europe, the details of heraldic symbols and their meanings differed from one region to another. Moreover, symbols which were popularly used in heraldic shields may not be as popular in another region which would have its own set of heraldic symbols.