During the medieval period, the use of shields became popular as a central part of the coat of arms. As the use of the 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 symbolized courage and mettle in combat.
A bull symbolized generosity and strength while a cat denoted courage and liberty. A dragon typically symbolized the wealth of the owner while an elephant symbolized the courage and regal stature of the owner.
A goat symbolized the great diplomatic powers of the owner while a griffin symbolized many qualities including bravery and endurance. A horse symbolized strength, loyalty to the King, and speed while a lamb symbolized the 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 symbolized eternal life.
A stylized depiction of the lily called fleur-de-lis was used to denote the “flower of light” in French heraldic achievements. A palm tree symbolized the righteousness of the owner while a rose symbol joy, beauty, and hope. An oak tree symbolized ancient nobility and the high stature of the owner while a wheat sheaf denoted an 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 on the battlefield while a crow symbolized constancy of purpose.
A duck was used to symbolize a person with abundant resources while a dove symbolized soul and spiritual elevation. A two-headed eagle, commonly used by the medieval German nobility, was a symbol of being the prime protector of a region while a regular eagle symbolized high intellect and a man of action.
A falcon symbolized someone who pursued a goal until he had achieved it while an owl symbolized vigilance. A raven denoted knowledge while the swan denoted poetical and literary connections of the owner. A phoenix symbolized 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.